Linda Djougang didn’t even know what a rugby ball looked like when she was first drafted to play a social tag rugby final as an 18-year-old.
The humble memory of the occasion is that she wasn’t of 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 when you take back the rawness, a serious athlete is waiting to be unleashed.
Those instincts have since been proven correct as not only has Djougang become a key player for Ireland in the few years since, but she was also signed by reigning French champions ASM Romagnat in Clermont last summer.
It’s been quite the rise for a player who has quickly become a world-class prop while juggling her “real job” as a frontline nurse in Dublin during the pandemic.
Moving to France was a fresh start and a chance to experience a new culture and judging by last weekend’s results against Wales, playing in such a strong league has taken Djougang to another level.
The 25-year-old has become the cornerstone of Ireland’s scrum as they face a stern test against France on Saturday.
Given that she’s played with and against these French players, Djougang will know exactly what to expect in Toulouse this weekend and as such Greg McWilliams will likely be leaning on the prop inlane.
The new Ireland head coach wasted little time freshening things up to put his own stamp on the team and one of the most intriguing early parts of McWilliams development was Djougang’s move from tighthead to loosehead.
We’ve already seen the success of Andrew Porter since making a similar move, as playing on the loosehead side frees him up to get on the ball more often while also drawing less energy from his legs in scrums .
It’s an interesting call from McWilliams, particularly as Djougang’s power in the tighthead would have been seen as a real asset, but you can understand where the Ireland boss is coming from. Djougang made 41 valuable yards in her six carries during last weekend’s defeat by Wales, while her work on the other side of the ball was also hugely effective, as her 17 tackles show.
And it wasn’t just the sheer number of tackles Djougang made, it was the quality of the powerful punches she delivered.
Considering the way the Welsh pack overwhelmed Ireland, particularly in the closing stages, McWilliams will be looking for big improvements ahead of the trip to Toulouse.
France didn’t shoot from all guns in Sunday’s 39-6 win over Italy, but there are fears they were just trying to rid themselves of the dirty diesel.
Ireland can expect a much more cohesive French team to lie in wait and while the odds are solid against McWilliam’s side, they could cause some problems if others are able to feed on Djougang.
“France has the power and the pace,” McWilliams warned. “You can play tight and tight. You can play far.”
Ireland’s set pieces and Maul will need to be much better this weekend to have any chance of causing an upset. Djougang will play a pivotal role in driving those improvements as she returns to France to take on some familiar faces.
Her ability to do so should not be underestimated as it is not every day that a top French club sign a key Irish player.
As for the men, it’s as if Tadhg Furlong would join Toulouse before signing a new deal with IRFU last November.
Djougang has come a long way since we first met her three years ago in a Dublin hotel in the shadow of the Aviva Stadium.
That evening she spoke proudly of her dream of winning a first cap for Ireland after traveling to Dublin from Cameroon in 2005 when she was nine.
She also told us how her passion for rugby was kindled so strongly that she got on a bus from her home in Rush, North County Dublin, at six o’clock to the Old Belvedere or the Wanderers training session and didn’t come back until after midnight.
“People think I’m crazy,” Djougang smiled.
However, as her journey to the top has proven, the many sacrifices she made along the way have paid off.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/six-nations/our-french-connection-linda-djougang-key-to-irish-hopes-41497376.html Our French connection Linda Djougang is the key to Irish hopes