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Dublin: 2 °C Monday 21 October, 2019

'I'm not angry or bitter. I'm fit, healthy and happy again and that's important'

After questioning whether she’d ever play again, Niamh Briggs has bounced back from two injury-ravaged seasons to rediscover her love of rugby, even after being overlooked for Ireland’s Six Nations squad.

NIAMH BRIGGS WAS the poster girl for the biggest women’s sporting event to be staged on these shores. There were media appearances, photo shoots and stamp launches. She was, as Ireland captain, the face of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. On the field, she was to carry the hopes of a home nation on her shoulders.

In so many ways, that summer ought to have been the apex of a monumental career, yet it could have just as easily become the beginning of the end for Briggs. No sooner was she over a severe hamstring injury when an Achilles tendon injury ended her tournament before it started. Another period on the sidelines at the most inopportune time.  

Niamh Briggs during the national anthem Raw emotion: Niamh Briggs has endured a difficult two years. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Nobody deserved to run out in the green at that World Cup more than Briggs, but to be cruelly denied that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was an unspeakably cruel blow to endure. Ireland needed her, and equally, Briggs needed to be out there.

Dark days followed during and after the tournament. Briggs put on a brave face, entering ‘survival mode’, as she watched Ireland’s hopes and aspirations unravel at an alarming rate, but the mental torture of missing out often proved too much to bear.

Even now, 18 months on, she admits the disappointment of sitting out that World Cup lingers. The ifs, buts, and maybes reverberate. Was there any way back from that?

There was a period, during her second lengthy injury layoff, when Briggs began to fall out of love with the game as the monotony and torment of endless gym sessions meant she could see little light at the end of the rehab tunnel. It all inevitably led her to question whether it was all worth it.

But, with the support and encouragement of her family, and particularly parents Geraldine and Mike, Briggs preserved. She found a way to get through the rehab programme, working diligently and tirelessly to hit the markers which would allow her get back onto the pitch with ball in hand. That’s all she wanted.

Doing so allowed Briggs rediscover the passion and love for the game she had lost during the difficult weeks and months, and having returned to fitness two weeks out from the start of last year’s Six Nations, was straight back in the Ireland team. And it meant the absolute world.

Named at out-half for the championship opener against France, Briggs was unable to hide the raw emotion which flowed as she stood for Ireland’s Call again, something she had done on so many occasions previously, but none arguably meant as much as that night. She was back in the green, but most importantly back fit, happy and healthy.

But Briggs still wasn’t right. She had barely played in two years, and it had taken its toll. Playing at out-half, rather than fullback, didn’t help but the 34-year-old, in hindsight, needed more time. The mind was working quicker than the body, and that led to frustration and anger. It wasn’t how she wanted her comeback to go.

“The injuries had taken their toll physically and mentally,” Briggs tells The42. “It’s very difficult to play at a standard that you would never want to be playing at. That was the most frustrating thing for me.

“I was only really back running two weeks out from the Six Nations and hadn’t played a game in nearly two years. You magically think it’s going to happen. But I was incredibly rusty and really off the pace.”

Niamh Briggs with fans after the game Briggs and her father Mick after last year's game against England. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Another setback was around the corner. A serious illness forced Briggs to have an operation last summer, and the layoff meant she faced another race against time to be fit for the start of the 2018/19 season, including Ireland’s November internationals against USA and England. 

“When I had the illness over the summer, I was thinking ‘what am I doing, why am I putting myself through this?” Briggs continues. “But, just like after the World Cup, there’s a stubborn part of you that just won’t let go. 

“You know in your heart and soul if you can just get a run of games together, that you’ll get back to where you want to be. That’s all I wanted. I just wanted to be able to play again, to be happy and healthy.”

Briggs was not prepared to let her career end like this. Not after everything, and not when she had put so much into getting back after those hamstring and Achilles injuries. Her initial focus was with UL Bohemian, then the inter-pros with Munster and then a return to international rugby with Adam Griggs’ Ireland. One-by-one, step-by-step.

There was last-gasp agony in the inter-pros as the southern province lost their title to Leinster at Donnybrook in a dramatic finale, but there was encouragement in seeing Briggs’ form chart head on an upward trajectory. She was getting sharper with each passing week.

“I never thought I’d get back to where I was at before the injuries,” she admits, reflecting on the long road back, Briggs experiencing no shortage of ups-and-downs and encountering more than enough speed bumps along the way. 

And just as the 62-time capped international must have thought she had overcome all of injuries, setbacks and disappointments, Briggs was knocked back again just before Christmas when the extended Ireland squad for the Six Nations was announced and her name wasn’t on the list.

Seven uncapped players in a 36-player panel, but Griggs deemed the former captain surplus to requirement. No phone call, no explanation. Just an IRFU email confirming she would not be involved. 

“It’s frustrating when you’re selected last year on the back of not really performing and then you feel like you’re performing better this year and you’re not selected,” Briggs says. 

