The Connacht management have named their team for tomorrow’s ‘behind closed doors’ clash against Munster A at The Sportsground (k/o 2pm). 

The side, captained by flanker Conor Oliver, features a nice blend of talent from the Connacht Academy with members of the Pro team.

 

CONNACHT EAGLES V MUNSTER A (SATURDAY 19TH OCTOBER 2020 @ THE SPORTSGROUND, K/O 2PM).
15. John Porch
14. Colm de Buitléar
13. Sam Arnold
12. Tom Daly
11. Diarmuid Kilgannen
10. Conor Dean
9. Stephen Kerins

1. Jordan Duggan
2. Jonny Murphy
3. Conor Kenny
4. Cian Prendergast
5. Niall Murray
6. Oisin McCormack
7. Conor Oliver (C)
8. Sean Masterson

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin
17. Matthew Burke
18. Jack Aungier
19. Darragh Murray
20. Joshua Dunne
21. Colm Reilly
22. Cathal Forde
23. Shane Jennings
24. Oran McNulty
25. Peter Sullivan

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.
 
Today it’s the turn of the newest member of the prop club, Jack Aungier.
 

Jack welcome, how have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

I have settled in very well, the players and staff have made me feel very welcome here which has made the transition a lot easier. I would know a few of the lads from the Irish U20’s team which helped. Training has been tough but it is brilliant to get back into rugby and train as a team. A lot of it has been conditioning and gym sessions before this week, it is brilliant to be able to get back into the rugby part of things. I am looking forward to the games in August.

Normally you meet all coaches and players when you first start but for you, training started in smaller groups, was that strange?

We were in groups of seven at the start, I only ended up meeting everyone last week. It was our first time all together in one big group. It was strange having to clean the whole place down after being in the gym and maintaining a distance from the players and coaches, it took a bit of getting used to.

Do you feel being in the smaller groups allowed you to get to know people better?

The guys I am living with were in my initial group, I would have known them previously from the age-grade teams. I got to know Eoghan Masterson and Caolin Blade quite well. Eventually, I got to meet everyone as the weeks went on, everyone is easy to get on with.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

The S&C team put us through our paces for the first few weeks. The programme is slightly different from what I was used to in Leinster, it did take a bit of getting used to. I feel fit after the first month, coming into the rugby side of things, I am still coming around to all the plays and calls with Nigel, Pete, Jimmy, and Andy. I have gotten to know them well over the last few weeks and I am learning new things every week.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through the lock-down and everything?

My last game with Leinster was 5 months ago and when I left the building I didn’t know it was going to my last time. That is the way professional rugby goes and you must move on. I was looking forward to getting started with Connacht. The last month has been brilliant for me.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

I think props tend to mingle with each other straight away, they are all great lads and there is great competition there. I know Andy mentioned that there isn’t much of a pecking order, that tight head position is up for grabs. I am certainly looking forward to competing with those lads over the next two years.

What would like to achieve with Connacht?

My aim is to get on the team every week, it’s a competitive position. My goal is to play as much as I can whether that is starting or from the bench. I want to build up my experience and my overall goal is to win a league with Connacht, that’s why we play the game. From talking to the coaches there is a competitive squad here that can win the PRO14 and compete in Europe.

Final question, have you experienced much of Connacht and Galway since you got here?

I have been out and around a good bit, I want to make sure I get out and explore on my days off. I want to experience that culture, it is different to the East of Ireland. It has been brilliant so far.

The role of a kit manager is to ensure everything runs like clockwork on a training day or matchday while remaining upbeat and good humoured. When we think of Connacht’s legendary kitman Martin Joyce (Joycey) he is the epitome of everything the role should be.

Joycey is someone who keeps everyone in high spirits with his presence around the Sportsground.  His ten years with Connacht Rugby have given him enough stories to write a book. We sat down with him last week to discuss his return to the Sportsground along with some of his favourite memories with Connacht down through the years.

Joycey, how are you? You are usually travelling around the world in the Connacht Rugby van, how has life at home been over the last three months?

There was a lot of DIY done around the house, I think I painted for those three months. The kids got excited about painting the house for maybe an hour until they realised that a second coat needs to go on and that it can take three days, after that, I was left to do it by myself. The fact that we couldn’t go on holiday meant that the money we would usually spend was spent on household items. My wife loved buying the paint but didn’t actually paint herself!

My son works in Limerick, I drive him in from Clare twice a week in our car. The Connacht van had not moved in eight weeks, I thought I better give it a run-in case it seizes up. I was struggling to get into third gear because the gears are so different compared to the car. I was blaming the van but it was just me not being able to drive it after not sitting in it for so long. I would say there were cobwebs on it at one point. Since getting back to The Sportsground I am back to normal and it has become second nature again. There was a couple of times I thought this van doesn’t feel right at all.

