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'The doctor said 'have you still got that boot? Put it back on, your leg is still badly broken''

Niamh Briggs speaks to The42 about her recent injury setback.

NIAMH BRIGGS WAS just after returning from a short holiday in New York when she noticed a lot of swelling in her foot.

niamh-briggs-receives-medical-attention Niamh Briggs receiving treatment after that horrific leg injury. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The Munster and Ireland legend had just come through a significant block of rehabilitation work for a serious leg injury. Briggs was lining out for her province against Ulster last summer when she collided with an opponent and broke her fibula in several places.

She also displaced her ankle joint, just to compound her suffering. Surgery was required along with a lengthy dose of rehab before she could get back on the rugby pitch. And prior to her trip to the Big Apple, she was edging closer to a return.

But a setback followed to put her back at phase one of her recovery.

As Briggs puts it to The42 over the phone, her recent list of injury troubles “are well documented”. She has already battled back from hamstring and Achilles lay-offs in previous years. Now she has another hill to climb.

“Something so innocuous, banged into a girl,” she recalls.

“There wasn’t any ball, there was no tackle. My foot just got stuck in the turf in Independent Park. I knew straight away my ankle was a little bit different [in] shape.

The pain in my leg was horrendous for the first few minutes and then there was no pain so you know you’re in trouble.

“I know I’m finished with playing soon, whether it was now or next season I’m not sure. But you want to play every game and this one hurt hugely because I felt I had put in the hard yards rehabbing my body from previous years and I was very upset after it obviously.”

Briggs went for the aforementioned surgery and threw herself into the rehab under the guidance of her physio, Kathryn Fahy.

But by Christmas, it became apparent that she wasn’t progressing with her recovery and Briggs had to prepare to go under the knife once again.

They were like, ‘It’s not right’. We got it scanned and I was back in work and got a call from the doctor to say, ‘Have you got that boot still? Can you put it back on quickly? Your leg’s still badly broken’. I went up to see a brilliant surgeon in Galway, Stephen Kearns in the Bons [Bon Secour].

“The minute I met him I knew he was going to fix me. He was really good and had surgery after Christmas.

niamh-briggs Briggs has suffered badly with injuries in recent years. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“The boot is off and crutches gone the last couple of weeks so I’m back to stage one. But I’m in no pain now which is great. So it’s been a difficult year that way but then it also brought opportunities for me. I’ve got a lot of coaching in and I enjoyed that. It’s something I didn’t think I’d enjoy.”

Briggs, who works as a guard in Limerick, is off duty at the moment as she continues to build herself back up. An Garda Síochána is playing a key role in helping the public through the coronavirus pandemic, and when she’s fit to return to the force, Briggs is ready to play her part.

You become a guard because you want to go out and help people and this is the absolute perfect opportunity to do that.

“I’ve just got to make sure that my body is healthy enough for me to be able to do it. I hope it’ll be in the next week or two.”

Of course, she’s still some way off reaching full match fitness, but she’s now at a point in her recovery where she can do some cycling. 

The new government measures regarding Covid-19 have restricted our movements outdoors, but Briggs is finding ways around that. She has a home gym set up in her parents’ house and is getting the work in.

“I’ve got to get back to my life and get back to work,” she explains. “Once I’m stable enough and pain-free enough, I’ll be straight back in. But for now, I’m just allowed get back on the bike this week.

“I’ve an hour-and-a-half [of a] rehab session done this morning. I can just dip in and dip out of it now because I have the time.”

The last number of months have certainly been difficult for Briggs as a player. But 2019 also witnessed the birth of Briggs the coach. She was part of Munster’s first-ever all-female coaching and management staff for the Munster Women and U18 Girls’ squads ahead of the 2019/2020 season. 

It was a new opportunity for her, one she hadn’t really thought of pursuing before. But it didn’t take her long to develop a taste for it.

Taking her first steps into coaching also led to former Ireland player Fiona Hayes inviting Briggs to do some further coaching work with UL Bohs.

fiona-hayes Munster U18 head coach Fiona Hayes. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Fiona rang me and said, ‘Would you be interested helping out with [UL] Bohs?’ In my head at the time, I was like, ‘Yeah but I can only do it until after Christmas because I’m going back to play after Christmas’. And she’s like, ‘Yeah, no bother’. That obviously didn’t work out very well,” she laughs.

“It’s a different challenge because the girls are your friends and you play with them. You have to be able to switch it from coach mode to friend mode and be very wary of what you say and how you say it to people. 

That was a bit of a challenge but I enjoyed seeing players improve and in games, when something came off or they did something really good, it gave me a real big buzz.

“Nothing really equates to playing but it’s definitely an avenue I think I’ll go down once I finally pack it in.”

As for her future as a rugby player, Briggs is undecided right now. All rugby activity is suspended at the moment amidst the Covid-19 crisis, which effectively means that it will be next season before Briggs can make a call on that.

“I go through different phases,” she replies when asked about how she feels about targeting a return to rugby.

“I’ve literally been in a boot for the last five or six months and my body is just not in any place, shape or form to play rugby, so it’s hard to see that. But I’m energised to get out and do things definitely. I’ve always been real stubborn.

I don’t want to walk away on an injury but sometimes your body and your mind can only take so much of it. I’m at a stage in my life now where I don’t want to go back out and get injured but I had a real grá for the girls as they were coming into the fine weather and playing rugby, and you’d love to be playing.

“It’s not about playing for huge honours in terms of playing for Ireland. For me, it’s about playing it and enjoying it. You kind of get away from that when you’re so stuck in a national set-up. You can kind of forget why you play and the friends you play with, and the club.

“So that fire is still there. Whether my body will allow it I don’t know but for the moment, I’m literally just taking it week by week.”

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