From Cameroon to Leinster Rugby: Linda Djougang tells her story
March 8, 2020 1:00 am Conor Sharkey
Linda Djougang came to Ireland from Cameroon when she was just nine years old. She left a country renowned for Roger Milla, Samuel Eto’o and its Indomitable Lions, but arrived on these shores and found rugby.
Arriving in Ireland with no English and French as her first language, Djougang would go on to represent Leinster and Ireland, facing the stands that she once sat in at Energia Park, singing the anthem of the adopted nation she has called home for the last 15 years.
She has now represented Ireland eight times, has won two Women’s Interprovincial Championships with Leinster Rugby, and was a part of the history-making Leinster squad that faced Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium last Christmas, scoring one of the province’s four tries at the home of English rugby.
As part of BearingPoint’s ‘Rugby Innovator’ three-part video series, we sat down with Djougang to discuss her journey and the people that have helped inspire her along the way.
Below is the full interview with Linda Djougang. You can watch the full BearingPoint ‘Rugby Innovator’ series here.
Linda, tell us what an average day is like for you – combining studying and rugby must be challenging?
A very, very long day. When I’m doing theory, it’s usually from 9am-5pm, so straight after that I have training either with Old Belvedere or Leinster or Ireland. So I head straight to that. Usually, it’ll require me waking up at six o’clock in the morning and then coming back home at like half-11 if I’m lucky enough because I don’t drive so I depend really on public transport, which is really hard. When I’m on placement it’s really hard because placements start at 7am so I have to wake up at half-four, get the first bus to town for 7am, then to Tallaght Hospital because that’s where I’m based. I finish placement, it’s a 12-hour shift so it’s like half seven to half eight at night. And then I have the gym after in college. And I go home. A long day. Nursing’s very demanding. So is rugby too. They don’t really go together!
Did you always want to be a rugby player?
I don’t think I always wanted to be a rugby player because it was just something that I took up and I really found the passion in it. And I would say, ‘Oh my God, where has this sport been?’. I always wanted to represent my country but I never knew what sport it was going to be. Growing up I did athletics so I was doing 100m running and I did a lot of shot-put. I kind of gave that up when I went to secondary school. I wasn’t really happy because sport has always been there with me but I knew at the time it was really hard to go training and balance stuff so I kind of gave that up to really focus in secondary school.
Then I got into Trinity Access Programme. And then from there on, I got an internship in Grant Thornton where I got involved into tag rugby. We played one game in Wanderers Rugby Club. I got discovered by Michelle Byrne, their Women’s team manager at the time. She asked me to come and give it a go and I loved it! They just told me to get the ball and keep going, so that’s all I knew and I loved that! From there on I played with them for a season. After that season I got into the Leinster trials and that’s where I really started my Leinster journey. From there I moved club to Old Belvedere to really get challenged more as a player and really build my way into women’s rugby and play AIL, which was where I really wanted to go. I really wanted to get that challenge, what it is like to compete with people at the same level. I just didn’t stop. I just kept going. I feel so honoured now to wear that blue jersey.
What really attracted you to playing rugby?
I think when you are in an environment with people, you just find that you have something in common and you find the friendship that you build and the fact that you’re not judged; there’s a position for everybody. You find that you have a role and you have a responsibility. That’s really what keeps you going. You’re looking forward to going training and meeting those people. In rugby, I think you always have something to learn and something to always improve on. I think that’s the thing, that feeling when you know there’s always something to learn. You have players that you look up to and you know there’s a goal at the end of that journey. That’s the thing that kept me going. Always having that goal to wear that blue and that green jersey and knowing that it’s so difficult to get there. You’re always pursuing that goal until you get it.
I think, for me, I never dreamt, even when I started wearing that blue or green jersey, I just really enjoyed the sport so I just kept going. I think I just have fun. I was achieving all these amazing things and I never, even until now, never really look at it. Until people mention it to me I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’. It’s always having that goal. The friendships, the bond that you build within the sport is phenomenal. I think then, no matter win or lose, everyone just comes together. Then you have a really hot meal. It’s amazing – I love it. What other sport are you gonna get that? I think it really brings people together, the fact that so many are able to put their body on the line for somebody else. I think that’s just phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a sport that requires such physicality, such support and at the end of the game, you’re physically and emotionally and mentally just wrecked. But you love it. You come back to it.
What negativity or stigma have you faced as a female rugby player?
I think when you talk about rugby, people are always like, ‘do you play rugby, isn’t that so physical?’, and you’re like, ‘yeah, so are other sports, it’s what sport is about’. I don’t think there’s a sport out there that’s soft and you play and think ‘that was so easy’. What’s the fun in that? But I think when parents come to you and they say, ‘I’m never going to let me daughter play rugby’, it always pulls you back in a way. People ask you, ‘are you a pro?’. It’s like playing as an amateur isn’t good enough. You never really feel like anything you do is good enough. Sometimes it does knock you down. You start to really question what you do. You do get that as a female athlete that you’re just never good enough. It just needs to change. We’re all equal. You just need that bit of respect sometimes as rugby players. Especially because we’re playing the same sport as men. It’s the same rules. The feedback and everything like that, they do set you back a bit and it shouldn’t be like that.
