After everything that has happened in Irish women’s rugby on and off the field over the last number of years, that famous day in Milan in March 2013, when Niamh Briggs’s two penalties proved enough to secure the Grand Slam, seems like a whole lot longer than a decade ago.
But that was then, and now, as part of the current Irish coaching team, Briggs has no time for reminiscing, her sole focus these days on getting the national team back on track.
That effort, as she talked about at the squad’s base in Abbotstown on Tuesday, starts with the Six Nations opener on Saturday against Wales in Cardiff Arms Park where Ireland hammered the Welsh 45-0 two years ago.
Partly in response to that and similar drubbings, Wales began awarding full-time professional contracts to their players, and among the resulting signs of improvement in last year’s Six Nations was their 27-19 win at the RDS – only their second win over Ireland in 11 outings.
But now Ireland enter a campaign for the first time with their own full-time players – 29 between the sevens and fifteens – having taken up the IRFU’s contract offers last year. Eight turned them down, partly because they weren’t in a position to become full-time, partly because offers of €15,000 to €30,000 per season would barely cover their rent and, so, they needed to keep their jobs.
Briggs, though, sees it as a start, although she acknowledges that Ireland are still playing catch-up. “Every Six Nations team has gone professional now, but every one of them was at the World Cup last September, so we’re very aware of where we are. But there’s no comparison to where we were a year ago, the players are so tuned in to what high performance means.
“I think that’s probably the most exciting thing about this weekend, we get to see where we are on the scale. We feel like we’re in a really good place, but on the flipside of that, I’d imagine Wales are saying the same.
“But I noticed hugely that the girls who are contracted have improved their core skills immensely over a very short period of time, and it was really interesting to see that their mindset has shifted a lot, and their ability to train at a higher level.”
Maeve Óg O’Leary is one of the contracted players, on full-time duty since November, and has savoured every moment of being able to devote her time to rugby.
“There’s no doubt that it’s been so helpful. I hadn’t had the chance before, along with work or college, to have that much time in the gym, time for recovery or analysis. You work your nine to five, then go home, have a bite to eat and go training. That was it.
“Now that I’m here, I have my two hours in the gym, 30 minutes after for recovery, I have an hour to do analysis, and then go out on to the pitch. It’s undoubtedly helped me, I’ve been able to get stronger, improve my game understanding, having more time has been the big thing. It’s been great.”
The most realistic target for this team is third place in this year’s tournament, the five-in-a-row seeking England and France, runners-up and third, respectively, in last year’s World Cup, a fair distance ahead of the chasing pack.
“Yeah, maybe we’re a little further behind than the others,” says O’Leary, “but we’re a young squad, I fully believe in this group and that there is something really special brewing.”
Irish women’s rugby could do with a pick-me-up, we’ll see if this Six Nations campaign can provide it.