Linda Djougang laughs when I ask her about her start in rugby – it’s not exactly what you might expect when guessing what the early stages of a Leinster player’s career might have looked like. In just four years, Djougang has gone from learning the rules of the sport in a tag rugby league to earning her first Leinster cap and training with the Ireland squad.
“I decided to just risk it and put my name down for it”, she says, speaking about her deliberations before signing up for the tag rugby team organised by her office. She learned on the fly for her first match, with very little advice from her teammates: “They just told me, ‘you just get the ball and run’.” But the match, played on the home ground of Wanderers FC, proved crucial to Djougang’s future career, as she was asked to play for the home side for the upcoming season.
Djougang then made another leap of faith and started playing full-contact rugby for Wanderers, earning herself a Leinster trial just a season into her career. After a move to Old Belvedere the following year, under the mentorship of her coach Alex Denby and Irish internationals like Ailis Egan and Marie Louise Reilly, she took another leap forward and made it to the All-Ireland League final playing flanker.
After such a rapid rise through the ranks of Irish rugby, balancing student life and countless hours of training with her club became increasingly difficult
After such a rapid rise through the ranks of Irish rugby, balancing student life and countless hours of training with her club became increasingly difficult for Djougang, who regularly spent up to four hours a day taking the bus from her home in Balbriggan to and from lectures and matches. Now a third-year nursing student, Djougang was struggling to find time to see friends and join societies, which was made even more difficult by her not having received an athletic scholarship from the College: “My parents told me that I was never at home. I would leave the house at 5am, and I would come back at 11pm.”
As Djougang had not played at a high enough level before registering for Trinity, she could not secure a scholarship last year despite training regularly with the national team and playing for Leinster and the interprovincials. Without the benefits of the program, she says that “you don’t feel like you have that support”, and managing time is made increasingly difficult. Even minor things, such as access to the high-performance gym – a requirement for some of the exercises given to her by the Irish trainers – was impossible to access due to her status within the College system.
This year I just really want to be part of College – join societies, go to events
Eventually, the academic and athletic pressures were too much to handle, and Djougang took a year out of college in 2017, choosing to focus on rugby before coming back to Trinity. “By the end of second year, I just felt burnt out, and I couldn’t handle it”, she says. After this difficult decision, she devoted her time to rugby and was eventually selected for Leinster in the interprovincials in 2018. Having spent last year’s tournament on the bench for the squad, playing in these matches was “a completely different experience”, not least because it involved playing her first game ever at front row. Leinster topped the table, with wins against Ulster and Connacht, and remained unbeaten throughout the three matches, with Djougang lifting her first career trophy.
Though she is careful to point out how lucky she has been to not sustain a serious injury in her time playing the sport, it was not always smooth sailing for Djougang as she sought to gain her first Ireland cap. Having been invited to train with the Irish national squad after a summer competing for Ireland Sevens last year – an experience that she says helped her gain the speed and athleticism needed at the top level – an ankle injury sidelined her for months. But this too Djougang sees as a valuable learning experience. “It was kind of a setback”, she says, “but sometimes it’s good to get this sort of injury”. Without the fear of long-term damage, she says injuries can force players to take time out of their punishing routines and “think about how you’re going to try to move forward”.
Thinking back to her first time playing in “that blue jersey”, Djougang remembers it as a very emotional moment. Ever since the start of her rugby career, she has written down her long-term goals in a notebook at the start of every season, with Leinster at the top of the list every year. And after years of hard work in training, being able to tick it off the list made it feel like “everything really paid off”.
Returning now to her studies, Djougang says that although she is not sure how balancing her placement with playing for Trinity and Old Belvedere will go, “the nursing school has been very supportive”. Having been awarded an athletic scholarship earlier this month, she is set on taking time to “just be a student” while honing her skills on the pitch for club, college and, potentially, country.
Most importantly, Djougang wants to lead the side to a win in this season’s Colours, which she hasn’t been able to do for the past three years
“This year I just really want to be part of College – join societies, go to events”, she says. This will include her first year of serious involvement with Dublin University Football Club (DUFC). Save for a single match against Dublin City University (DCU) in second year, Djougang hasn’t played for the Trinity side – something she is looking to change this season.
This year, she will look to “give back to [the] girls” and use her experience to develop the young side. Most importantly, Djougang wants to lead the side to a win in this season’s Colours, which she hasn’t been able to do for the past three years. “This year, it’s the first thing I wrote in my notebook”, she tells me – a sign that DUFC is undoubtedly a priority for the year ahead. Having trained with the side this month, she says that she is particularly excited at the prospect of mentoring beginners at the club, perhaps because she was in their shoes just a few short years ago. “I feel like they’re just like me four years ago.”
But it doesn’t look likely that Djougang will have a quiet year. She has just gotten the call-up to take part in the women’s Emerging Talent Day, organised by the Ireland team to look at potential, future Ireland players. Furthermore, after Ben Armstrong, the head coach of the Leinster women’s squad, suggested that she move to front row, Djougang has gone from strength to strength and was recently asked to train for the Ireland XV for a second year in a row. With training starting last week, she is hoping to play in the November internationals and to pick up a cap for Ireland within five years of learning about the existence of rugby.
Above all, Djougang says that she is looking forward to learning to “enjoy rugby and being a student” and “figuring out those two things together” this coming year. And although she will prioritise taking time off throughout the year, she has already started to work towards being selected for the Irish squad. “Getting into the Irish women’s team is just the start of everything”, she tells me, just before the interview ends. “Everything before was just preparing you for it.”