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How Peita McAlister helped kick 'no girls allowed' into touch at Malone RFC



Changing times: Peita McAlister during younger days for Malone, and (right) starring for Ulster

Changing times: Peita McAlister during younger days for Malone, and (right) starring for Ulster

Changing times: Peita McAlister during younger days for Malone, and (right) starring for Ulster

Idle hands have never suited Peita McAlister.

Growing up, the Ulster centre cut a frustrated figure on a weekly basis, stalking the sidelines at Gibson Park each Saturday morning of the mid to late 1990s while her older brothers were embracing the rough and tumble of Malone minis, back in the day when rugby at the club was considered an all-male affair.

"I think I was the first wee girl the club ever had wanting to play," she recalled. "It wasn't so much that I was obsessed with the game, I didn't have a choice.

"My mum and dad were running the family business (The Morning Star pub in Belfast's city centre), so wherever my brothers were going I had to go too.

"It was obviously a very different time for female sport so then it was 'it's boys only, we don't have the facilities, girls can't play'.

"But I'd be there every Saturday anyway, running up and down the sidelines. I think eventually they just let me play because someone felt sorry for me. I started in the same group as my brother James who is two years older than me (and also still playing for Malone) before eventually I moved back down to my own age group.

"I loved it. At the same time I was doing Irish dancing and ballet and every sport you can imagine that was no help to playing rugby. I think it was having brothers that helped me, or brothers that weren't that nice to you anyway.

"If they were boxing in the garage, I was getting boxed in the head. Setting up tackling drills in the garden, I certainly wasn't going to get it any easier just because I was a girl. The physicality you need for rugby is pretty similar to the physicality you need to survive two older brothers.

"But that's what I loved about the game and you obviously can't get that in sports like hockey or netball. They just weren't for me. I just wanted to play rugby."

McAlister would later be joined at Malone by the future Irish international Nikki Caughey, before the pair's path was blocked once again.

"I was probably about 11 and had played in one of the festivals at the end of the season. There was a big celebration sort of thing and at the end we were told, 'Girls, we've loved having you but you can't play anymore'," she recalled.

"At that stage I threw the head up a bit. I liked playing with the boys and liked playing with my friends. I probably didn't play the game again for five years."

She was back at Malone, playing in an under-age girls' team, by the time she was 16 and continued in Swansea, where she studied as well as represented Welsh Universities, and Queen's before making her Ulster debut in 2014.

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Reflecting on the journey now, she finds the changed landscape remarkable with Malone one of the pre-eminent women's clubs in the province with enough to fill three teams turning out for training each week.

With the first team coached by former Irish international star Grace Davitt and in the All-Ireland League for the first time, a number of the side have been able to play rugby at the club from their earliest steps in the game through to the senior ranks.

Now, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, for the first time since those early years McAlister is on the sidelines once again. No rugby, no sport, no outlet.

"It's so frustrating," she admitted. "I think it's at stressful times like this when you need it more than ever. Then we were coming to what was going to be a really exciting part of the season for us too. It's our first year in the league, we'd got that first win, and it's really disappointing then that you can't play."

It's a worrying time for all in the hospitality trade too where McAlister still works in the same bar her mother Corinne and father, the late Seamus McAlister, would spend those early Saturday mornings while she tagged along to rugby with her brothers.

The Morning Star have been focusing on a delivery service, bringing essentials like meat, fruit and veg to their newly house-bound customer base while McAlister has even turned her hand to learning some new butchery skills.

"This would usually be a crazy busy time for us, but it's crazy now in a different way," she said. "The bar has been such a huge part of our life. It's been in our family for 30 years and every day of that time I'd say there's been one of us here. The only day we close is Christmas and even then there'd be somebody to prepare for Boxing Day or just making sure there hasn't been a disaster with a fridge or something.

"Even during the Troubles, the bar would have got damaged or there'd be petrol bombs going off and it stayed open. My parents would never close."

She has been heartened by the number availing of services such as the home delivery with people looking to support local businesses through such a crisis.

"We've always supported a lot of the local sports teams, we've been a sponsor at Malone and Queen's and things, so it's really nice to see that we're getting support back through this," she added. "I think as soon as this is over we'll be having the biggest party you can imagine."

After all this, you can bet it'll be standing room only.

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