The Wafer family are clearly unique, clearly a bit special. With two of its members making their international rugby debuts over the weekend there can be no doubting that this Ballygarrett family is possessed of extraordinary talents. But perhaps even more extraordinary, even more incredible than Aoife (19) making her senior debut and Orla (16) turning out for the U-18s, is that their devoted mother managed to make sure she didn’t miss a second of either game despite them taking place in different countries in the same weekend.
aving first flown out to Scotland to watch Orla make her bow at U-18 level against the French, the girl’s mam, Samantha, then got the first flight home so she could travel to Cork with husband Aidan and the rest of the family to watch Aoife make her full senior debut in Ireland’s 29-8 win over Italy. With the 19-year-old starting the game on the bench, the Wafer family had to wait until the 60th minute for Aoife’s big moment. However, her debut was slightly curtailed following an incident she described as “just one of those things”.
Sin-binned in the 67th minute for fouling in the ruck, Aoife, who plays as a flanker, had to endure ten frustrating minutes back on the bench before returning to the fray for the final few minutes. But overall she said was happy with the experience and eager to play against England on April 24.
“I was a bit nervous coming on but two other players were coming on at the same time so it wasn’t as bad and once I got stuck in I settled down a bit,” she said. “I don’t think the sin binning was down to me being too hyped up, it was just one of those things. The England game will be very hard, they’re the number two team in the world and are full-time professionals, they have players I would have looked up to as a kid.”
Viewing from the stands, Samantha said her daughter reacted well to the setback. “When she came back she had a superb turnover and a couple of great carries. For the yellow card she was trying to clear out the ruck and her team-mate came in and her momentum turned the Italian girl over and unfortunately she got booked. But these things happen and the important thing was that she didn’t let it affect her game.”
Having being called up for the Ireland Seven’s team while studying for her Leaving Cert, Aoife’s rise to the top has been meteoric and her mam says the older of the two girls was champing at the bit from a very young age.
“Aoife started playing at the age of six, her brothers would have played with Gorey Rugby Club and we’d have all gone to watch them train as a family,” Samantha recalls. “She said to me, ‘Can I go out and play with them?’ I told her no, it’s only for boys. But she kept on at me, saying wouldn’t she be better out there playing than standing here in the cold. I found it hard to argue with that logic so we let her play.”
That decision led to Aoife lining out alongside the boys as the only female member of the team all the way up to U-12 level when she had to switch to an all-girls team. A stint with Enniscorthy Rugby Club followed before she joined up with Blackrock in Dublin where she now studies physiotherapy in UCD. Having been part of the travelling squad for the first two games of the Six Nations, Aoife was selected for the panel by new manager Greg McWilliams and is now hopeful of appearing in Ireland’s final two games of the tournament.
But her season won’t end there. “I’m contracted with the Sevens at the moment, I would have played with them on trips to Dubai and France in the last few months,” she says. “The Rugby Sevens World Cup takes place in South Africa later this year, we have some qualifiers to play if we want to get there. Playing Sevens has really helped me to accelerate, to grow and develop as a player.”
Meanwhile, as Aoife plots her way across the rugby landscape, her younger sibling is forging out a career of her own, and one in the same position as Aoife.
“Orla played against the French on Saturday, it was only 35 minutes long but she got on well, she was good and strong in her position and did everything that was asked of her,” said Samantha. “They lost the game but France would be very strong, they’ve been training together a long time and would be physically bigger and stronger than our girls. She was a bit disappointed but she played well.”
Having also began playing at the age of six, Orla currently lines out as a flanker for Gorey Rugby Club and is in Transition Year in Gorey Community School. “She’s a flanker too, she only moved into that position recently, she had always been a back, a centre or a wing, but she’s flying at it,” Samantha said.
Given their success it’s impossible not to image the two Wafer sisters lining out alongside one another in the green of Ireland in the years to come, taking on all-comers in the second-row. And although Samantha admits she has dreamt of such a moment, she says the entire family are keeping their feet firmly on the ground.
“We have thought about what it would be like to see them play together for Ireland but we’d see that as sort of a pipe-dream, we’d be a very grounded family, tend to take it week by week,” she said.
The two girls, who both wore number 20 over the weekend, have been communicating from their respective camps. “I’ve been chatting to Orla a good bit, she was nervous for herself and for me,” said Aoife the day after the Italy game. “She’s a fantastic player, I don’t think she realises how good she is yet, there is potential for us both to play in the back row together, that would be a dream come true. A lot of the time you don’t get to see your family when you’re in camp or on tour, your team becomes your family.”
And while some may harbour fears of injury playing such a physical sport, Samantha says women’s rugby is a far safer sport than many realise.
“Aoife has had one concussion playing sport and that came during a non-contact GAA match, she’s had a couple of other injuries but they were the kind she could have got playing any sport,” she explained. “It’s very safe, at the beginning, once they got into it they were taught how to fall, how to tackle, to ruck, it was all done very gradually, you’re limited in what you can do, it’s very controlled.”