Saturday evening saw a Leinster double-header take place with two high-tempo, entertaining games of rugby. The men’s team took on Munster in Thomond Park while the women’s team travelled to London to play Harlequins in a history making fixture in Twickenham. Both teams featured Trinity students in their starting 15s: Rowan Osborne made his first start for Leinster at scrum-half, as a last minute replacement for Jamison Gibson-Park, and, across the pond, Linda Djougang started in the front row for the Leinster women.
A friendly in name only, Djougang’s match in Twickenham was a momentous occasion for women’s rugby. Every Christmas season, Harlequins Rugby Club play a fixture known as ‘The Big Game’ where they move from their traditional home ground, the Twickenham Stoop, to the significantly larger Twickenham Stadium. However, this year the Big Game was going to welcome both the men’s and women’s team to the home of English rugby, making it the first time that Twickenham would host a women’s European club match. Approximately 7,500 people turned up to the famous stadium to witness the historic fixture.
From the very beginning, Djougang was all over the park. She was a nuisance at the break-down and impressive with ball in hand. In the end, her hard work paid off as she crossed the line to score Leinster’s third try of the evening. Sene Naoupu made a break through the Harlequin’s defence before releasing a sublime offload to Djougang, allowing her to touch down over the line. Her impressive performance came just a week after Djougang was named in the Ireland Women’s Six Nations squad ahead of the Championship in February 2020.
While the result didn’t go Leinster’s way, with Harlequins running out 47-26 winners, the fixture proved to be a rip-roaring exhibition of rugby. Fast-paced offloading and tries aplenty, the importance of the fixture was matched only by the quality on the field. Nominally deigned a ‘friendly exhibition match’, the intensity of the game was immense and reminiscent of the many European Cup clashes that were played over the festive period.
Speaking after the match, Leinster number eight Hannah O’Connor reflected on the team’s performance and the future of women’s European rugby: “Obviously, we haven’t had as much prep as we’d like going into it, with the nature of it. We’ve had a couple of training sessions but I’m so proud of these girls. To get back together and gel like we did and put up 26 points against a really solid team, it showed what we’re capable of and I think the sky’s the limit now. Hopefully we’ve set the marker going forward, and shown that there’s so much that can be done with women’s rugby. This is just the start of it.”
For the men’s team, it was a close-fought encounter in Limerick, with Leinster emerging 13-6 victors. The conditions were wild and windy, and didn’t lend itself to a kicking game. Regardless, the visitors managed to remain in control for most of the match, due in no small part to Osborne’s smart decisions. His fast delivery from the break down allowed Leinster to maintain their relentless tempo in attack. Leinster survived a late rally from Munster to hold on to all the points and end Munster’s 21 game undefeated streak at home and maintain their own winning streak, having won every game so far this season.