Eve Higgins comfortable in the spotlight as Ireland’s centre of attention

Player was just 16 when assimilating into Ireland Sevens squad and 18 when handed first contract

Eve Higgins is an outstanding rugby player, one who possesses the mental and physical attributes to thrive in pressure-laden environments, an assertion given further credence by her performances for the Ireland Women’s Sevens team in the World Series this season.

It transcends scoring the winning try in Ireland’s first tournament victory on the circuit, a 19-14 win over the previously unbeatable Australia in their Perth backyard. While Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe — she picked up an injury in Los Angeles — and captain Lucy Rock remain standout contributors, not just in an Irish context but a global standing, Higgins’s burgeoning impact has been easily visible this season.

For the guts of the next two months, she will return to the 15s game on a term loan alongside Sevens buddies Béibhinn Parsons and Aoibheann Reilly, for the Women’s Six Nations championship. Head coach Scott Bemand named the trio —
they will miss a Sevens World Series event in Hong Kong — in the team to take on France in Ireland’s opening match of the tournament against France in the Stade Marie-Marvingt before returning to the abbreviated code and a tilt at winning a medal in the Paris Olympics.

Higgins has been one of the best-kept secrets in Irish sporting protege terms. The 24-year-old criminology student was just 16 years old when she was first assimilated into the Ireland Sevens squad and 18 when handed her first contract; all the while playing for Railway Union in the 15s code.

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She won the player-of-the-match in the 2022 Women’s AIL Final when Railway Union beat Blackrock College 24-18, a match that contained rugby of a quality that arguably hasn’t been seen since in an Irish context at provincial, or even Test level.

One of her earliest influences was clubmate, now Sevens team-mate and more often than not on the World Series circuit room-mate Stacey Flood, yet another key Ireland performer, to whom she looked up.

But the person who nurtured Higgins in her formative years as a rugby-playing teenager and a seminal influence in her development was her former club coach at Railway Union, John Cronin, who spent 12 years guiding the club to unprecedented success.

Speaking to The Irish Times rugby podcast The Counter Ruck, Cronin offered an insight into Higgins the person and the player. “When we had her at underage [level] she was obviously a superstar. We started functionally assessing her when she was 14, giving her body weight exercises to ensure that she avoided injury. We arranged S&C [strength & conditioning] when she was ready. There was always a staged programme for Eve.

“When she was playing underage, she played 10 for us. I banned her from scoring tries from first phase. I said, ‘I just don’t want you running through people from 10, you have to pass the ball. I want you to get a second and third touch.’ She went, ‘okay’.

“Basically, it [centred on] a Mark Ella mantra or the quote from Mark Ella. She asked me, ‘who’s Mark Ella?’ and I told her that she needed to go home and Google [him].”

That was on a Tuesday and two nights later she approached Cronin and said: “I read the quote, ‘if I touch the ball once something will happen, if I touch the ball twice, we will score, if I touch the ball three times I will score’.”

That was the challenge Cronin set for her and she quickly obliged. He continued: “We brought her into our senior squad when she was 16 or 15 with a bib on her signifying ‘no contact’.” Higgins quickly established that she could handle the physicality. “We could train freely with Eve, and she was quite able for that, preternaturally gifted. When she was in fifth year in school, I rang the IRFU head of Sevens and women’s rugby, Anthony Eddy, and said, ‘I have a player for you, it is not a matter of if, it’s when’ and he would know that I knew the standard because we had a lot of players up there [in the Sevens] like Stacey [Flood].”

Cronin told Eddy that he’d taken her as far as he could but now it was time for her to expand her rugby horizons. The Australian agreed and rang her parents Bernard and Iris. She was just 16 when she first went training with the Irish Sevens squad, played soon after in the Kinsale Sevens, and was given her first full-time contract with the squad at 18.

She rattled through the milestones in both codes, Sevens and 15s, yet remains wonderfully unaffected, a smiling presence with a good sense of humour off the pitch and a ferocious competitor on it.

Cronin points to the fact that her parents have been so supportive, “a super family, what her parents have done, the sacrifices they have made for her to allow her to achieve her dreams has been phenomenal. [She’s] a super person and a super rugby player.”

Higgins won’t have the time and space that Sevens affords in an attacking capacity, but she possesses the power, the running lines, the vision, and the distribution skills to impose her will in the 15s game, and also physicality in the tackle. The hope is that she gets a chance. Ireland are 42-point underdogs against France so the wins will come down to positive moments, individually and collectively, and Higgins is likely to be at the centre, literally and figuratively.

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