Wednesday 25 April 2018

Briggs aims to hit ground running as Six Nations kicks off

Niamh Briggs
Niamh Briggs

The Ireland women's team return to Italy tonight for the first time since capturing the Grand Slam on a glorious St Patrick's Day in muddy Milan two years ago.

It has been all change since then as, after that Ireland side went on to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in the summer, a number of high profile players hung up their boots.

Twelve uncapped players were named in the new-look squad for the Six Nations squad with experienced Munster duo Niamh Briggs and Heather O'Brien joined by newcomers such as Shannon's Nicole Cronin and Aoife Doyle.

Seven players from the Ireland Women's Sevens side are included - adding to the fresh look to the team.

Despite limited time together, they warmed up for the Six Nations with a 31-12 win over Wales in Ashbourne two weeks ago.

Briggs, a star at the World Cup and the woman whose two kicks sealed that 6-3 win over Italy in Milan, was awarded the captaincy of the side last month. And the Waterford native is hopeful her side can hit the ground running in Florence tonight.

"Italy have a very good squad that hasn't changed much over the last couple of years," says Briggs.

"Unlike us, they haven't had any big retirements so it will be hard but we've got a really good coaching staff and the new girls who have come in have trained really well. We had a good run-out against Wales so we're really looking forward to it and can't wait to get stuck in."

The Italian clash will be followed by crucial home fixtures in Ashbourne against France and England - the two sides who beat Ireland in last year's campaign. England also inflicted a painful defeat on Ireland in the World Cup semi-final and although it's tempting to look forward Briggs only has eyes for the opener.

"In a tournament like this it's all about momentum and getting confidence," she explains. "It's hard to perform very well week in week out for five weeks in a row and that's a challenge we must meet but we haven't looked past Italy. That's very much our focus and if we win that we gain a little bit of momentum and we're at home then for the next game so anything can happen."

Former Munster and Ireland scrum-half Tom Tierney took over as head coach in December as part of the changes to the coaching structure in Irish Women's rugby.

Tierney, who is combining the role with his position as the head coach of Cork Con, is confident the team are good enough to get past the Italian challenge tonight.

"We're expecting the quality and the skill of the girls to come through," says Tierney. "It's going to be a very tough game in Italy - we're under no illusions but we're going over there very confident that we can be competitive."

Speaking about the mixture of youth and experience is his squad, Tierney says: "There was always going to be a natural changeover with a number of players retiring but there's a core group of senior players who are very experienced and very talented. They have driven the environment themselves and we're on board now to help them go a stage further.

"On top of that we've also spotted a number of younger players with a lot of talent and a lot of promise so we're hoping to marry the two together - a bit of experience and a bit of youth - and hopefully they'll gel properly for the Six Nations."

Captain Briggs spoke highly of her departed team-mates but has seen plenty of promise in the new recruits.

"We lost some big players after the World Cup who were almost irreplaceable in terms of leadership and experience," says Briggs. "The new girls have been a breath of fresh air and some of the Sevens girls have been brilliant and hit the ground running so there's a good feel to it.

"We've set ourselves high standards over the last few seasons so it's important that we continue that. We've got to develop the game long term but we also want short term goals of winning matches so it's just trying to find that balance. The last couple of years have been massive for us in terms of trying to promote and develop the game in Ireland. We have a lot of younger girls in the country looking up to us and wanting to play the game which is fantastic. Two years ago we earned it and did it the hard way and I think this year is going to be the same."

Ireland Women's

six nations Fixtures

Tonight

Italy v Ireland, 6.0, Stadio Mario Lodigiani

Friday, February 13

Ireland v France, 7.30, Ashbourne RFC

Friday, February 27

Ireland v England, 7.30, Ashbourne RFC

Sunday, March 15

Wales v Ireland, 12.0, Swansea RFC

Sunday, March 22

Scotland v Ireland, 1.0, Broadwood Stadium

Irish Independent

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