‘I wasn’t prepared to come back without her' - Orchard

Ashleigh Orchard and her daughter, Arabella, who will be in Paris to cheer on Ireland
Ashleigh Orchard and her daughter, Arabella, who will be in Paris to cheer on Ireland [Inpho]

When Ashleigh Orchard takes to the pitch at the Stade de France for Ireland’s opening game in the Olympic Rugby 7s tournament against Great Britain, her number one supporter will be there to cheer her on.

It’s not certain how much 11-month-old Arabella will understand about what is going on, but she will be watching her mum and her adopted ‘aunties’ compete for glory in Paris.

If Arabella wasn’t part of the Irish team environment then her mum wouldn’t be at the Olympics, but a new initiative from the IRFU has allowed Orchard to fulfil a dream.

The 32-year-old was an integral member of the Ireland XVs World Cup squads in 2014 and 2018 and has played over 80 times for the national team.

When the sevens game was introduced to the Olympic programme for the 2016 Games in Rio, it offered an opportunity she never thought possible.

“I was obsessed with the Olympics going back to 2004, but I ended up playing rugby so it was never an option," Orchard said.

For Orchard, formally Ashleigh Baxter, she thought that dream had died when Ireland failed to qualify for Rio and then Tokyo.

“Whenever we didn't qualify for Tokyo, I took that quite hard. I thought back then I was going to go to Tokyo or I was finished and stopped playing.

“Then obviously I had a baby and now it's all come back full circle. It's pretty amazing, completely unexpected, but incredibly exciting.”

Orchard was offered a new sevens contract in 2022 but on that same day she discovered she was pregnant. Little Arabella arrived to her and husband Johnny last August.

“She's incredible. I don't know what I did without her.

“She's so much fun and it's so exciting to see her grow and learning every single day.

“She's like a bundle of complete joy.”

Ashleigh Orchard in action in the Women’s Interprovincial series
Ashleigh Orchard in action in the Women’s Interprovincial series [Inpho]

Mum and daughter on Olympic journey together

Orchard returned to playing in February and, when she did, Arabella came along too thanks to a first of its kind agreement in Irish sport that is incredibly encouraging for the future.

“I suppose when I was coming back, I just wasn't prepared to come back without her," Orchard said.

"I wanted to give her the best start I could give her and I felt like me being around her was part of that.

“I wanted to continue feeding her. Obviously the IRFU have never done it before, so it was new for everyone.”

Arabella has joined her mum on her Olympic journey. She has travelled to Singapore and Madrid with the team this year and is a mainstay at training sessions.

It obviously required Orchard’s team-mates and coaching staff to buy in to the idea.

“I was quite anxious to begin with because I didn't want her to interfere, I didn't want her to get in the way of the girls training.

“And even the men's 15s, they would be in training and I just didn't want her to be any sort of an inconvenience for anybody.

“So initially it was a little bit stressful, but whenever we got over a few weeks of it, she just fitted in so well with the team."

Indeed Arabella could hardly be more popular in the group.

“The team have all been great. They've looked after everything, making sure she's got cots, car seats, anything. You name it, they've sorted it out.

“It's just the way the girls have taken her under their wing.

“I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to give her enough time, but she's had more opportunities to learn things and more entertainment from them than she would have ever had from me sitting in the house at home.

"She has twenty new ‘aunties’ and I guess her birthdays are going to be pretty great.”

The integration of mother and child into the high performance sporting environment and how well it has worked might now go a long way to dispel the belief that female athletes have to cut short a sporting career if they choose to have a family.

“It's just so important for women that they don't have to stop playing at a young age. They can play the same length as a man can play sport. That's huge.

“I actually just had a Canadian player reach out to me because they're coming back playing now and they've got a baby and they just want to know how we did it all.

“I hope more people do it. It's been so much fun.”

If this arrangement wasn’t in place, Orchard says with conviction she would never have come back to the set-up.

Now, she can look forward to fulfilling an Olympic dream that has been a lifetime in the making. All with Arabella watching on.