Let’s go back to the start of your career, how did you get into this role?

I was made redundant from a job in 2003, Munster had advertised for a kitman in the local paper and I thought I am going to go for it but not say it to anyone, I stuck my name in the hat to see what would happen. As you know, things don’t work like that, you have to talk to someone. I confided in one of the guys at our local club and told him I had applied, he said that there was no chance I was going to get it unless I contacted someone in there. I got in contact with Keith Wood and he brought me up to spend a bit of time with the U20’s at Irish Camp in the Radisson, I spent a couple of days with them. I then did the interview with Munster a couple of weeks after that and was offered the job part-time, where I spent six years with them.

During that time I did an Irish U’20’s camp and went off to Japan where I met Nigel Carolan. When I returned, I heard that Connacht Rugby were looking for a full time kit manager, Nigel rang me and asked me if I was interested and that was it. I jumped at that opportunity and never looked back. So it’s Nigel’s fault that I am in Connacht! I joined in 2009 and did my 300th game against Montpellier this season before everything got shut down. I was going around telling everyone it was my 300th game but that opened me up to a world of abuse from all the team.

It seems like rugby was a big part of your family, did you have anyone else involved?

My great grandfather was involved in Garryowen RFC and my grandfather was a team manager with them, my father was the kit man for Garryowen for around 26 years. We lived with my grandparents growing up, it was always in the house, whether it was bags of jerseys or equipment. It was second nature to me in one way. I played a lot of rugby growing up, when you come to the realisation that you cannot play anymore, you look to get involved in some shape or form. I never looked down the road of coaching because I am probably too much of a home bird and with a coaching job it could bring you all over the world. It didn’t appeal to me, but when I saw the kit man advertisement, I knew I liked the idea of it.

Do you think your kids would like to carry that on?

I know my eldest would, I think he imagines himself hitting 18 and getting the keys to the van and storerooms in Connacht Rugby and giving me the boot. I am sure the lads in Connacht would be very happy with that, but I am not going anywhere for the moment just yet!

What have been the major changes since you returned to The Sportsground post quarantine?

There are a few little differences, as we head into week five things are starting to go back to normal. The major thing is the disinfecting of everything, anything that is touched must be sprayed and wiped down as we go from group to group and session to session. It rained heavily a few days last week which is tough on the lads without a dressing room. I probably have fewer miles on my feet because I would usually run the water which is normally a big job during pre-season when the lads split into smaller groups. Usually, I am running and racing around trying to keep up with them.

It must be hard without the dressing room because that seems to be where a lot of the bonding happens. Do you feel like it will be harder on the social aspect of training?

The dressing room interaction is something I do miss. It does have an effect especially with the new lads, they come in to do the session and they are straight back into their car and go home. There is no hang around area like the dressing room to create that atmosphere and have a bit of banter after the sessions. It is hard to make a connection with the new lads because you can’t get up close and shake hands. When you are always keeping a distance, it doesn’t feel as natural when it comes to bonding, but it’s what you must do. It must be more difficult for them because they have a big group that they need to get to know and only have a certain window that they can do it in.

Going back to your away trips have you ever left something majorly important back in Ireland during an away trip?

Luckily I haven’t, but it can very easily happen especially when you are flying, I can relax more when I am taking the van because you can load up on more things and put in two of everything so you know you have backup stock. When you get on a plane once you get the bags weighed they cannot go over the weight to get checked in. When you arrive at the airport you are always thinking to yourself “I hope these bags have made it”. Thankfully to this day, we haven’t had those issues, we have had bags that have gotten delayed but never long enough to effect anything. I always say everything can go missing except the kit, we can work around everything else and buy them on the other side if needs be. As long as the jerseys, socks, and shorts get off the plane we will work our way around everything else.

Have you ever experienced any nightmare trips where you have been stuck or delayed?

We went to Bayon a couple of years ago, I drove to Rosslare and the ferries were cancelled, I was meant to get on it for 4 pm and arrive the next day. I would have had two days to get down through France to Bayon. My plan was to spend the whole day driving down there and have a day before the lads arrived to chill out and relax after the long drive.

Since the Rosslare ferry was cancelled it meant that I had to go to Dublin the following day and get a ferry to Holyhead, that ferry got delayed and didn’t go until after lunch that day. Eventually, I got on and spoke to the customs officer and told him I needed to get on this ferry first so I can get off it first because I had to drive across Wales and down to Portsmouth to get on another ferry to France. I gave him a jersey and he got me off the ferry first, sometimes it is the best currency you can have in those situations. It was heavy mist and rain all the way to Portsmouth, I had our travel agent on the phone telling me that I was going to have to stay in England because I wasn’t going to make it, he wanted to book me into a place. I declined, I was determined to get there and pulled into the port around 3 minutes before it was due to close and ended up arriving in to the hotel 10 minutes before the lads.

