Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'I asked Santa for a tractor every year but mum refused to admit I was such a tomboy'

Ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup being held in Belfast and Dublin next year the Irish captain Niamh Briggs tells Orla Neligan about balancing her life as a sports star and a police officer and why she wishes she had some more time to do housework

Niamh Briggs is in a flap, which I find surprising. Any time I have seen Ireland's female rugby captain it has been tearing up the field with a steely ferocity in her position as full-back or inspiring her team with gutsy rhetoric. She packs power in her small yet well-defined frame but, today, she is demure in jeans, trainers and sweatshirt, her honey-coloured hair hanging loosely around her lightly made-up face. She is a pretty, softer version of her on-pitch persona and she is apologising profusely.

She forgot her wallet, which delayed her, and admits to feeling a little stressed - not an emotion I would automatically associate with the athlete. "I'm not highly strung but I'm not hugely confident. I was consumed with self-doubt as a child," she admits.

But isn't self-assurance a pre-requisite for any captain of a team? "I have my moments. It took a while but I'm more comfortable now," she shrugs modestly. "I'm lucky I have an amazing squad who are extremely self-motivated, but being asked to be captain was definitely a big shock."

When the 32-year-old talks, it's at machine-gun speed, her words tumbling over themselves, her movements animated. The energy she possesses belies the fact she juggles a rigorous day-time job as a garda while still managing to find the time to play rugby for Ireland - she's equally full of passion for her sport and job.

"I'm not good at being idle," she laughs. "I have to be busy - work and playing rugby balance each other nicely."

Even while she's injured, her day starts with a 6am gym session and a "very strong coffee". If she's not out with friends or at her cinema club, she's curled up with a good book (nearly always a sports-themed tome) or walking on the beach near her family home in Waterford, listening to anything from the Dixie Chicks to Walking On Cars.

And if she was magically given three more hours in the day, it would not be spent on the pitch, but catching up on housework. Housework, really? "I get so little time off, that's what needs doing most of the time. And I might attempt to cook for my housemates," she smiles.

So we can add cooking to her list of hobbies? "I wouldn't say that," she rolls her eyes, laughing. "Let's just say I'm trying to change that through Derval O'Rourke's cookbook."

Any money she saves is spent on footwear, not the fancy kind but runners or football boots. She does like dressing up, although that "rarely" happens. Her hectic schedule doesn't allow much space for boyfriends - she's currently single but wouldn't mind bumping into former New Zealand player Dan Carter, who she considers "brilliant, humble and easy on the eye".

I imagine her training as a rugby player has prepared her well for the perils of her day job as a garda but she's quick to dismiss any notion of high-octane police activity. "I do very little chasing people over walls," she laughs. "Limerick has a bad reputation and don't get me wrong, I've been called out to some unpleasant domestic situations and burglaries, but the city also has a great community spirit and the best part of my job is connecting with that, being a point of contact for people, going to homes for the elderly or running after-school programmes for kids."

This December 25 will be the third year Niamh will have to sacrifice the Christmas dinner for work. Ironically, it's the first year her mum, a nurse, will have Christmas Day off and is the reason Niamh teamed up with Aviva Home Insurance to launch their festive campaign.

The insurance company ran a competition for families who will have loved ones missing on Christmas Day. "Sixty-seven per cent of families will be missing family members on Christmas Day," Niamh says. "This gave people a chance to win an early Christmas Day, complete with all the trimmings in their home. It's a great idea."

Her decision to become a police officer was not a light-bulb moment, but more of a constant aspiration. There was no member of the family leading the way (Niamh's mum, Geraldine, is a nurse and dad Michael works in the pharmaceutical industry) - it was simply something she always wanted to do.

Niamh's love of sport was equally embedded in her youth. While she has moved around a fair bit, sport always featured high on the activity list. As the first girl in the family, she was showered with prams and dolls, but much to her mother's confusion, they were left in the corner to gather dust while she played with her brothers' toys.

