When Cliodhna Sargent made her return to the Cork Harlequins’ line-up in November against Belfast Harlequins, it was a big step forward in her ultimate plan to break back into Graham Shaw’s Irish plans for the 2018 World Cup in London.
The 209-capped Corkonian last played for Ireland at World League Round 2 in Malaysia in January competing just a week after she found out she was expecting her first child.
It came around the time Serena Williams was winning the Australian Open while pregnant and the medical advice was that while it was an “unusual situation”, some people have played up to five months in.
“[Williams] had just announced just after World League Round 2 that she was expecting while she had been playing. I was like ‘God, she was doing the exact same thing’,” Sargent said.
“There’s plenty of other like Jessica Ennis and Paula Ratcliffe have all competed in their respective sports so its not something that’s new. You just have to make sure that you are well enough to be able to compete.”
With a gold medal and a big step in the World Cup qualification chain complete, Sargent duly stepped out of the squad. Dylan Michael Hobbs subsequently arrived on August 21.
In her absence from the Green Army set-up, Ireland did enough at the World League semi-finals to earn their ticket to a first world cup since 2002.
Despite the circumstances, the dream of being part of that occasion was not going to be let go without a fight. Throughout her pregnancy, Sargent was working on a training plan with strength and conditioning coach Darren Collins to have her in the best possible shape.
“People have this thing that you have to completely cut back when you are pregnant. You don’t,” she said.
“All you have to do is take into account how fit you were before and reduce your load according to that. I was still running until five or six months and in the gym to seven months.”
Indeed, the Togher woman still went on hill runs with her international team mates Katie Mullan and Yvonne O’Byrne who joked she had an advantage of “two heart-beats” to power her.
Did she feel that extra power? “Oh hell no! I was miles behind.”
Indeed, it was the first time she has had to slow down since making her international debut in 2007.
“You do get to the stage then where you feel a little like a slob when you are so used to being out all the time. To then be restricted and not able to do stuff, it is hard.”
Similarly difficult was being a spectator. Sargent, a long time part of the Green Army’s leadership group, has never been on a sideline this long in her life.
“The Irish girls did so well over the summer. A few different results, a few inches here and there, and they would have qualified automatically rather than having to wait.
“But the games [in Johannesburg] were all really hard to watch; you are tearing your hair out. I was literally sending texts to the Munster girls in the Whatsapp group, telling them to score the next corner; it was the only thing I could do to actually talk to them!
“I couldn’t complain about not being there. It was very much my choice, I am just delighted they could get the results [and qualify].”
With Dylan happily arrived, Sargent returned to full club training in October and met with Irish coach Graham Shaw who was at Farmer’s Cross, keeping tabs on the sizeable Quins international contingent.
She also felt her touch at the time was “better than I expected it to be! I still have reflexes; it’s nowhere near where I want to be at but I still have reactions, still have skill on the ball which I know I can build on.
“My main focus is to get my physical conditioning back because I need to physically compete with players in the national team before I can break back in. If I can’t keep up, having unbelievable skills won’t be of any use!”
Indeed, getting back into a team that has adapted in her absence – with Lena Tice and Zoe Wilson stepping up admirably in the centre of defence while Megan Frazer could also return after her cruciate injury – will be a huge task but not something she will let go lightly.
“A World Cup is always something I wanted to be pushing for it and I still do,” she says. “I know it’s going to be very hard in so many different ways than what I have experienced.
“I have always been fit enough and able to maintain that. Now it’s different. I have gone through a huge body change.
“The added thing is being away from Dylan – going to tournaments will have its own hardships. John and I have a really good support system. We both have really big families that are willing to baby-sit and help us but he is at the age where if, I go away for two weeks, he will be completely changed.
“That’s the choice I make if I end up getting back into the squad.”