Despite standing at just 5ft 2in, Grace Davitt is no more fazed at the prospect of playing a strong England side in today’s highly anticipated clash at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris than she is at the notion of working at height beside water amid high-voltage electricity lines.
“The docks are a dangerous place, with so many companies working in the same area, and I am the first girl to work there as a maintenance technician for Belfast Harbour Commissioners,” the 31-year-old Meath native says.
“I think the lads were initially very surprised at a woman coming in, but I can pull my own weight and have shown the lads up at times. It’s a very physical job, climbing cranes by day, hammering, and lifting. But I wouldn’t be happy to be seen as a weakling and I think I have the lads’ respect now.”
In fact, her work mates readily swap shifts to ensure Grace can get to her training sessions given Ireland’s women rugby internationals are not full-time paid professionals and many hold down day jobs in order to support themselves.
To pay back their goodwill, Grace, who also plays for Ulster and Cooke RFC, worked a couple of shifts in return during the weekends she had off from international rugby this year.
She concedes it’s tough playing top flight rugby and working full-time. On the days when her shift begins at 8am, she’s up for 6am and off to the gym for an hour of strength training. Her shift ends at 4.30pm but she may have pitch conditioning and skills-based training after that. Some evenings she doesn’t get home until 8pm-9pm.
So she’s into slow cooking — ideally athletes should eat within 40 minutes of training to boost recovery, so having a dish cooking slowly in the oven and almost ready to eat when she gets home is optimal. Or she may pre-cook something the night before.
“You try to prepare as best you can. I have so little time. I try to cook fresh food. I need to get protein and carbs in to me as soon as possible,” she says.
Training with the international team has been intense this year. They’ve been in weekend camps every weekend with the exception of a month off after the Six Nations.
Some of the training camps were held in Enfield, so the Stamullen girl did have a chance to catch up with family and friends.
Grace has struggled to make certain family occasions “but you have to prioritise”, she says.
The World Cup has taken the team to France for three weeks. Some of the girls had to take unpaid leave to get there, Grace says. The teachers among them were lucky because they were on their holidays.
Grace, who plays centre, saved up her annual leave to make the trip. It’s getting more difficult for any of the team to try and sneak off from work for matches because their star is so much on the rise.
And support is continuing to grow, although some supporters, such as her mum Mary, have been there from the get go.
“Mam has travelled the world to watch our matches over the years, since back in the day when we were getting hammered. She had to put up with tears and sore bodies. So when you achieve what we achieved against the Black Ferns (beating the defending champions 17-14), it makes all those years of sacrifice worthwhile.”
Amazingly, that historic win was the first time her Australia-based brother had seen her play.
“He said it was one of the best days he ever had,” she says.
Her mother had to fly home after the last game, but returns for today’s semi-final, which is a sell-out at 18,000 tickets, a far cry from the days when Grace won her first cap in 2005. Local team-mates from home who had planned to return to Ireland have also stayed on.
“The support we got for the New Zealand game was unbelievable, it was like playing a home game. It’s been a dream World Cup. Even when the Black Ferns were doing the Haka, we stood there with smiles on our faces, knowing we could win.
“And we’ve beaten England before, when we won the Six Nations in 2013, so there’s no reason to believe that we can’t do it again.”