Niamh Briggs, by her own admission, is ultra-competitive and a disastrous spectator — so this will really test her limits.
The Irish women’s captain has sat out the entire Six Nations campaign with a torn hamstring, and her frustration will be doubly acute when her team steps up to meet the old enemy tonight in their Grand Slam decider in Donnybrook (8pm).
‘Sit out’ is actually a misnomer.
Sitting has been particularly difficult during the Dungarvan woman’s painstaking rehab.
She didn’t even risk flying to Wales last weekend to support them, lest it set back her recovery.
The timing, during Irish training the Sunday before their Six Nations opener, couldn’t have been worse.
“It felt like someone had shot me and then it went numb,” recalls Briggs. “It wasn’t as bad as a Paul O’Connell’s, more like a Sean Cronin job. There’s three tendons there and Paul ruptured all three, whereas just one of mine went.”
It was still bad enough to force Briggs, a community liaison garda off work in Roxboro, Limerick, as she couldn’t even sit, never mind drive or walk.
She’s back now, though only on office duty. Unlike tonight’s opponents, who went professional in January, Ireland’s female 15s are still amateurs and have full-time day jobs.
But they are now part of the IRFU’s high-performance programme so Briggs got the best of care, including a two-week rehab residency at the world-class Santry Sports Clinic.
She’s on the mend with this summer’s World Cup a good carrot she needs but the injury hit her hard initially.
“I went home to Abbeyside and got lots of TLC from mammy and daddy,” says Briggs.
“They had to come to Dublin to get me and were probably walking on eggshells for the first few days, but we live on a beach so it was lovely and quiet. That’s what I needed.”
Hamstrings are notoriously slow to mend and Briggs admits watching from afar has been “the hardest thing mentally that I’ve ever had to do”.
She says: “Cliodhna Moloney and Jennie Finlay are also injured. Technically we’re not part of the squad but we’re still in contact with the girls all the time and we went into their last one-day camp before the Welsh game.
“I’m not great now,” says Briggs when asked to rate herself on the spectator scale. “You just want to be playing, especially for your country. I miss it but the girls have been flying it and have done so well so far.”
As the team’s first-choice full-back and kicker, Briggs’ loss was reckoned to be a huge one but Donegal’s Nora Stapleton, whom she once faced in an All-Ireland intermediate football final before they became rugby teammates, has stepped into the breach.
“There was never any fear there,” says Briggs. “Nora is a very accomplished footballer who was already kicking for her club and province. She’s also one of the most diligent trainers I’ve ever worked with. She’s flying it.”
Tom Tierney’s side, chasing a second Grand Slam to match 2013, are unbeaten after victories over Scotland (22-15), Italy (27-3), France (13-10), and Wales (12-7).
Yet the Red Roses, on a mission to win their first Six Nations since 2012, are the reigning World champions with awesome depth and statistics.
They beat reigning champions France 26-13 to open and have flattened everyone since. They are without their first choice half-backs (Mo Hunt, injured, and Katy McLean, suspended after a red card against Italy) yet still ran in 12 tries, seven from Kay Wilson, when trashing Scotland 64-0 last week.
Little wonder then that Ireland are underdogs, even if Briggs is upbeat. “Look, every team has a weakness. It’s just about finding it and England are no different. Rather than concentrating on them we should be concentrating on ourselves and what we can do,” she stresses.
“Obviously they’re a quality side but France had them under pressure for the first 40 minutes and led 13-0 at half-time. If you can put a team on the back foot early enough you can see a very different side.
“They’re world champions so they’re always going to come back at you but it’s important that we play for 80 minutes and that, when they do get their purple patch, that we try and minimise it and then make the best of our own chances.
“There’s a perception out there that we’re falling over the line at the end of games but you have to put it into perspective,” she says.
“Against Scotland the weather was awful, it was our first time together for 12 weeks and, after 80 minutes, we were still looking to force the issue. That was great. Wales was such an emotional occasion for them after losing Ellie Norkett. My dad was there and likened the outpouring of grief beforehand to Anthony Foley’s loss. That was always going to give them impetus.
“Maybe we weren’t as clinical as we’d like but what we’ve shown so far is a huge amount of hunger and fight. That spirit has set us apart, especially towards the end of games.”
Briggs believes that “the cauldron” of an expected sell-out in Donnybrook will help Ireland hugely. “In the men’s Six Nations, take Rome out of it and England beating Wales was the only other away win. Home advantage is huge. This game is doubling up with the U20s so you’d be hoping that crowd will stay on.”
Briggs actually watched the second half of the French game alone, standing behind the goal; not just because sitting for long periods is still uncomfortable but in order to find a quiet space to concentrate from.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to find that tonight but I have to try and detach myself because I’m an emotional person,” she admits. “I could be bawling for the national anthem now but, after that, you want to try and keep a cool head and analyse it.
“To see a Grand Slam come down to a last-game decider between us and the world champions, who are also fulltime professionals, that’s what you want! I really hope people get out and support the girls.”
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