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Briggs injury increases onus on playmakers and robs Ireland of priceless weapon

Captain, leader, goalkicker, playmaker: There’s no understating the blow Briggs’ injury is to Ireland.

Niamh Briggs Face of the World Cup: Briggs' image is being used on a postage stamp released by An Post. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT’S TOUGH TO underestimate the dent Niamh Briggs’ injury has smashed into Ireland’s plans for their assault on the home Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Think of our finest hour in the tournament, Ali Miller races away to score the try in the corner against the Black Ferns. But the pass to the wing?

The break that turned a loose kick into a clinical counter attack?

The touchline conversion that ticked the scoreboard over from 11 – 12 to 11 – 14?

Later, the game-winning penalty that pushed Ireland to 14 – 17 and their first ever win over New Zealand in international rugby?

All Briggs.

Niamh Briggs Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The woman is a Titan of Irish rugby and her team-mates must work hard to share the burden she shouldered so readily over her 57 caps in green.

In recent weeks, Briggs had been relentlessly positive about her fitness profile. A hamstring injury kept her sidelined since November, leaving her out of the Six Nations and warm-up clashes against Japan. However, she focused on the silver lining of “I’ll definitely be fresh” and was navigating kicking sessions comfortably.

It was hoped that this past weekend in Fota Island would see the Waterford woman shake off any lingering concern. Instead, as often happens a player post-injury, the body through a spanner elsewhere in the works and she suffered her Achilles injury while running in training.

In selection terms, her absence puts the fullback jersey well and truly up for grabs. Briggs’ replacement in the squad Louise Galvin will join Mairead Coyne, Hannah Tyrell in contention for the number 15 shirt.

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Most crucial, however, is how Ireland will react to the loss of Briggs’ excellent goal-kicking. In the Six Nations, out-half Nora Stapleton was off-form with the boot, kicking with a success ratio of 53% (eight from 15 attempts) and there were also occasions when the Donegal woman sent Ireland to the corner with penalties that would, in theory, have been well within Briggs’ range. The Munster woman is not infallible off the tee either, with a success ratio ranging from 78% in 2013 to 57% in 2016, but the quality of the strike was consistently strong.

Sharing kicking responsibility with Stapleton for the tournament which gets under way in just nine days’ time will be Tyrell, Galvin and Jenny Murphy. In the mild August weather, conditions will certainly be less testing for goal-kickers than the unforgiving setting of the Six Nations. Yet the absence of a weapon as potent as Briggs’ boot means picking off cheap scores from distance will be less likely and there will be an even greater need for Ireland to create try-scoring opportunities to give them the edge against Australia, Japan and France.

Nora Stapleton kicks a penalty Nora Stapleton took kicking duties during some testing conditions in the Six Nations. Jenny Murphy (left) is also capable of taking the tee. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Speaking last week at an event promoting fitness and exercise, Stapleton took an active part while Briggs sensibly opted against any unnecessary exertions or kicking for cameras. Afterwards, the Donegal woman sounded prepared for just this eventuality, focusing on the importance of every member of the squad executing their skills rather than welcoming Briggs back to ease the burden. Referring to the attack she will likely hold the reins on, Stapleton echoed the tried and tested truism of taking your options from where the opposition defence is lacking.

“The way you play, you always look at the opposition, analyse your strengths and weaknesses and you base your moves around that.

“It doesn’t come down to any individual player, it’s very much a collective as a team. We’ve been very well prepared coming into this and we’ve done an awful lot of training, but so has every other team in the tournament, it’s about trusting that we’re ready and now it’s about putting a gameplan together and going out and doing it.”

Ireland still have the individual and collective weapons across the back-line to do any team damage. From the clinical finishing of Miller, the aerial threat of Tyrell and the explosive centre partnership of Murphy and Naoupu.

Briggs is nigh on irreplaceable, but Tom Tierney still has a wealth of experience and leadership across the field to call upon. Stapleton, Claire Molloy and Maz Reilly – all entering their third World Cup – will be in contention to lead the squad in Briggs’ absence. As will Grand Slam winners Sophie Spence and Larissa Muldoon. Having led the squad through the Six Nations though, powerful back row Paula Fitzpatrick looks the most likely candidate.

What is certain is that Briggs will be missed in this tournament and it will take a tremendous collective effort to carry on the baton.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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