Monday 24 July 2017

Pitch perfect: Irish rugby captain Niamh Briggs on juggling garda career and sport

By day she's a Garda on the beat in Limerick, by night she's training with the national rugby squad. Here, Ireland captain Niamh Briggs tells our reporter how she tackles the two roles she loves.

Niamh Briggs says she was consumed with self doubt as a child. Photo: Fran Veale
Niamh Briggs says she was consumed with self doubt as a child. Photo: Fran Veale
Irish rugby captain Niamh Briggs, photographed at the Shelbourne Hotel. Photo: Fran Veale
Niamh Briggs (centre) pictured during her graduation ceremony from Garda College, Templemore in 2010.
Briggs: “When you get to the World Cup it’s about playing the best. We want to go and win it, and if you’re going to win it you need to beat the best regardless of what pool they’re in.” Photo credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
On the ball: Niamh Briggs is tackled by Scotland's Lisa Martin during a Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship match last March. Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE

Orla Neligan

Niamh Briggs is in a flap, which I find surprising.

Any time I have seen Ireland's female rugby captain it has been tearing up the field with a steely ferocity in her position as full-back or inspiring her team with gutsy rhetoric. She packs power in her small yet well-defined frame but, today, she is demure in jeans, trainers and sweatshirt, her honey-coloured hair hanging loosely around her lightly made-up face. She is a pretty, softer version of her on-pitch persona and she is apologising profusely.

She forgot her wallet, which delayed her, and admits to feeling a little stressed - not an emotion I would automatically associate with the athlete. "I'm not highly strung but I'm not hugely confident. I was consumed with self-doubt as a child," she admits.

But isn't self-assurance a pre-requisite for any captain of a team? "I have my moments. It took a while but I'm more comfortable now," she shrugs modestly. "I'm lucky I have an amazing squad who are extremely self-motivated, but being asked to be captain was definitely a big shock. Before my first game as captain, I had to ring my brother [Waterford GAA player Shane Briggs], who is one of my sporting idols, and get some advice as to what to say. He coached me through it calmly."

When the 32-year-old talks, it's at machine-gun speed in a beautiful Waterford-Limerick lilt, her words tumbling over themselves, her movements animated. The energy she possesses belies the fact she juggles a rigorous day-time job as a garda while still managing to find the time to play rugby for Ireland - she's equally full of passion for her sport and job.

Irish rugby captain Niamh Briggs, photographed at the Shelbourne Hotel. Photo: Fran Veale
Irish rugby captain Niamh Briggs, photographed at the Shelbourne Hotel. Photo: Fran Veale

"I'm not good at being idle," she laughs. "I have to be busy - work and playing rugby balance each other nicely. We also have our own training centre in Annacotty, Limerick where I live, which means I don't have to commute to Dublin. That, and very understanding coaches and bosses help."

While there was a lot of attention on our men's rugby team - and their historic beating of the All Blacks - last month, November also saw a first for the women's squad. The inaugural women's Autumn Series sadly saw Ireland lose out narrowly to England before being compressively beaten by Canada and again last weekend by New Zealand, in games played at UCD.

Niamh watched the first two games from the sidelines due to injury, but was back in action against New Zealand last Sunday. On reflection, missing two games was both difficult and fortunate. "I tore a tendon so I couldn't play for weeks. Watching the games was one of the hardest things I've done, but I also got a new perspective. At times you think you're infallible and you take it all for granted, so it was a good lesson for me and also gave me a chance to see other players shine, not that I want to be back on the sidelines any time soon," she laughs.

Even while she's injured, her day starts with a 6am gym session and a "very strong coffee". If she's not out with friends or at her cinema club, she's curled up with a good book (nearly always a sports-themed tome) or walking on the beach near her family home in Waterford, listening to anything from the Dixie Chicks to Walking On Cars.

And if she was magically given three more hours in the day, it would not be spent on the pitch, but catching up on housework. Housework, really? "I get so little time off, that's what needs doing most of the time. And I might attempt to cook for my housemates," she smiles.

So we can add cooking to her list of hobbies? "I wouldn't say that," she rolls her eyes, laughing. "Let's just say I'm trying to change that through Derval O'Rourke's cookbook."

Niamh Briggs (centre) pictured during her graduation ceremony from Garda College, Templemore in 2010.
Niamh Briggs (centre) pictured during her graduation ceremony from Garda College, Templemore in 2010.

