Ireland are losing a true great in ‘Junior’ – others will need to step up and fill the void
“I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!”
— Junior Bevil, Cool Runnings
When a baby-faced Ciara Griffin first came into the Munster senior set-up at 18, perky, energised and desperate to get to work, the nickname ‘Junior’ stuck with relative ease.
The creator of that moniker is uncertain so many years on, but the fact Ciara had a counterpart in ‘Senior’, Clara Bracken, the eldest member of our set-up, probably contributed to the fact the Junior tag held firm even as the years passed and her status in the game grew to a world-class level.
That Junior would happily reel off the above quote from Cool Runnings on request, in team meetings and beyond, highlights her sense of fun and willingness to be the butt of the joke for the sake of team morale.
She didn’t just entertain us all in the pre-match discussions with recitals from classic Disney films of the ’90s; you were as likely to see Junior deliver impassioned words, often through teary eyes.
Off the field, she is selfless, kind and funny. On it, she is as hardy as they come.
We were teammates at UL Bohs
and Munster when she got her first Ireland call-up in 2015. She was bouncing around the place with excitement and I was just as giddy for her when I picked her up on the way to DCU.
Unfortunately, her first international experience didn’t exactly go to plan.
Junior broke her leg in the opening contact drill; I can still picture her trying to convince the physio her unstable limb would be fine with a bit of strapping, desperate to make a good first impression on her team-mates and coaches.
Medical advice prevailed, thankfully, and as we headed for home Junior wasn’t particularly downbeat – that’s not her way.
She was, however, so nervous about her parents’ reaction to her broken leg that she decided the best policy – despite the heavy limp and obvious cast on her leg – was not to tell them at all.
Junior saw sense after our brief discussion in the car and eventually rang her father, who was due to pick her up only an hour or two later.
After spending a couple of minutes explaining to him how great the Ireland training camp had been, she snuck in a few words at the end of a sentence, “and just so you know . . . I broke my leg”, probably trying to soften the blow that she wouldn’t be her usual helpful self around the farm in Ballymacelligott, Co Kerry for a few months.
As her concerned father, who was no doubt perplexed by the peculiar order of the news from her first international camp, tried to inquire further, he was interrupted by Junior – again trying to play it all down – saying: “Don’t worry, it’s the best bone in the leg to break – I’ll talk to you when I’m down anyway.”
I nearly crashed the car, I was laughing so hard.
That’s Junior though – no fuss, funny and always thinking of others.
However, once she had a pair of boots on I can comfortably say she was the most competitive animal I have ever trained with, played with or coached. She is relentless in her pursuit for improvement, of herself and those around her, and, like most of the best back-rowers, would put her body through the wringer time and again for the betterment of the team.
Junior would routinely do things that others would never even consider, always going the extra mile. To her, it was simply covering the necessary ground to play international sport.
She put together a makeshift gym on the family farm at one point, swapping in hay bales, heavy chains and tractor tyres in the absence of squat boxes, battle ropes and barbells. That’s the kind of character she is.
With all of that in mind, it’s hard not to feel sad at her decision to retire from rugby at the age of 27, because she still has so much to offer.
I’ve been plaguing her with text messages this week trying to coax a change of mind, to at least come back and play for Bohs. She may have stopped replying, but that won’t deter me – I can be persistent too!
From an Irish perspective – with Junior’s decision coming in the wake of Claire Molloy’s retirement and the likely departure of Lindsay Peat – it removes another one of the pillars the national team has leant on for the past five years.
With Adam Griggs also finishing up today, it feels like the end of an era.
There is a dearth of players with 30-plus caps left in the squad, only Sene Naoupu (45), Junior (40) and Cliodhna Moloney (30) fit that category from today’s match-day 23, so a period of transition lies ahead.
People will need to be patient as new players are blooded at the game’s most elite level, but the good news is there are plenty of young players coming through who can bring Irish women’s rugby forward.
The likes of Ella Roberts, who comes from a really exciting crop of underage talent at Leinster, should make her debut today, and her fellow replacement Maeve Óg O’Leary will likely get another run-out after her first taste of international action last week.
These girls represent the new breed of emerging talent that has been nurtured up from grassroots level; while they may be green behind the ears in terms of the international game, they have been playing rugby since they were 10 or 11 – and that gives us a much stronger starting point than what we are used to in this country.
I expect the likes of Nichola Fryday, Anna Caplice and Edel McMahon to take this young group forward from here, to show the newcomers what is expected.
When a leadership vacuum emerges, leaders will fill it. Remember the panic in the men’s game when the international careers of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell came to an end? The set-up evolves – it simply has to.
There is plenty of talent across the club game too; we have the likes of Nicole Cronin and Chloe Pearse at Bohs who have been there before, are playing well, and are very capable of stepping up and being leaders at a higher level. The same could be said of many others – players like Lisa Callan and Nikki Caughey at Railway Union come to mind.
But we need to have vision too. At the moment the play-off rounds of the AIL are due to finish at the end of March, with the final of the competition set for the first weekend in April.
All indications are that the women’s Six Nations will be starting one week previously. If that ends up being the case, it would leave the clubs without their best players for the climax of the season and that is the kind of dysfunction that must be consigned to the past if we are to really turn a corner now and make some strides forward.
I’m intrigued to see how Enya Breen fares at out-half today. I’m certain No 10 is her best position and while there will likely be some rustiness with so many new combinations, I hope to see Ireland keep the ball alive, to ask questions of the Japanese defence, and avoid a reliance on one-out runners.
Ultimately, I would love to see the Irish women’s team follow the men’s lead by adopting a more attractive, creative style of play – but that will take a lot of time and coaching.
For now, it’s all about giving Junior and Griggs a fond farewell.
No matter what happens today though, when Junior looks in the mirror I hope she sees what I see.
Because . . . I see pride! I see power! I see a brilliant, hardy rugby player who also happens to be one the kindest and most genuine souls you could hope to meet.