“I’m obviously hugely disappointed but I’m not angry or anything. I understand this is high-level sport and there’s always going to be difficult decisions to make. It doesn’t make me angry or bitter. I can’t control his decision and respect the position Adam holds.”

Omission from the November squad was understandable given Briggs had only just returned from that illness, but many have been left perplexed by the decision to overlook such an experienced and important player for the Six Nations, particularly after her performances in the All-Ireland League in recent months. 

Nicole Purdom and Niamh Briggs In action against Leinster last September. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Whether Griggs has instead chosen to turn to the future and go down a different route or not, the value of having someone of Briggs’ leadership quality within the dressing room cannot be understated. For many, for so many reasons, her omission makes little sense.

“When others are saying you’ve been hard done by or whatever, it does give you a bit of comfort that it’s not just in your head,” she continues. “Sometimes you tell yourself you’re doing well again but actually you’re probably not at the standard you need to be.

“But I know I’ve done everything I can, I’ve left everything out there and if it’s not deemed good enough for Ireland, I can’t change that. I’ve just got to keep my head down and keep playing.”

Briggs knows the Ireland head coach has seen her play this season, given he attended all the inter-pro games and is sent video footage of all AIL games by the clubs. 

“He’s seen it and if he feels it’s not good enough for him, that’s where we stand at the moment. It’s not as if we’ve had a row and fallen out or anything like that at all. I wasn’t playing well at the start of the season and deservedly wasn’t picked for November.

“I’m very accepting of that, I went away, put my head down and trained incredibly hard to make sure I put myself in the best possible position to get myself picked but I’ve obviously not done enough for him this time around. I hope I will in future.”

Most frustrating and disappointing for Briggs has been the lack of communication. She has had no contact from Griggs to explain why she didn’t make the cut, or what she needs to work on to get back in the selection picture. 

“If you’re not sure of what your downfalls are, it can be frustrating. You don’t know where you’re going or what you need to do to get back in there. I’ll just keep my head down and hopefully it’ll work out.”

Yet, despite it all, Briggs finds herself in a good place, both mentally and physically. After injury and illness hell, the Limerick-based Garda is simply happy to be back playing rugby with a smile on her face again.

Yesterday, she helped UL Bohemian into the Women’s All-Ireland Cup semi-finals with a thrilling win over Railway Union.

The 2014 World Cup and the victory over New Zealand, the 2013 Grand Slam and 2015 Six Nations will all rank high among the career highlights for Briggs, but nothing means more than playing rugby at a level she is content with again, because there was a danger she would never experience that privilege again. 

“I would obviously love to play for Ireland, but in terms of my own self, it was to get back fit and healthy and playing to a standard I’m happy with. I feel like I’m getting better and sharper all the time.

Niamh Briggs lifts the cup as the Irish players celebrate Briggs has been an ever-present in the women's team's best days. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Sometimes that has to be enough and right now, while I’m incredibly disappointed not to be involved in the Six Nations, I’m happy in my own head and enjoying playing again.

“It has been a rough couple of years but I firmly believe it is behind me. I’m in a much better space mentally again.”

If anything, the past two years have only served to increase Briggs’ motivation and make her hungrier than ever to continue her career and, in time, force her way back into the Ireland team. 

There is emotion and obvious disappointment in her voice when she speaks of not wanting her last cap or abiding rugby memory to be of her off-the-pace struggles during last year’s Six Nations, or indeed the injury problems which could have turned it all sour.

Instead, there is a renewed energy and determination driving Briggs to train twice a day, to improve the areas of her game that require improvement and continue to evolve as a player, even at 34 and even after a decade of international rugby.

If that was to be the last [tournament], it was a disappointing way to finish. The level of performance last year is not something I want to be remembered by or the injuries before that. I wanted to get back to rectify that and unfortunately have not got that opportunity.

“I have 62 caps and am eternally grateful for getting 62 opportunities to play for Ireland but if I manage to get number 63, it would probably mean more to me after everything I’ve been through. I’d hate last year to be my last abiding memory of playing in the green jersey.”

Briggs, who will be at Donnybrook to support Ireland in the home games against England and France as the ‘girls’ biggest supporter’, continues: “It’s not a case of wanting to get back to prove people wrong or anything. I’m incredibly lucky to have some unbelievable memories but I’d like to create more.

“I had such a brilliant ride up until getting injured during the 2016/17 season and I’m very aware that there isn’t always the perfect ending in sport. If it was to all end tomorrow for whatever reason, I know I can walk away with my head held high knowing I’ve got a huge amount from playing rugby for Ireland and rugby has probably given me more than I have given it.

“It’s motivated me to keep playing to try and get back to that level. As long as I’m fit, healthy and able, I want to keep playing. If it means I get to play for Ireland again, great, but if it means I just play with my club, that’s also great. I’m happy again and that’s important.”

After everything, and despite everything, that’s all that really matters.

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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