Our French connection Linda Djougang key to Irish hopes

Linda Djougang didn’t even know what a rugby ball looked like when she was first drafted in to play a social tag rugby final, as a wide-eyed 18-year-old.

er humble recollection of the occasion is that she wasn’t much use because, as she puts it, she didn’t really know what she was doing.

However, those who first saw Djougang play knew that if you stripped back the rawness there was a serious athlete waiting to be unleashed.

Those instincts have since proven to be correct, as not only has Djougang gone on to become a key player for Ireland in the few short years since, but last summer she was recruited by the current French champions, ASM Romagnat in Clermont.

It has been quite the rise for a player who has quickly become a world-class prop, all the while having juggled her ‘real job’ as a nurse working on the frontline in Dublin throughout the pandemic.

Moving to France was a fresh start and a chance to experience a new culture, and judging by last weekend’s evidence against Wales, playing in such a competitive league has elevated Djougang to another level.

The 25-year-old has become the cornerstone of the Irish scrum, which will face a stern examination against France on Saturday.

Given that she has played with and against these French players, Djougang will know exactly what to expect in Toulouse this weekend and, as such, Greg McWilliams is likely to lean on the prop’s inside track.

The new Ireland head coach has wasted little time in freshening things up in a bid to put his own stamp on the team, and one of the most fascinating early parts of McWilliams evolution has been moving Djougang from tighthead to loosehead.

We have already seen how much of a success Andrew Porter has been since he made a similar switch, as playing on the loosehead side frees him up to get on the ball more often, whilst also sapping less energy from his legs at scrum-time.

It’s an interesting call from McWilliams, particularly because Djougang’s power at tighthead would have been seen as a real asset, but you can understand where the Ireland boss is coming from. In her six carries during last weekend’s defeat to Wales, Djougang made 41 valuable metres, while her work on the opposite side of the ball was also hugely effective, as her 17 tackles suggests.

And it wasn’t just the sheer number of tackles that Djougang made, it was the quality of the forceful hits she put in.

Considering the manner in which the Welsh pack overpowered Ireland, particularly in the latter stages, McWilliams will be seeking major improvements ahead of the trip to Toulouse.

France didn’t fire on all cylinders in their 39-6 win over Italy on Sunday, yet there is a fear that they were merely ridding themselves of the dirty diesel.

Ireland can expect a much more cohesive French outfit to be lying in wait, and despite the odds being firmly stacked against McWilliams’ side, if others can feed off Djougang, they could cause some problems.

“France have the power and they have the pace,” McWilliams warned. “They can play tight and narrow. They can play wide.”

Ireland’s set-piece and maul will need to be much better this weekend to stand any chance of causing an upset. Djougang will be central to driving those improvements, as she returns to France looking to prove a point against some familiar faces.

That she is in a position to do so should not be underestimated because it’s not every day a top French club signs a key Ireland player.

In men’s terms, it’s the equivalent of Tadhg Furlong joining Toulouse before he signed a new contract with the IRFU last November.

Djougang has come a long way since we first met her in a Dublin hotel, in the shadow of the Aviva Stadium three years ago.

On that evening, she spoke proudly about her dream of winning a first Ireland cap, having made the journey from Cameroon to Dublin as a nine-year-old in 2005.

She also told us how her passion for rugby had been ignited to such an extent that she would get on a bus to Old Belvedere or Wanderers training from her home in Rush, north county Dublin at six o’clock, and she wouldn’t get back until after midnight.

“People think I was mad,” Djougang smiled.

As her journey to the top has proved, however, the many sacrifices she made along the way, have been worth it.

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