That must be difficult to deal with.
Especially where I come from. I feel sometimes that I live in two different worlds. Because I’m here and I love the sport so much and I’m ready to give everything for it. But the minute I go back home, it’s like I can never talk about it because nobody, especially my family where I’m from, understands it. So that is hard. But at the same time, I try not to let it affect me because if they wanted, people would know more about the sport, it’s that they choose not to. But this is my journey, this is what I started, and I’m ready to finish it. I didn’t need anybody to put me there, I put myself there. It’s my journey.
What’s been your proudest moment in a rugby jersey on that journey so far?
My proudest moment wearing the blue jersey, which came first, representing Leinster, that was phenomenal. That was something that I never really… it was always a goal of mine. I worked so hard for it. Sometimes people don’t realise the amount of work that you put in something. They judge you on what they see on the pitch and they don’t really see what work has been put behind the scenes. But that day, it was just so overwhelming for me. I was so nervous getting on the pitch. To be honest, you prepare your life for this moment. In this moment, it’s really your chance to prove that I deserve to put on this jersey. I played my best but I didn’t feel, within myself, that I gave it all. I remember going home on the bus that day after the game against Ulster, it was held in Blackrock Rugby Club, and I remember being on the bus and just crying the entire way, the entire two-hour journey home on the bus and crying myself to sleep. Nobody at home really understood how much this moment meant to me. I just… I was really hard on myself. I just should’ve done better, I could’ve done better. I felt better the next day but I was just like, ‘next time I need to do better’.
It’s that constant pressure you put on yourself because you never know when you’re going to get it again. You never know when you’re going to get that opportunity even for five minutes, 10 minutes, three seconds, to wear that jersey because that’s how much it means to people. I was lucky enough to get another chance and another opportunity and I really took it. Even wearing that green jersey and belting out the national anthem. I’ve sat here in Energia Park and watched the women in the green jersey and I’d always be like, ‘oh my God, I wish that was me, I wish that was me’. Now this year, that was, it was me singing and staring at people. I didn’t know how to even describe that. People ask ‘how does it feel?’. I don’t know. You can’t describe it. It’s just something that you have to experience yourself. Singing the national anthem… I came here when I was nine and I didn’t speak English. My first language is French. I didn’t know this country. Thinking that I was singing the national anthem, as a nine-year-old coming here and after 14 years later, representing this country, for me that is phenomenal. To be honest, that’s my biggest achievement. Nobody can ever take that away from me. I’m very proud of myself.
What aspirations do you have for the rest of your rugby career and beyond?
Obviously, I want to finish my nursing degree. After waking up at four o’clock every morning of placement, I definitely want to finish that nursing degree! I gave so much. Obviously finish the nursing degree and graduate. And get into the World Cup. That would be a big step up for me. I don’t think there’s a World Cup without Ireland in it. Biggest goal at the moment, long-term goal? It would be representing Ireland at the World Cup in New Zealand in 2021. That’s my goal.
Who was your inspiration growing up? What about them inspired you?
My mom has always played a phenomenal role in my life. How she raised me up to the age of nine, so I always looked up to her. But growing up my aunt took that role when I moved here and she really has inspired me to be the woman that I am today, to better myself. Even myself, I always have that in me that in order for me to be better I need to surround myself with people that are better people if I want to achieve something. Probably the fact that I moved to Old Belvedere… Everyone was like, ‘why are you moving to Old Belvedere? They have like all the international players, you’ll never get game time’. But I was like, ‘yeah, that’s why I’m moving there’. I wanted to surround myself with all these international players. I wanted to see what it’s like to be an international player. I wanted to train like them because I know if I can play with them and I can train with them, I can be an international player. So I can be at that standard, I can have the skill, I can see what they’re doing so I can do it and I can do it better.
So growing up, people have inspired me along the way. And we have a phenomenal captain, Sene Naoupu. She has inspired the team. Along your journey you’re gonna have a lot of people that inspired you to be where you are and a lot of people have played that role in my journey. ‘Thank you’ to them. I’m so lucky to be able to even have, in this journey, to have them along. There’s a big list of them! But they know who they are and they know that have inspired me and continue to inspire me.
Do you feel a responsibility to be that inspiration for the next generation?
You do think about it. It’s your responsibility, the minute you wear a jersey. You have a responsibility, you’re an ambassador for the next generation, for the younger girls, that you once were. You have the responsibility to really inspire them to be who they are. To even be like you, but a better version of you. Not just like you but they need to be better than you. As a player, I still look upon people that inspire me. But it’s my responsibility to really inspire the younger generation coming up to be better than me.
The female game continues to grow across Leinster and you can be a part of it whether you’re a player, coach or volunteer. Find your local club using the Leinster Rugby Club Finder and join now to help shape the future of the game in the province.