The loss of an experienced warrior just before a World Cup finals, the absence of the team’s talisman and their inspirational captain; it could be said the Ireland’s women’s rugby team are going through their own Saipan moment.
Head coach Tom Tierney looks at the loss of Niamh Briggs, the captain forced to miss this month’s tournament on home soil through injury — rather than any disrespect for her boss — in a similar way.
Though not quite how you think. When Mark Kinsella was asked to step into Roy Keane’s boots at the 2002 Fifa World Cup, few thought he’d fill them in any significant way.
But to many, the Manchester United legend’s absence merely strengthened the bond of the group he left behind when sent home by Mick McCarthy, even allowing them to flourish in his absence.
Briggs’ departure has come in a very different way, with none of the discord that surrounded Keane, but Tierney is tapping into the psychological reaction that can come from such a key loss at such a key time.
“That had a galvanising effect, and sport has a funny way of doing that, especially team sports,” he said.
“It’s like a switch that goes on, and suddenly you’re in a different mindset. The mindset is the key; we’re very conscious we’ve done all the hard work from a strength and conditioning perspective, we’re very clear how we want to play, also we’re rock solid in team cohesion.
“If we have all three of those, then we’re going to be a difficult team to play against.”
Tierney and company were in the same facilities used by Keane and the Ireland team at Fota Island last week for their final preparations for this week’s opener against Australia tomorrow.
“The facilities were second to none,” Tierney said. “We were down there for four days, it was a longer and more intense camp than we’d usually have, it’s usually a two-day camp over the weekend, so that was worth its weight in gold.
“We went up against the Spanish team a couple of times, that was very beneficial and it just brought the squad closer together. We’re very pleased with the 28 players we have together, it’s very cohesive, we’ve a real solid bond, everyone is on the same page with what we’re trying to achieve, and everyone is very clear about what we’re trying to do on the pitch. We’ve set a real good foundation block that, hopefully, we can launch Wednesday.”
Briggs’ Achilles injury was a hugely disappointing story in a week of positives, with the Waterford native having just fought back from a hamstring injury that led her to miss last season’s Six Nations.
“We gave her every opportunity but we had to disappointingly, and heartbreakingly for her, and the squad, we had to make the call,” Tierney said. “It was the right call, and we brought in Louise Galvin, who’ll do a super job. The onus now is on the players, and this will bring the squad closer together.”
Claire Molloy, the most capped player in the squad, was given the captaincy in Briggs’ absence, but having played without Briggs during the Six Nations, the job of lifting the squad will not be as difficult as it might have been.
“Yes, it helps we’ve had to do without Niamh before,” Tierney said. “She’s been rehabbing this since October, so it’s something we’ve always planned for, from an injury perspective anyone can fall down at any stage, so we have to be vigilant that we have cover, but also from growing the squad and creating a player pool that’s big enough to handle the setbacks.”
With one day to go, Ireland will hope to lose no other bodies, as the long wait to kick off a World Cup on home soil finally comes to an end.
“It’s been a long summer, you’re always waiting for the tournament to start,” Tierney said. “We’re very pleased with how we prepared. It’s been very intense for the players and management, but to have it here now feels really, really good. We’re in to match preparation now, and that’s great, the waiting is the worst part.”
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