Any money she saves is spent on footwear, not the fancy kind but runners or football boots. She does like dressing up, although that "rarely" happens. Her hectic schedule doesn't allow much space for boyfriends - she's currently single but wouldn't mind bumping into Dan Carter, who she considers "brilliant, humble and easy on the eye".

I imagine her training as a rugby player has prepared her well for the perils of her day job as a garda but she's quick to dismiss any notion of high-octane police activity. What, no Bad Boys on the streets of Limerick?

"I do very little chasing people over walls," she laughs. "Limerick has a bad reputation and don't get me wrong, I've been called to some unpleasant domestic situations or burglaries, but Limerick also has a great community spirit and the best part of my job is connecting with that, being a point of contact for people, going to homes for the elderly or running after-school programmes for kids."

And what about the challenges? "Putting yourself out there every day is difficult and, I'll admit, manpower has been a big issue - we're thin on the ground."

This leads us to the subject of the recently averted garda strike: the contentious issue of a 'skeleton' policing service and whether she thinks the gardai are hard-done-by compared to other public servants? She is clearly uneasy, shifting in her chair. "I haven't really sat down and immersed myself in the whole topic but I think that, for example, nurses also get a hard time. I suppose I understand both sides." Answered with the deftness of someone who doesn't want to rock the boat.

This December 25 will be the third year Niamh will have to sacrifice the Christmas dinner for work. Ironically, it's the first year her mum, a nurse, will have Christmas Day off and is the reason Niamh teamed up with Aviva Home Insurance to launch their festive campaign.

On the ball: Niamh Briggs is tackled by Scotland's Lisa Martin during a Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship match last March. Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
On the ball: Niamh Briggs is tackled by Scotland's Lisa Martin during a Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship match last March. Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE

The insurance company ran a competition for families who will have loved ones missing on Christmas Day. "Sixty-seven per cent of families will be missing family members on Christmas day," Niamh says. "This gave people a chance to win an early Christmas Day, complete with all the trimmings in their home. It's a great idea. It's also poignant for me as a garda as it helps highlight the 'stay safe and light up' focus of the campaign."

Her decision to become a garda was not a light-bulb moment, but more of a constant aspiration. There was no member of the family leading the way (Niamh's mum, Geraldine, is a nurse and her dad, Michael, works in the pharmaceutical industry) - it was simply something she always wanted to do. "I didn't want a desk job and always loved the idea of being out and about meeting people face-to-face and helping people."

Niamh's love of sport was equally embedded in her youth. While she moved from Tipperary to Waterford to Limerick, sport always featured high on the activity list. As the first girl in the family, she was showered with prams and dolls, but much to her mother's confusion, they were left in the corner to gather dust while she played with her brothers' toys.

A tractor was on the Christmas wish list five years running - it never appeared. "I think my mother refused to admit I was such a tomboy. When I started playing rugby, my poor mother's nerves were rattled, she worried so much about me. But since I made the Irish squad, she's been encouraging me to keep playing," laughs Niamh.

Her brother Shane (35) played senior Gaelic football for Waterford, her brother Liam (34) played underage Gaelic for Waterford, her sister Roisin (27) played hockey for Munster, and Niamh herself played Gaelic for Waterford until 2010. There was no sport she didn't try or like, apart from horseracing, which she just doesn't' get.

"I remember my dad teaching my brother how to kick off a rugby tee in the kitchen of our house in Galway when I was very young. My dad was a good rugby player and we'd spend every weekend standing on the side of pitches in the rain watching him play. He nurtured my love for it, but I never thought I'd end up playing it, let alone for Ireland."

It wasn't until Niamh was studying exercise and health at Waterford Institute of Technology in 2008 that she started playing the sport and admits it came quite naturally for her - an understatement when you consider she made the Irish squad the same year she started playing. "My experience playing GAA had a huge bearing on that - I'm able to kick a ball and in women's rugby, kicking wasn't a huge thing, so it set me apart from the beginning."

It might help explain her meteoric rise to the pinnacle of women's rugby. She has 56 caps, was nominated for the IRB Player of the Year in 2014 and has captained her team to victory numerous times. So what would she say to people who dismiss women's rugby as a poor imitation of the men's game and dangerous for girls?

"Go and watch the game, see the skill level of the players and how committed they are, and hopefully you'll change your mind."

