Pride Month: Claudia MacDonald and Cliodhna Moloney thriving on and off the pitch

A Red Roses star from Surrey and an Irish international might not make the perfect match when it comes to watching rugby, but there are no rules when it comes to love.

Exeter Chiefs’ Claudia MacDonald and Cliodhna Moloney - long-term partners and now fiancees - are living proof of this.

The duo first met on a pre-season trip for Wasps in France in 2018, but it wasn’t until the journey home that they first got the chance to speak.

“On tour, Cli was friends with all the scary older people so I actually found her quite intimidating at first,” said MacDonald.

“Meanwhile I was running around with Sydney Gregson and Abby Dow - we were like the kids on tour just having a party.”

But a cancelled flight as the group were set to return home meant the team were separated and had to fly back on different planes. Luck - or fate - would have it that the pair were on the same flight.

“We got chatting at the airport and just got along really well, then when we returned to training I remember looking forward to Cli being there but not really knowing why,” MacDonald continued.

“I wasn’t particularly confident at the time, so I think I admired that in Cli - the way she walked into a room and just spoke to anyone, told stories and made everyone laugh.”

Fast-forward five years and the pair are now engaged after Moloney popped the question during an Exeter Cheifs training camp in St Ives last August.

“We were at a training camp for a few days which fell over the bank holiday,” the Ireland hooker said.

“I knew it would coincide with our fifth anniversary and I always wanted to [propose] around summer time. I told Claud I wanted to go to Nanjizal beach - you have to walk about a mile through a farmers field - it’s really pretty. That’s where I had planned to do it. 

“Claud had a run to do as part of her preseason training for England so I told her she needed to go and do that right away.”

At this point, MacDonald interjects – “she was being really bossy” – but Moloney picks up the story.

“It’s very hard to lie to someone you don’t normally lie to,” she said.

“I suggested that we take the camping chairs and a BBQ - enjoy the sunset while we’re there. It was only 5pm so I kept thinking that the sun wasn’t going to set for ages, but Claud said “No - we’re not going to be there for that long!”

MacDonald laughs. “I was like, that’s stupid. Why would we carry all those things for a mile? We’ll just go and bring that stuff to somewhere closer.”

“So I quickly had to boot the ring out of one of those bags and stick it in my pocket and off we set with nothing more than ourselves and some bottles of water,” says Moloney.

“There’s a lovely little viewpoint that looks over the ocean and an arch where the sun was starting to go down in between.

“I said I wanted to record it so I got up to set up the camera but it took me ages. I couldn’t get the timer to work - then I finally got it propped up between a shoe and a bag.

“Claudia kept asking me what I was doing so at that point I was probably getting quite stressed out. I ended up not saying anything, I just sat down beside her and opened the box.”

Despite having joked about being the one to pop the question first, MacDonald was caught off guard. 

“I had no idea because we’d just been camping and I was a bit of a mess,” she said. “It’s not like you’re nice and clean and looking glamorous, I wasn’t expecting it to happen then at all.” 

MacDonald got her own back in December last year by getting down on one knee because in her words, why have one proposal when you can have two?

“I wanted to do it around Christmas time because Cli doesn’t really celebrate it, whereas I absolutely love Christmas.

“ I think it’s so special, so I thought if I proposed at that time of year Cli would have something to look forward to at Christmas time - not that you’re a scrooge Cli!”

With rugby to thank for their meeting - and in part their engagement - sport has played a much bigger part in both athlete’s lives on and off the pitch. 

For MacDonald, the sport has taught her to be proud of her physique and impressed the importance of visibility when it comes to diversity in sport.  

“When I was younger I lived in Dubai,” she said. “It was very glamorous and women generally wore dresses and makeup. I remember one day going to a friend’s house wearing a dress and feeling really good, but only because other people thought I looked pretty. 

“Now I think it’s really important for young people to see women and men who look different everywhere, because if everyone looks different then you feel normal being yourself. If you can only see one thing that’s replicated over and over, you feel like you have to fit that to fit in with the rest of society.

“In my head I compare it to playing rugby. If I’ve been asked to play differently before - like another player for example - I say I can’t do that because being me is my strength. No one can play like me as well as me. There’s no point trying to be anyone else because you’re only going to lose that battle.” 

For Moloney, growing up on a rural farm as one of seven siblings taught her there are no limits to what you can or want to do.   

“I was never told I wasn’t allowed to do anything because I was a girl. If something needed doing on the farm, whoever was around got on with it. Whether that was building a wall or lifting bails of hay.”

The importance of family is a value both players share, as MacDonald reveals her brothers think of Moloney like a sister, while the Irish star’s family relish having an extra pair of hands when the couple visit their farm in Galway.

“They love it when Claudia comes home with me,” she said. “We go farming and she completely buys into our crazy life that is completely different to anything she grew up with.” 

With a break now before the season resumes and a wedding still to plan, Moloney and MacDonald are hoping next year’s World Cup will create conditions for growth and visibility in the women’s game. 

“The change in recent years has been massive in terms of fan support and visibility,” MacDonald said.

“I look back on my first cap for England and there were maybe 5000 people in the crowd. You knew almost everyone in the stadium - siblings or someone else’s family - now you get crowds of 60,000 at Twickenham. It’s incredible.

Moloney adds: “I think the World Cup will likely be the catalyst for that [development] snowballing into other countries.

“England want to be exceptional hosts and the crowds are going to be really big, so I think there’s going to be a lot more records broken.”