A tractor was on the Christmas wish list five years running - it never appeared. "I think my mother refused to admit I was such a tomboy. When I started playing rugby, my poor mother's nerves were rattled, she worried so much about me. But since I made the Irish squad, she's been encouraging me to keep playing," laughs Niamh.

It wasn't until Niamh was at college in 2008 that she started playing rugby and admits it came quite naturally for her - an understatement when you consider she made the Irish squad the same year she started playing. "My experience playing GAA had a huge bearing on that - I'm able to kick a ball and in women's rugby, kicking wasn't a huge thing, so it set me apart from the beginning."

She has 56 caps, was nominated for the IRB Player of the Year in 2014 and has captained her team to victory numerous times. So what would she say to people who dismiss women's rugby as a poor imitation of the men's game and dangerous for girls? "Go and watch the game, see the skill level of the players and how committed they are, and hopefully you'll change your mind."

According to the World Rugby Association, there are now some 1.7m women and girls playing the sport worldwide. Women's rugby was included for the first time in this summer's Olympics, and the World Cup has been brought forward by a year, to 2017, to capitalise on the interest generated by the Rio Games.

The tournament will be hosted by Ireland, with games taking place in Dublin and Belfast. In 2014, the Irish team enjoyed a historic win over four-time defending champions New Zealand in the pool stages, before going on to finish fourth - their best-ever result.

"When you win, people start to take notice and we're fortunate now to have Aon as our sponsors and the backing of the IRFU. Years ago, the girls before us who paved the way, were paying for their own jerseys. We're finally in the spotlight."

And it's well-deserved, having won the 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks in the 2014 World Cup and winning the Six Nations again in 2015.

Physical prowess is important but according to Niamh, rugby is as much a mental game as a physical one. "We all train at the same level as other countries but what sets you apart is the mental aspect. There's a great culture in our squad, we're very much a cohesive unit. There's nobody bigger than our team and that, I believe, has allowed us to punch above our weight."

It may well be a team effort, but it's clear Briggs is a formidable leader. Success is not measured by trophies or medals but by leaving a legacy and remaining the same person while doing so. "It's about growing the game for the next generation. As part and parcel of our jobs as rugby players, we understand we have to leave the jersey in a better place for the next person and remain humble in doing so."

"I become a different animal on the pitch and try to get in the game. I am an emotional being, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it's hard to sit and listen to someone criticise your play. But then again, if you don't get that, you'll never learn or improve.

"I try to accept what's happening and deal with it there and then instead of thinking about the kick I missed in the last game or the potential missed tackle in the 79th minute. I live in the moment as much as I can."

Is this the trait she is most proud of in herself? "I'm competitive, but mostly with myself, and that drives me to be better." And if she had to improve on something? "My patience," she answers quickly.

It follows that her biggest regret is losing to England in the World Cup 2014 semi-final - a "poor game personally" in her words. She's also sorry that she didn't take the time to enjoy the wins as much as possible. After the Six Nations victory in 2015 she went home to bed while her teammates celebrated.

"I think I was afraid to let go of the moment and just relieved we didn't lose," she sighs, putting her head in her hands, regretfully.

But it won't last forever I remind her, so she may as well enjoy those moments. "I'm learning," she replies brightly, before adding that she won't be retiring for the sake of it but will go when she's ready, there's always room for improvement. This too applies to her day job, and furthering her career as a police officer is high on the ambition list.

Being in the spotlight, however, is clearly not on Niamh's inner radar. There is no ego, no desire to be seen in celebrity circles. She does get recognised in the street and realises it comes with the territory. "I might have a pint after watching a match and someone will see me in the pub and give me a hard time for drinking," she says, eyes wide. "I'm fairly unassuming so I would prefer to hide in the corner but I do understand that the spotlight is putting the game of women's rugby on the map and we want more people to support us."

Would she offer some advice for other females looking to enter the rugby arena? "Give it a try. The social side is brilliant and the best thing about the game is that there's a place for everybody. Oh, and practice, practice, practice." Spoken like a true pro.

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