Limerick girl goes for Grand Slam glory

24 August 2010; Gillian Bourke, Ireland, in action against Blair Groefsema, USA. 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup - Pool B, Ireland v USA, Surrey Sports Park, Guildford, England. Picture credit: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE
Colm Kinsella talks to Irish women’s rugby player Gillian Bourke who is in Italy this weekend for the Grand Slam decider.

Colm Kinsella talks to Irish women’s rugby player Gillian Bourke who is in Italy this weekend for the Grand Slam decider.

GILLIAN Bourke, then an established tighthead prop, toyed with the idea of throwing into the line-out for the UL-Bohemian womens team. A vacancy for a line-out thrower had occurred when the team’s regular number two had departed to Australia for 12 months.

Bourke’s throwing technique was modest to say the least. Five paces back and then take a run at it.

One day as the Ballyneety woman put herself through her paces in UL, a familiar face passed.

Ireland’s Grand Slam chasing hooker, Gillian Bourke recalled: “I was having a go at trying to throw the ball into a line-out one day when Jerry Flannery passed by. He stopped to wonder what I was doing.

“When I told him, he took me through the basics, from how to hold the ball for the throw, how to stand and literally how to throw it. I just copied the technique he showed me.”

Little could former Munster and Ireland hooker Flannery have envisaged that his novice student would grow into a star pupil, going on to flourish in a star-studded UL-Bohs side, before becoming a regular for Munster. International honours would quickly follow and this Saturday, Gillian Bourke and her Irish team-mates stand eighty minutes away from claiming a glorious Grand Slam success in the women’s Six Nations Championship.

Ireland will claim a first Slam at this level if they manage to beat Italy at Parabiago, Milan on St Patrick’s Day at 2.30pm.

It has been quite a journey for the 28-year-old from Ballyneety, Co Limerick, who only took up rugby while at college in UL.

Bourke, who is an accomplished tighthead as wll as a dynamic hooker, isn’t alone in the women’s game in happening upon rugby in her late teens.

Gillian admits she didn’t know too much about rugby when she joined the UL Womens Club. Growing up, she had taken a keen interest in Munster’s success, of course, but other than the basic rule of preventing the ball from going forward off the hand, her knowledge of the game was limited.

Gillian Bourke’s great passion was horses, showjumping and hunting with the Limerick Harriers in particular. Her experiences of falling off toughened her up for the rough and tumble world of women’s rugby.

“Having enjoyed the outdoor life with horse riding and the spills and falls that can go with it, I enjoyed the contact and physical nature of rugby,” Gillian Bourke recalled.

From those early days playing rugby at UL in 2003, where she went on to complete a Degree in Sports Scieence, Bourke progressed to play for UL-Bohemian a season later.

Rather than the more traditonal path of an elite player playing for Munster, Bourke initally had a stint playing with Connacht. It was a sharp learning curve playing with the Western province, but the grounding stood to the Limerick woman and she would subsequently go on to represent Munster with distinction, winning half a dozen inter-provincial titles. Not surprisingly an Irish debut followed in 2008 when Bourke came off the bench against Italy. Her first start was against France the following season. Gillian, who went on to complete a Masters Degree in Performance Analysis in Cardiff University, has gone on to amass close on 40 caps for Ireland.

Bourke insists talk of a Grand Slam was not mentioned in the Irish squad until after last Friday night’s victory over France. “The important thing from us from the Six Nations was to qualify for the World Cup,” Gillian Bourke said.

“It would be terrific for the squad and for Ireland women’s rugby if we could beat Italy this Sunday. It’s St Patrick’s Day and I know a lot of supporters are hoping to travel to Milan.”