Tuesday 24 April 2018

Fitzpatrick likely to lead Ireland in place of Briggs

Rory Finlay (Blackrock) and Jame Flanagan (Barnhall) get a close-up look at the Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy at the Leinster Rugby School of Excellence summer camp at The King’s Hospital. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Rory Finlay (Blackrock) and Jame Flanagan (Barnhall) get a close-up look at the Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy at the Leinster Rugby School of Excellence summer camp at The King’s Hospital. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When the Ireland squad headed for Fota Island last weekend to put the finishing touches to their World Cup preparations, they did so accompanied by extremely positive mood music. Or so it seemed from the outside at least.

Sport is often a cruel mistress and for captain Niamh Briggs to have relentlessly fought back from a career-threatening hamstring injury only to pick up a fresh Achilles problem nine days out from the first game of a home World Cup is a massive blow - to the full-back and the Ireland team.

Briggs had only recently spoken to the Irish Independent about the dark days that she endured over the last few months but they had been put behind her as she battled her way back to full fitness.

Her absence will crucially be felt both on and off the field but the players must quickly put this body blow to the side before they begin their campaign against Australia next week. The Waterford native also missed the Six Nations and while Ireland largely coped, there is no doubt that her return would have brought a new dynamic to the backline.

As well as her clever lines of running and strong defence, Briggs is one of the world's best goal kickers and when she has been missing, it is an area that Ireland have, at times, struggled in.

Out-half Nora Stapleton took over the kicking duties but it remains to be seen if she will continue in that role as Hannah Tyrrell and Jenny Murphy also provide options.

Ireland's Paula Fitzpatrick. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ireland's Paula Fitzpatrick. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Briggs has been replaced in the squad by the uncapped Louise Galvin. The former Kerry footballer has mainly been playing sevens since taking up rugby and she faces plenty of stiff competition to force her way into the match-day reckoning.

Prepared

Mairead Coyne slotted in at full-back for the beginning of the Six Nations and she would appear to be the front runner to wear the number 15 jersey but given that Briggs was always going to be touch and go to make the World Cup, coach Tom Tierney will have assessed his options and should be well prepared for this unfortunate outcome. The versatile Tyrrell could also shift from the wing to full-back.

Interestingly, Kim Flood finished the Six Nations as first choice full-back but she didn't make the cut for the World Cup squad.

"Both the players and management are really disappointed for Niamh as everyone has seen the incredible work and effort she's put in over the last number of months in an attempt to get herself right for this tournament," Tierney said.

"For her to have recovered well from her hamstring injury and then suffer a new injury is really unfortunate for her, as everyone knows how much she was looking forward to leading the team in the World Cup."

Ireland haven't yet confirmed who will take over from Briggs as captain but Paula Fitzpatrick (left) filled the void to good effect during the spring.

The powerful No 8 is a very different leader to Briggs but she commands the respect of her team-mates in how she leads by her actions.

The hugely physical Dubliner is one of the first names on the team sheet and has benefited from her time playing in France with Toulouse.

Replacing your influential skipper who has won 57 caps is a tough ask but Ireland can ill-afford to allow this setback to derail their World Cup hopes.

Briggs will likely remain a key voice in the dressing room but it is up to other experienced players like Fitzpatrick, Stapleton, Murphy, Sophie Spence, Claire Molloy and Marie-Louise Reilly to help fill the void.

Playing at a third World Cup and one that is on home soil would have made Briggs's countless hours of rehab worthwhile but the 32-year old now understands more than most that fairytale endings in sport are a rarity.

Irish Independent

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