Laura Bleehen becomes Cambridge University RUFC's prop idol after Wales call-up for Six Nations
Laura Bleehen’s whirlwind rugby development has earned a call-up for the Six Nations this autumn.
Twelve months ago, the 22-year-old was returning for her fourth year studying medicine at Cambridge University and contemplating a change in sports.
She had represented the Light Blues three times in the Varsity Football Match, but was looking for a new challenge and what followed has been impressive.
In just her 10th rugby match, Bleehen was Cambridge’s loose-head prop at Twickenham against Oxford, and produced a superb display as they won 8-5.
Now, she has received the call to be part of the Wales squad preparing to take on Scotland on November 1.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said the Girton College student.
“It came a bit out of the blue, but obviously I’m very excited by it and training with the girls has been great so far.
“I’ve actually only been playing contact rugby for about a year, so it happened very quickly.
“After the Varsity Match, some people started taking notice. With a couple of the girls on the university team, the Shuttleworths – Fi and Jenni – we sent some footage and got put on the Welsh strength and conditioning programme.
“From there, I got the call-up so it has all happened quite quickly, but it’s been pretty great so far.
“We’ve started training now with the Welsh squad, and we’ve got a catch-up Six Nations match against Scotland on November 1 so that will be exciting for sure.”
But what brought about the sudden change of direction from the round ball game to the oval?
It is even more impressive given that growing up in Wales, she had avoided the national sport until her fourth year at university.
“I had played for a long time at a decent level back home in Cardiff – I love football, but I think I love rugby more,” says Bleehen, who was a goalkeeper.
“I played in the Football Varsity Match for my first three years in Cambridge. We lost our first two but won our third and I decided I would retire gracefully and change to rugby.
“I had never really played rugby – I’m Welsh so it’s part of our national culture to watch and support Wales play, but I had never really played.
“I went along to a taster session with one of my friends who is on the university team.
“I just really enjoyed it, started doing their fitness programme over the summer and joined up this time last year.
“It was certainly a learning curve. It’s a very physical game and I really enjoy that side of it.
“The Varsity Match was my 10th game, I’ve played a few more since then but I’m still very young and looking to build up that experience.”
After the success over Oxford, Cambridge head coach Jack Baird was quick to point to the ability of the loose-head prop.
With a shortage for position across the game – arguably in both men’s and women’s – Baird had felt that Bleehen’s ability and progress had to be monitored, and snapped up as soon as possible.
But how did she end up in the front row? The shortage of personnel for the role is for a reason, and one of those must be a lack of people putting themselves forward to be a prop.
“I guess I’m a pretty strong person, and Jack obviously saw some potential,” says Bleehen.
“I was obviously always going to be a forward because I like being in the thick of things, get stuck in and must have some disregard for my own health – especially with football, diving around everywhere!
“I think it’s par for the course, so I think I was always going to be a forward.
“The university team needed some more props – I think most rugby teams always want more props as it’s quite an attritional position.”
While it is a case of balancing the rugby with the medicine studies, Bleehen is loving her new-found sport.
“I’m definitely a convert and I feel like I’m constantly learning and improving,” she says.
“I felt like I plateaued in football because I had been playing it since I was about five, and I don’t think I was going to get much better.
“A switch was good. I’m really enjoying it so far and I think women’s rugby is really on the up.”