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'Professionalism is going to be imminent' but has to be done right way, says Briggs

The Ireland assistant says Irish rugby would need to grow its player pool before splitting 7s and 15s players.

Ireland's Neve Jones scores against Italy.
Ireland's Neve Jones scores against Italy.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE GULF BETWEEN Ireland’s amateur squad and their fully-professional English counterparts was obvious again on Sunday in Leicester as the home side enjoyed a 69-0 win in the Six Nations.

Ireland’s players certainly bring professionalism in their approach to rugby but many of them were back in their day jobs by Monday morning, less than 24 hours after they had been playing against the best team in the world.

England, meanwhile, were preparing to fly out to France for six days of build-up to a Grand Slam decider. All together as a squad, all focused solely on their rugby, all with the time and support to nail their recovery, rest, and analysis.

The 11-try hammering has sharply brought into focus the lack of 15s contracts for female players in Ireland. France, Wales, and even Italy now have some form of contracting in place, meaning Irish rugby is in the minority in this area of the Six Nations.

There are full-time 7s contracts here but those actually meant the Ireland 15s team losing seven of their players ahead of the England game. 

The independent review into Ireland’s failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup included a recommendation that the IRFU considers “the introduction of hybrid or retainer contracts for 15s players.”

The union’s CEO, Kevin Potts, said contracts would be considered as soon as the IRFU had appointed its ‘Head of Women’s Performance & Pathways,’ a new role that also stems from the independent review. 

With the window for applications for that role having closed yesterday, an announcement about that influential position at the head of women’s rugby is expected soon.

And thereafter, an update on the contracts situation is expected to follow, with the IRFU understood to be considering bringing in ‘retainer’ or ‘hybrid’ deals to support Ireland 15s internationals in time for the 2023 Six Nations.

niamh-briggs-brings-on-water-during-a-break-in-play Briggs speaks to players during one of Ireland's Six Nations games. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

Such contracts, even if they are only part-time deals around key campaigns, would certainly make life easier for Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams and his staff, including assistant coach Niamh Briggs.

“I do think professionalism is going to be imminent, Greg spoke about it after the match,” said Briggs this afternoon.

“When it happens and how it happens are the most important thing for us. We’ve got to make sure we do it the right way and our way. We can’t copy a model – for example, an England – because it simply wouldn’t work here in terms of the club structure and the playing numbers.

“It’s really difficult when you see the work going on at the ground and how hard we’re working as a squad and the provinces are working behind the scenes. It can’t happen overnight and I feel like a broken record, you’re almost urging patience to people.

“We know there’s still a lot of work to be done but there is a huge amount of work being done by the IRFU in the background in terms of full-time coaching. The programme manager, Gemma Crowley, coming in has been huge. The high-performance role has been created and the closing date for that was yesterday. So there’s definitely been movement and we just have to make sure it’s done in the correct way.

“If you just go and throw money at 20 or 30 contracts, we have to make sure we have a foundation underneath that to come back up.”

In that sense, Briggs believes that investing in the All-Ireland League and other domestic rugby competitions is absolutely crucial. 

Contracts at the top would be great, but she believes that a thriving league is just as important.

“We’ve got to have a much stronger domestic league where we can have eight, 10, 12 teams so that every week you go out and play difficult games,” said Briggs. “That’s not the way it is at the moment, unfortunately.”

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ireland-players-with-fans-after-the-game Ireland players after their defeat to England. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As for the latest edition of the 15s versus 7s debate that is raging in Irish women’s rugby, Briggs said people need to understand the reality of the situation.

“If we had a huge increase in player numbers, absolutely, but we don’t,” said Briggs when asked if the 7s and 15s squads need to be completely split.

“We’ve got to be realistic in terms of the numbers playing, the number of players that are of international standard. We’re continuing to drive that and work from a club and provincial level, but we don’t have a huge player pool that we can select from to play international rugby. Not yet.

“You look at those Ireland U18 players coming through, oh my goodness, in four or five years, they’re going to be exceptional international players. We’re just as frustrated as our supporters are in terms of this perceived split, but it’s not as simple as that.

”Credit to everyone, it was very open at the start of the Six Nations – we knew exactly what we were facing into in relation to having the 7s girls for the first three games, so it was transparent. When you have transparency, you can work with that.

“What it has done is expose more girls in this squad in terms of how Greg wants to play, how we as coaches want to drive the game, and we’ve been able to create a bigger squad in terms of international exposure at the highest level.

“It’s just a pity that the [7s and 15s] calendars are clashing and you’d like to think that going forward, for smaller nations like Ireland and other nations like that, there can be groups meeting at a way higher pay grade than I’m at to try and solve that.

“But we back those girls to go to Langford [in the World 7s Series] this weekend and do really well. We’ll be cheering for them this weekend for sure.”

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