A GROUP of rugby stars whose heroic exploits on the field of play guided the Irish women’s team to Grand Slam glory, have been named the Limerick Persons of the Month.
The Irish team secured their first ever Six Nations Grand Slam victory in some style in March, edging out Italy 6-3 in a tense final match in Milan.
With eight of the panel either hailing from Limerick or living and studying in the city or county – the win on St Patrick’s Day sparked great celebrations locally and has inspired a new generation to take up the oval ball game.
“It was the most incredible feeling ever,” commented one of the stars of the team, Niamh Briggs.
“Once the final whistle went, it was like a weight off our shoulders. We knew we had it won [the Six Nations] going into the final game, it was just whether we could clinch the Grand Slam or not.”
The Limerick-based garda who is stationed at Roxboro station was joined in the Clarion Hotel for the presentation this week by her fellow Ireland and UL-Bohs teammates - Gillian Bourke from Ballyneety and Niamh Kavanagh, a former LIT student who now works in the college.
The other players with Limerick connections include Joy Neville from North Circular Road, Fiona Hayes from Caherdavin, Fiona Coghlan from Dublin who studied PE in UL, Laura Guest from Clonakilty who studied science education in UL, and Lynne Cantwell who studied sports science in UL.
“When we started the year, we set goals to qualify for the World Cup and to keep winning,” Niamh Kavanagh explained of the team’s initial ambitions. “After all the hard work we put in and indeed the girls before us, to be able to lift the trophy at the end was unbelievable.”
While the championship – which consisted of five games against England, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy – began on the first weekend in February, the hard work started long before then.
The girls work out three mornings and three or four evenings in the week for approximately 90 minutes a session.
“There has been a lot of training, a lot of hard work and a lot of disappointments as well so it was unbelievable to win it,” said Gillian.
According to the girls, they couldn’t have done it without the terrific support they received from their families, friends, employers, and, of course, the team’s loyal supporters.
“Our supporters have been absolutely unbelievable,” said Gillian.
“We had college students paying €300 for a 24-hour trip to Milan to support us – people who couldn’t afford it. A girl who used to play on the Ireland team even flew back from New Zealand for the match.”
Their management team, they said, were “outstanding” coming up with fresh ideas all the time while Limerick’s Ross Callaghan had a “huge impact” on their training in terms of strength and conditioning.
And the girls were quick to pay credit to the past players who laid the foundation for their current success.
“It was great to be able to do it for those who had soldiered for the last 10 or 12 years,” said Niamh Briggs.
The hope now is that the win will spur the team on to achieve further success – they have already qualified for the World Cup in August 2014 - and encourage more young women to take up the game.
“Hopefully we have put women’s rugby on the map and we will get more girls to play - that is our ultimate goal all the time,” said Niamh Briggs. “We are such a tight-knit squad and to be able to say that you have done this with so many of your best friends is amazing,” added the full-back.
“We would encourage young people to start playing with local clubs - don’t be afraid to give it a go,” added Niamh Kavanagh.
And while it may be two months since the epic win in Milan, according to Niamh Briggs, it still hasn’t sunk in “and it probably won’t until we finish playing and sit back and realise the history we have helped to create.”
The Limerick Person of the Month award is sponsored by the Limerick Leader, the Clarion, and Southern.