Briggs: “When you get to the World Cup it’s about playing the best. We want to go and win it, and if you’re going to win it you need to beat the best regardless of what pool they’re in.” Photo credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Briggs: “When you get to the World Cup it’s about playing the best. We want to go and win it, and if you’re going to win it you need to beat the best regardless of what pool they’re in.” Photo credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Gender aside, there are lots of differences between men and women's rugby, most notably the women's game is considered more tactical, while the men have the bigger hits.

Is that why some rugby purists prefer the women's game? "Maybe it's faster because of our body sizes, we do tend to be more strategic, but male rugby skill level is far superior to ours - they've had the opportunity to play from a young age, they're groomed for it. It's only now we're seeing women come into the game at the age of 18 or 19 who've been playing since they were 11, and you really notice the difference."

According to the World Rugby Association, there are now some 1.7 million women and girls playing the sport worldwide. Women's rugby was included for the first time in this summer's Olympics, and the World Cup has been brought forward by a year, to 2017, to capitalise on the interest generated by the Rio Games.

The tournament will be hosted by Ireland, with games taking place in Dublin and Belfast. In 2014, the Irish team enjoyed a historic win over four-time defending champions New Zealand in the pool stages, before going on to finish fourth - their best-ever result.

The development of women's rugby at its grassroots level will help put it on the map but the surge in its popularity is down to success on the pitch. "When you win, people start to take notice and we're fortunate now to have Aon as our sponsors and the backing of the IRFU. Years ago, the girls before us who paved the way, were paying for their own jerseys. We're finally in the spotlight."

And it's well-deserved, having won the 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks in the 2014 World Cup and winning the Six Nations again in 2015.

Physical prowess is important but according to Niamh, rugby is as much a mental game as a physical one. "We all train at the same level as other countries but what sets you apart is the mental aspect. There's a great culture in our squad, we're very much a cohesive unit. There's nobody bigger than our team and that, I believe, has allowed us to punch above our weight."

It may well be a team effort, but it's clear Briggs is a formidable leader. Success is not measured by trophies or medals but by leaving a legacy and remaining the same person while doing so. "It's about growing the game for the next generation. As part and parcel of our jobs as rugby players, we understand that we have to leave the jersey in a better place for the next person and remain humble in doing so."

Rugby players are conditioned to exude strength. Admitting or showing frailty or vulnerability is not easy, especially as criticism can come thick and fast in a 90-minute, high-pressured game of rugby, but Briggs welcomes it.

"I become a different animal on the pitch and try to get in the game. I am an emotional being, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it's hard to sit and listen to someone criticise your play. But then again, if you don't get that, you'll never learn or improve.

"I try to accept what's happening and deal with it there and then instead of thinking about the kick I missed in the last game or the potential missed tackle in the 79th minute. I live in the moment as much as I can."

Is this the trait she is most proud of in herself? "I'm competitive, but mostly with myself, and that drives me to be better." And if she had to improve on something? "My patience," she answers quickly, fingers tapping on the table.

It follows that her biggest regret is losing to the UK in the World Cup 2014 semi-final - a "poor game personally" in her words. She's also sorry that she didn't take the time to enjoy the wins as much as possible. After the Six Nations victory in 2015 she went home to bed while her teammates celebrated.

"I think I was afraid to let go of the moment and just relieved we didn't lose," she sighs, putting her head in her hands, regretfully.

But it won't last forever I remind her, so she may as well enjoy those triumphant moments. "I'm learning," she replies brightly, before adding that she won't be retiring for the sake of it but will go when she's ready, there's always room for improvement. This too applies to her day job, furthering her career in An Garda Síochana is high on the ambition list.

Being in the spotlight, however, is clearly not on Niamh's inner radar. There is no ego, no desire to be seen in celebrity circles. In fact, the mere mention of celebrity status and her nose wrinkles.

She does get recognised in the street and realises it comes with the territory. "I might have a pint after watching a match and someone will see me in the pub and give me a hard time for drinking," she says, eyes wide. "I'm fairly unassuming so I would prefer to hide in the corner but I do understand that the spotlight is putting the game of women's rugby on the map and we want more people to support us."

She is a glass-half-full person, but what does raise her blood pressure is the fear of not performing well. But, she pauses for a moment; on the flip side standing for the national anthem is about the best thing you could experience and always makes her cry. Would she offer some advice for other females looking to enter the rugby arena? "Give it a try. The social side is brilliant and the best thing about the game is that there's a place for everybody. Oh, and practice, practice, practice." Spoken like a true pro.

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Portraits by Fran Veale

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