Grand achievements still raising profile of game
Four players think back to that magical – if glacial – day in Milan, when they beat Italy 6-3 to seal the Grand Slam
The Irish team after it won the Grand Slam in Milan in March last year;. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Fiona Coghlan, captain, at Ireland’s Women’s Rugby squad training at Anglesea Road , Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
The Irish team training by night at Anglesea Road, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
A day in the life of the Irish rugby squad. Up at the crack of dawn for a session in the gym, a full day of work or studies, then a training session in the evening, the Leinster contingent on duty at Old Belvedere Rugby Club in Dublin. Home for a few hours sleep and then off again.
You remind Fiona Coghlan, Niamh Briggs, Sophie Spence and Jenny Murphy that they could be at home with their feet up, watching TV with a cup of cocoa on this chilly night, but they wouldn’t have it any other way, they say, even if their international rugby careers consume their lives.
Usually it all calms down for a few months after the conclusion of the Six Nations, but this being a World Cup year, it’ll be late August before they get a break of any substance.
“But we have two weeks off in May,” says captain Coghlan, like that’s a treat. “Well, one full week and the other is ‘active rest’.”
Is that not a contradiction in terms? “It is,” she laughs, but she’s been doing this for 11 years, when she first came in to squad, so active rest is better than no rest at all.
All those mornings in the gym and evenings spent training paid off in some style last year when the team won the Grand Slam. That there was only one retirement from the squad (that of Joy Neville), when more might have been expected to choose to go out on the highest of notes, is a sign of their eagerness to maintain the momentum.
And if they ever need a fillip, they just think back to that magical – if glacial – day in Milan, when they beat Italy 6-3 to seal the Grand Slam.
Be honest, how many times have you watched the recording? Dozens?
“I’ve never watched it,” says Briggs, whose two penalties that day won the game.
“No, I can’t,” she says.
“She missed a kick,” Coghlan laughs.
“I did! And a try too. No, it’s just because I have memories in my head that I don’t want to change,” says Briggs. “I’m afraid if I watch it they will change. It wasn’t a good game of rugby, let’s be honest, the conditions were awful, but in my head it was the most amazing game of rugby ever.”
You’ll never watch it?
“Ah, I will some day, but not yet.”
“I haven’t watched it either. I saw the documentary [RTÉ’s Making History – Ireland’s Grand Slam], but not the game itself. I missed it, I tore my calf in the game before so it was all bitter sweet. I was just in tears through the whole match, emotions up and down, watched it through my fingers.”
“I actually watched it about two weeks ago,” says Spence, “I had to get the tissues out. You knew what was going to happen but still, I just got really excited.”
Fiona? “My mother watches it over and over and over again!”
It was a dizzying time for the squad in the weeks after Milan, from receiving the minimal of media coverage until then, suddenly their phones never stopped ringing. There was even an appearance on The Late Late Show.
“It was brilliant,” says Coghlan, a maths and PE teacher in Lucan. “I suppose when you’re being successful everyone wants to be part of it, but that’s the way it is, you have to be successful in order for people to take notice.
“It was just a fantastic year for women’s rugby, so many more girls are getting involved now, the profile of the game has been raised so much, so hopefully we’ll reap the benefits in the long term. We get so much out of it, if what we’ve done gets more kids involved, that’s kind of giving something back.”
“And we’re hearing that from clubs around the country,” says Briggs, “lots more girls playing rugby, so that makes those early starts and slogging in the wind and rain easier, because you know you’re making a difference.”
“I go to primary schools,” says Spence, who coaches rugby, “and everyone knows about it. The teachers and kids are looking up to you, asking were you part of that team, ‘God, that’s amazing’. And they’re Googling you! It’s great to get that recognition.”
“And the thing too is that growing up there weren’t too many women role models in sport,” says Murphy, who works for the IRFU and as an athlete mentor for the Sky Sports Living for Sport project.
“You had Sonia O’Sullivan and Michelle Smith, but when it came to Gaelic Games, soccer, rugby, and so on, there were so few, it was only Roy Keane and the like. Now you have female role models in sports that are considered male dominated and, some think, femininely inappropriate.
“So to be part of changing that, to be successful and to get media attention, is great. I didn’t have it growing up so it’s nice younger girls do now.”
All four of the players came to rugby late, largely because when they were children, women’s rugby was in its infancy and opportunities to play rare.
“I wish I’d had the opportunity to play earlier, but it just wasn’t there,” says Spence, a native of South Shields in the northeast of England who qualified to play for Ireland through her Irish mother.
“I played netball to the age of 21, finished my degree, came back from America to do my master’s and decided to try something different that year.
“Just five years ago, from the first day I just got told ‘run forwards, pass backwards’, and I’ve been doing that ever since,” she laughs.
“I played Gaelic and soccer throughout primary and secondary school,” says Murphy, “then went to college and wanted to try something extra because I had two free days. I gave it a try and there was no going back, I found the sport I enjoyed the most.”
“I just remember reading about the 2011 World Cup and saying to my Dad ‘I’d like to try that’ – and he was like . . . ‘okay’,” she laughs.
A wise enough sporting choice by the Waterford garda, as it proved – three years later she was named Irish player of the year after kicking 28 points and scoring three tries in the Grand Slam-winning campaign.
With England and France both away in the new campaign, retaining their title will be a considerable challenge, but while they take confidence from their achievements last season, “history is history, we have to move on,” says Briggs.
“We need to take it up another level, we’ve never beaten England or France away, so we’re up against it.”
And, of course, the team will get to play at the Aviva in March when they take on Italy, as part of a double-header with the men’s team. The players are excited about the opportunity, if a little apprehensive to be leaving their more regular Ashbourne home. “But at the end of the day it’s just a pitch, it’s still grass, we’re still the same team,” says Spence.
Busy times ahead, then, there won’t be much rest, unless it’s of the active kind.
“Worth it all,” Murphy smiles. A Grand Slam smile too. “In 10 or 20 years time, if you haven’t seen the girls in a while, we won’t say it when we meet up, but there’ll be that feeling: we did that together.”
A Week in the Life: Niamh Briggs, fullback and Garda
Work: Day off.
Training: recovery session – 40 minutes on the bike, along with some mobility and flex.
Work: 7am to 5pm (I also coach kids from 4pm to 7pm for work). Try to fit in a kicking session.
Training: Off-feet conditioning session. This consists of a Watt Bike session – eg pedal at moderate resistance for 10 minutes, then work for 30 seconds, light pedal for 30 seconds and repeat this 10 times, then five minutes moderate pedal, then work for 40 seconds, light pedal for 20 seconds, then 10 minutes moderate pedal. I usually fit in some core and mobility after, too.
Training: 6.30am gym session (straight to work after). This session consists of a weights session for upper and lower body with core circuit.
Work: 7am -5pm
Training: 7pm skills and conditioning session. This is when a group of Munster players meet in Limerick/Cork (alternative weeks) and do a session based around skills and fitness. Sessions are usually taken in blocks (ie 10 minutes of fitness, 10 minutes of skills and then back to fitness) and are taken by one of the national coaches.
Training: off-feet conditioning session. This session can be either a pool or bike session and, since I love to cycle and am not a massive fan of the pool, I tend to go for the bike more often! If I’m off work, I usually try to fit in a kicking session too.
Training: 7am weights session, upper and lower body with core circuit.
Work: annual leave Training: Leave Limerick at 7am for camp in Johnstown House, Enfield, Co. Meath
Training: Irish camp finishes at approximately 4.30pm, straight on the road to Limerick for work.