Sunday 19 January 2020

Our girls in green gear up to make sporting history

Ireland's Alison Miller runs in for a try against New Zealand.
Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Ireland's Alison Miller runs in for a try against New Zealand. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Ireland's Niamh Briggs celebrates after the New Zealand game. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Ireland's Gillian Bourke in the dressing room before the New Zealand game. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

and Brian Byrne

Teachers, gardai, council workers, and students have become overnight superstars and now carry the hopes of a nation dreaming of World Cup glory.

In defeating New Zealand earlier this week, the Irish women's rugby team have transformed hopeful aspirations into realistic expectations with our girls in green now tipped to go all the way to the tournament final on August 17.

It's quite an achievement for a group of seismically-talented individuals who must fit twice-daily training routines and strict diets around work and study.

"They're training morning and evening and then they're continually monitored. It's professional all bar being paid for it," says proud dad Mike Briggs, whose daughter Niamh kicked seven points to see Ireland past the New Zealand challenge in Marcoussis on Tuesday.

"They really have put in a massive, massive commitment over the last four years to get where they are. Niamh had her first foreign holiday this year, and that's at 29 years of age. That says it all."


Like many of her teammates, Niamh - a garda in Roxboro, Co Limerick - fell into rugby while at college. In an effort to get a friend to play with her then beloved GAA team, she reluctantly agreed to "try out" rugby in Waterford IT one afternoon. "That was the start of it. We haven't looked back since," Mike joked.

Teacher-cum-fullback Jackie Shiels arrived at rugby's doorsteps in an equally roundabout manner.

The 29-year-old Navan native played Gaelic football and soccer during her formative years, before taking up the game at the age of 20 after an invitation from Ireland teammate Orla Brennan.

"It was the end of the Gaelic football season, and Orla suggested I come down and play rugby over the winter season to stay fit before the Gaelic season started up again," Jackie told the Irish Independent from the team's camp in France last night.

"I played a couple of games, maybe two or three on the wings, and after going back to the Gaelic, I then went back to the rugby again."

One broken leg and an international breakthrough later, Jackie is set to start today's final pool game against Kazakhstan where her biggest fan will be roaring her on.

"Hopefully Jackie performs well and the team performs well. All they can do is their best," said brother Ray who played Gaelic football and soccer with Jackie as a child.

"It's great to see her there wearing the jersey, and she's the godmother of my little one, so we're all delighted for her."

Video analyst and hooker Gillian Bourke (29) made her first Irish appearance in 2008.

Her Dad Tony, a photographer who accompanies the team on all their adventures, remembers Gillian's debut vividly as a bitter-sweet moment.

"Gill's mother Maureen never got to see her play unfortunately. She had been clear with cancer for a number of years but then it came back.

"I remember that game in 2008 over in Wales, when we kept the commentary for the whole game going over a mobile phone. That's where it all started."

Tony now steadfastly carries a picture of his late wife in his camera case alongside a bottle of holy water at every game.

"If Maureen wasn't there in some way last Tuesday night, she was definitely looking down. That's for sure," he said.

The victory over New Zealand, the first for a national side, followed an equally impressive win over the USA in the team's opening game in the Women's Rugby World Cup.

Another win in today's game, which kicks off at 12pm, will secure Ireland's place in the semi-finals. The match will be televised live on TG4.

Elsewhere, Raheny United kick off their Uefa Women's Champions League qualifying campaign against Olympic Cluj today. The Dublin side will need to beat Bulgaria and Malta to advance.

Irish Independent

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