Irish blow as leader Niamh is ruled out of World Cup
With just over a week to go until the World Cup kicks off on home soil, Ireland have been dealt a cruel injury blow with the news that captain Niamh Briggs will miss the tournament through injury.
The Munster full-back, undoubtedly the team's most talismanic figure, had battled back from a hamstring injury that kept her out of the most recent Six Nations to claim her place in the squad, but has since suffered an Achilles injury in training.
In the UL Bohemians player's absence during that Championship, Ireland still managed to finish second in the standings, losing a Grand Slam decider to England on the final day, but not having her back for a tournament she was quickly becoming the face of will be considered a huge setback on and off the field.
"Both the players and management are really disappointed for Niamh," admitted head coach Tom Tierney.
"Everyone has seen the incredible work and effort she's put in over the last number of months in an attempt to get herself right for this tournament. For her to have recovered well from her hamstring injury and then suffer a new injury is really unfortunate for her, as everyone knows how much she was looking forward to leading the team in the World Cup."
Three years ago, when the tournament was held in France, Briggs was one of the central figures as Ireland, having beaten New Zealand in the pool stage, advanced all the way to the semi-finals only to fall to eventual winners England.
With the last four and the final set to be held at the home of Ulster Rugby, the Kingspan Stadium, later this month, Briggs had only recently exuded confidence as she stated the side believed they can make an even bigger impact this time around and be celebrating in Belfast come August 26.
Now, though, she will play no part at all with Kerry native Louise Galvin having been called up as a replacement for the 32-year-old.
Not yet clear is who will fill the void as captain, with a side many have described as the best prepared in Ireland's history now not knowing who will lead them out in their pool opener against Australia in Dublin just eight days from now.
Leinster and St Mary's back-rower Paula Fitzpatrick, another veteran of the 2014 campaign, captained the side in Briggs' most recent absence, but an IRFU statement said only that a new skipper will be confirmed in "the coming days".
The Irish girls have spent the last week in a training camp at Fota Island.
Meanwhile, the much anticipated new structure of the Guinness PRO12 will be unveiled today with belated confirmation that two South African sides are to join the League and lock horns with Ulster next season.
The addition of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, who both left the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby competition at the end of the most recent season, has been mooted for some time but League organisers will confirm the dramatic move this morning in a change that will also see the League renamed and split into two conferences.
The restructure will also see a new end-of-season format, with an additional round of play-off fixtures making up for one less regular season game.
Despite the upheaval, the Belfast Telegraph can confirm that Ulster will still take on their inter-provincial rivals six times next year, each both home and away, with the derby games making up a healthy proportion of the team's 21 contests.
Exact fixtures will be announced at a later date, most likely next week, but it is understood that Les Kiss's men will take on only one of the South African sides away from home next season, with two games to be played against conference-mates Southern Kings but the only clash with the Cheetahs being staged at Kingspan Stadium.