Whether it’s underage, senior, male or female any Irish rugby squad in 2021 is sure to feature Connacht players.
Shannon Touhey is the latest Westerners player to earn full international honours after making her debut for the senior team against Japan in November.
The centre was over the moon to be selected for her country – especially after training with the national team for over a year without being selected to play – and credits the platform given to her by Connacht to fulfill her international ambitions.
“It’s huge,” Touhey says of the opportunity the western province provides players to be recognised on the international stage.
“Before you would have been lucky to get spotted, but now girls have the interpros and you have that platform to go out there and perform. The Irish coaches are watching and now this year, for the first time, it was televised as well.
“There’s huge potential there now to be spotted through the province(Connacht).”
The back, who balances her rugby career with camogie – where she is a goalkeeper – and her job as a cafe manager was grateful that her first Irish cap happened in a time when fans were allowed into stadiums after more than a year of empty stands due to covid restrictions.
Touhey was involved in an Irish training camp last year, but was released back to her club without earning a cap, but this set-back only made her more hungry to represent her country.
To be able to sing the national anthem, knowing that her parents and fiance were there to see it in person, was an extremely proud moment for the Tullamore native, whose long-term goal was to play international rugby.
“That was one thing I always dreamed of in the year I was in there training(with Ireland), I always said to myself that ‘if I ever get my first cap, I would love it to be in front of my parents, my fiance and my friends and family,” she said.
“I do count myself as one of the lucky ones, to be able to experience that and experience seeing them in front of me when I was singing the national anthem.
“It was highly emotional for me, so I do count myself very lucky that, in covid times, I got to have them there. I got to see them afterward and have all the pictures taken. I count myself very lucky in that sense. It was amazing.”
Primarily operating as an inside centre for club and country, Touhey relishes the attacking style of play at Connacht – the same attacking and progressive mentality played by the men's and underage teams – and she feels it suits her best characteristics as a rugby player.
The Tullamore RFC player enjoys getting her hands on the ball and bringing other players into play with offloads, which is a trait she admires in Connacht’s – both men's and women’s – game plan.
“Yeah, I definitely think it suits me,” she says of the tactics devised by Ross Mannion, the women’s senior head coach, and his team of coaches and also employed across the club at all grades.
“I wouldn’t be a mad kicker or anything like that, but I enjoy offloading. Even if you watch the men's team at the moment, their offloading is unbelievable. As a player, I find if I get in behind the gain line, and you’re on my shoulder I’ll give you the ball.
“That style of play – which Connacht are playing at the minute – that’s what I like. Break the gain line, offload and keep going until you get to the try line.”
Having started rugby at seventeen, Touhey spent time playing on the sevens’ circuit before being recommended for Connacht trials by her Tullamore team-mate, and Connacht player, Jill Draper.
The back initially didn’t make the grade, but she didn’t feel deterred and she was eventually called back into the fold with the Westerners and is now keen to add to her fifteen appearances with the province after debuting in 2017.
“She(Jill Draper) said ‘look, I’m telling you, Connacht are a big family and I think you’ll do really well there,” the Offaly woman said of her team-mate encouraging her to pursue a chance with the Western province.
“I trialed and didn’t make it, but a few weeks later they called. They had an injury – and I guess Jill put in a good word for me – so they gave me a shot.
“JP(Walsh) and Gav Foley were the coaches at the time and gave me my shot and called me in. Lo and behold, the interpros started and there was an injury, so they said ‘look, Shannon, we’re going to start you against Leinster’ and that’s where it began.”
Many more appearances in both shades of green will sure to be to follow for the multi-talented Offaly native.