At first glance, Linda Djougang is an ordinary student. As she walks across the Trinity rugby pitch that she has graced with such distinction to date, she could easily be dismissed as a daring fresher rushing to her next lecture. It is unlikely that passers by would immediately grant her the recognition that her achievements deserve. Four years into her rugby career, Djougang has represented DUFC, Wanderers, Old Belvedere, Leinster, and now finds herself as one of eight uncapped players in the Ireland squad for the upcoming Six Nations. This is only the beginning of Djougang’s impressive CV. The prop forward also manages to fit a full time Nursing degree, and an “on call” profession alongside her rigorous training programme. Indeed, hearing about the spinning plates in Djougang’s average week would make the most productive of students feel plainly inadequate.
“I wanted a team sport. Something I had never seen before. Rugby was perfect for me.”
Although she could be forgiven for it, given the level of prestige she has reached in such a short time, Djougang’s persona is entirely absent of any degree of arrogance. In its place, a personability and modesty are at the forefront. This is perhaps most evident in her pathway to the sport she now loves. “To be honest with you, I had never even heard of rugby,” she admits. “I live in Rush and it is not really that popular in my area. I remember I signed up to play a game of tag rugby when I started college, because I wanted to try something new. There were two teams, one was serious and the other social. I was the only girl to show up for the social team so I had to switch and play for the serious team! I was so lost, I didn’t even know the rules. The referee was more involved than me!” When asked what first attracted her to an oval ball she didn’t even recognise, Djougang’s positive mindset shone through. “It was something new. A new journey. I had competed nationally with athletics in secondary school, and I wanted a team sport. Something I had never seen before. Rugby was perfect for me.”
Since that fateful tag rugby debut, Djougang’s stock has continued to rise. She recalls joining Wanderers to bring her game to the next level, observing that “many people questioned me committing to travel to Wanderers from Rush, but for me it was no commitment. When you are doing what you love, you aren’t really thinking in those terms.” She does however lament the lack of playing opportunities for those located outside of South Dublin, an issue which has plagued the sport despite its newfound popularity. “It was hard for me to find a club to play at the level I wanted. I wanted to challenge myself and to do that I had to travel. There weren’t the facilities I needed near where I am from.”
The commitment and travel would soon pay off for Djougang. As she nurtured her talent, coaches across Dublin began to take note, and call-ups for DUFC and Old Belvedere soon followed. It did not take long before Leinster came calling, where, after a successful trial, she made the provincial panel. It was here that she faced the most challenging period of her career to date, as despite her best efforts she went a year without a cap. However, this did not deter Djougang, as she persevered and eventually turned out for her province. “The first year without a cap was difficult, but I kept trying and working. Then when I finally played, it was so amazing. It was something I worked so hard for and something that nobody will ever be able to take away from me.”
Her Trinity sports scholarship and status as a full-time third-year Nursing student is proof further that Djougang is manufactured differently to the average undergraduate. One of her most impressive attributes both on and off the field is her time management. “I get up at 5am to train at 6am, then I have to rush from lecture to lecture. It is tough to balance assignments with training, and my social life can definitely suffer, but it is so worth it. All my social needs are fulfilled with my rugby team; we are like a family. College has been very accommodating too as they know my situation, so I manage to do it all in the end.” As if such a schedule wasn’t enough to make your head spin, Djougang also manages to add “12 hour nursing shifts” into the equation. When asked if she would soon have to make a decision between rugby and nursing, Djougang had this to say: “I think so, as final year is obviously a bigger commitment, but all I can do is keep trying to balance everything and do what makes me happy.”
“Rugby is a contact game you know, we have to keep rugby as rugby.”
Having explored Djougang’s schedule and rapid rise to the top, the conversation turned to issues of a wider public interest. With regard to public concern in relation to injury, in particular concussion in rugby, Djougang responded sensibly. “Obviously it is so sad to see so many concussions, so many injuries, and so many people having to retire early. But it is part of the sport. We have rules in place and I think that nobody will go out to intentionally hurt one another. Rugby is a contact game you know; we have to keep rugby as rugby.” Djougang also noted that the women’s team is enjoying a sharper spotlight, and with it, a surge of expectation. “Of course, with people like Katie Taylor, and the women’s hockey team winning a silver medal, women’s sport is becoming more and more popular. It is great to see and these women are really inspiring me and so many other people.”
“To get called up for the Six Nations team makes all the hard work worth it.”
Djougang went on to describe the joy with which she described her Six Nations call up: “I was in work actually, so I missed the call at first. When I rang my coach back, I was so nervous. I rang and he didn’t answer, but he rang again later and I was so proud. I was in shock. To get called up for the Six Nations team makes all the hard work worth it. I can’t wait to get started, and I know that we are going to do well.”
Djougang’s story is as inspiring as it is unique. A novice in terms of years, but a master in terms of talent, her incredible rugby career is set to go from strength to strength. However, what is most impressive is the balancing act she performs off the pitch. While she may dismiss it as simply “doing what I love”, one cannot help but be in awe of the many potential avenues all laid out before Djougang. Only one of these paths will matter come February 1 when Ireland play England in their Six Nations opener, but if this interview was anything to go by, the rest of them are undoubtedly within her capabilities.