Niamh Briggs' passion for rugby would almost put Paul O'Connell to shame 3 years ago

Niamh Briggs' passion for rugby would almost put Paul O'Connell to shame

Irish women's rugby has exploded in popularity over the past five years.

Used to playing in front of crowds in the low hundreds and 'full of family and friends', the side has graced the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham in the last two years.

Ireland are the reigning Six Nations champions, having reclaimed a trophy they won in Grand Slam style in 2013.

While their championship winning achievements matched those of Joe Schmidt's squad, earlier this year, the women have done something the men never have - beaten New Zealand. That feat occurred at the 2014 World Cup, which saw Ireland reach the semis.

In this extract from Six Nations: Two Stories, Ireland captain Niamh Briggs recounts how Ireland claimed a second Grand Slam in three seasons.

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The nerves

Ireland’s final fixture of the 2015 campaign, against Scotland, was the culmination of a period of intense juggling of rugby, work and personal lives for each squad member. Head coach Tom Tierney named a side unchanged from the one that had put Wales to the sword the previous week.

The team would have the opportunity to seize history after the grand-slam-hunting French had capitulated against the Italians in the previous round.

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Niamh Briggs talks to her team 13/2/2015

The occasion was obviously a landmark for each woman in green, but it held an extra significance for Captain Briggs, as the match in Broadwood Stadium, Cumbernauld – a satellite town to Glasgow – would mark her 50th cap.

Being ‘crippled with fear’ on the eve of the match was part of the process Briggs endures before every international:

"I am a very emotional type of person, so I would normally cry before each match, during the anthems and that. This year I was trying to fix that because I am trying to work on the positive side.

I didn’t allow myself to get as emotional that night before but I was still getting sick at five o’clock in the morning."

The day job

The other part of Briggs' life – as a member of An Garda Síochána based in Limerick City, working as a community garda in areas with ‘tough’ reputations, such as Southill – helps to shed further light on her character.

Briggs commenced her Garda training in 2008 – the year she made her test match debut for Ireland against Italy in the Six Nations. She would spend Monday to Friday attending to her policing studies in Templemore, and at the weekend there was little rest as she travelled to Dublin to train with the national squad.

It is with terrific warmth that Briggs describes working with youngsters as part of her remit in community policing:

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"There is a group of kids from the regeneration areas in Limerick – Southill and Ballinacurra Weston – I take them out on Tuesdays and Thursdays to do soccer and rugby at Garryowen Rugby Club. They get their dinner there.

"It is a fantastic way for me to get a foothold into that area; I came down and I knew nobody and they didn’t know who I was, so it was a good way for the kids to be able to see me without the uniform on, building up a relationship with them. It has been fantastic, now they know me and I know them.

"It is not from a crime point of view; it never was that, it was about building up that trust. It gets the kids out, to be physically active and that in turn helps their mental state. It can only be a positive for them."

The goal-kicker

Briggs says, "Up until last year, anything would have gone through my mind and I found it very hard to focus. I found it very hard to block everything out around me.

"Maybe in the last nine, 12 months it is something I have worked very hard on."

Niamh Briggs kicks 22/3/2015

Throughout this campaign she implemented a routine to aid this psychological aspect of placekicking:

‘I have four words in my head – I am not going to tell you what they are.

"I say those four words over and over to block out what is around me; it allows me to concentrate on the process of kicking the ball over the bar."

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The match

When retelling the story of the match, Briggs fails to mention that she scored the opening try after just four minutes:

‘To get off to a really good start, we got the first try, then Claire Molloy got the second try and … I looked at Jenny and I said, 'We are going to win this!'"

This summation says it all about the Ireland women’s class of 2015: the ‘we’ always comes before ‘I’.

And then there was the self-belief of champions, which helped Ireland to run riot against the Scots.

Briggs adds, "I loved the fact that we went to another level – it was the most satisfying thing that we absolutely became ruthless.

"We have never been able to do that in all the years I have been playing for Ireland. We had always been considered too nice, so to keep turning the screw like we did was amazing."

Niamh Briggs lifts the cup as the Irish players celebrate 22/3/2015

The final whistle

"I ran straight over to my dad and I celebrated with the girls," says Briggs.

"I did something I didn’t think I would ever do – to lift the trophy after such an amazing performance, to be a 50-cap captain.

"It was probably the best day of my life, in terms of my rugby career."

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Six Nations: Two Stories is available to buy online and in all good bookstores