Having overcome the challenges of balancing her international career with a university degree, England and Loughborough Lightning second row Catherine O’Donnell knows more than most how much hard work pays off.
The 23-year-old - who scored her first Red Roses try against Ireland in the 2018 Quilter Internationals - went on to sign a full-time England contract in 2019, before penning a deal for the 2019/20 season following regular starts in England’s Super Series in San Diego.
While O’Donnell got to grips with the increasing demands associated with becoming an elite athlete, the former Firwood Waterloo star was also tasked with balancing her time to accommodate a masters degree in work psychology at Loughborough University.
But having successfully graduated in 2019, and with 16 England caps now to her name, O’Donnell admits representing her country made all the hard graft well worth it.
“If you’d asked me as a kid whether I’d ever be a professional rugby player for England, I would have called you absolutely insane,” she said, speaking at an RFU All Schools event at Twickenham Stadium aimed at getting more state secondary schools playing rugby.
“The fact that I am just shows how far the game has come and how important it is to get as many people as possible into rugby.
“But I know it wasn’t something that was just given to me, it was 20 years of hard graft. It comes down to what you’ve put in and it’s a huge, huge honour to be able to play for England.
“It wasn’t easy at the start but you do what you need to to fit it all in. When it comes down to it, it means that you get to represent your country and pull on that white jersey, so everything you have to do to get there is worth it.”
Having successfully come through such challenging circumstances, O’Donnell took the opportunity to pass on some of her knowledge to the next generation of rugby stars in her role as an All Schools ambassador, as 70 students from schools across England unveiled their new Canterbury kits on Twickenham’s hallowed turf ahead of the the Red Rose's Six Nations match against Wales.
She said: “I think it’s amazing to see these kids get the opportunity to go out there, play rugby and to design their own shirts. That’s something I never got at that age and it’s massive for helping grow the popularity of the sport.
“It’s important to increase the level of activity in schools, but learning the values of rugby such as respect and sportsmanship is also massive. It’s not just stuff that helps you on the pitch but it helps you in life as well, so to have that chance in school is really important.”
The All Schools programme, supported by Canterbury, is one of the RFU’s key legacy programmes set up to increase the number of state secondary schools playing rugby union in England. Visit www.englandrugby.com/allschools to find out more. This programme hit its 750 milestone in September 2019.