What has been your favourite trip?

It’s funny, when we got delayed in Moscow it was a trip that could have been bad. The fact that all the travel went upside down actually made the trip. Sometimes the logistics don’t go to plan but they can end up being the best memories. We had issues all the way through, the balls deflated from the cold, the ink froze in the pens writing the subs cards. We had to use pencils instead and the players drank hot Mi Wadi at halftime. I will never forget Niyi at halftime, his hand was shaking and he was spilling the drink everywhere. Even though we got stuck in Moscow and it went wrong it made it fun, everyone split up into different groups and came back with their own stories. It was one of the best trips in my memory.

What is your favourite memory thinking back on your 10 years with Connacht Rugby?

I get asked this a lot and always say beating Leinster in my first season at home in Galway. They came down with a fully loaded team and we beat them. I was getting texts asking me why I was going to Connacht. After that it showed that we can beat anyone, you get a group of people that are willing to knuckle down and work hard it means you can achieve anything. The obvious one is the PRO12 win which was amazing but that Leinster win is my favourite memory.

There seems to be a great bond between all the coaching staff it seems like you all get on very well?

We have the best group of Pro Management that I have ever worked with. No matter what group you work in you may have someone you don’t get on with. But that is not the case in this group, everyone is honest with each other, we challenge each other and call each other out if needs be. It’s a great group and we all work very well together which makes life more enjoyable. It’s hard to be away from your family on the trips when you get stuck in airports or have a long trip but when you have a great group of people around you it makes it much easier.

I know you are big into your rock music, do the players mind you playing all your music in the dressing room?

My music in the dressing room has been shot down many times. We have moved away from it a fair bit because the lads will arrive into the dressing room with their headphones on listening to their own music. There used to be a time where there would be a speaker in the corner and you would blare out the music. I think my age starts to show when I want to put on heavy metal and the lads are looking for me to put on someone like Post Malone. Usually, by the time the lads arrive, I will turn off the speaker.

As the years go by I realise how old I am, one of the players was celebrating his birthday and I asked him what year was he born, he said 1993, I met my wife in 1993. But even though there is an age gap I don’t see the guys like that. I look at them as the lads and the people that I work with. Of course, some days I think, “I could be your father”. The older part of me comes out when players are having a problem or when you need to use your bit of experience to give them advice. But most of the time I just look at them as my colleagues.

It must be nice to witness the lads from a young age progressing through their careers?

It is fantastic working with the lads at such a young age, you see them progress from shy 19-year-olds to fully grown adults and some with their own families. It is very rewarding to work with them from a young age and to see them move up through the ranks and go on to achieve great things. To witness Jack Carty get his first cap with Ireland was amazing and watching him play in the world cup last year.

Last question for you, Friendy asked that all players and staff come back to the Sportsground having mastered one skill, what would you say yours was?

How to use Zoom and Microsoft teams, I had never heard or used them prior to all of this. I had a cold sweat before the first one, I hadn’t a clue how to use it. Now I can set up a call, invite people, I am basically a tech genius now! I also picked up my bass guitar for the first time in a while, which I have had since I was 19. I learned a bit when I got the guitar initially, I ended up putting it down one day and never picked it up again. I happened to speak to Deidre Lyons with RPI before lockdown, I was telling her that I struggle to switch off at times. I am constantly thinking about work and the things I need to do, she asked me if there was anything that I used to do that I don’t do anymore. I thought of my guitar and it has been a great tool ever since as it helps me switch off.

Growing up in a strong rugby household, a career in professional rugby was destiny for Eoghan Masterson. His days of playing out in the back garden with his father and younger brother Seán is where his fondest memories of rugby began. Some of the lessons he learned back then are ones that he still plays by today. We sat down with Eoghan to chat about his roots in Westport, getting back to pre-season training to the books that gave him a new perspective during lock-down.

Eoghan, how have you found life these past 3 months?

It is great to be out the other end of it now, it was a pretty strange experience. In a way, I enjoyed it, to be able to have that time to reflect on a couple of things and to get a break from playing every week and letting the body heal up. I am delighted to be back in seeing the lads and to get back into a good routine. Connacht did a great job taking apart the gym and rationing out equipment to everyone.

We are in our third week now and it is clear to see that a lot of the players have come back in seriously good condition. It would have been easy to come back in bad condition spending the whole of quarantine watching Netflix and playing the PlayStation. The squad made the most of that time to come back in better shape than they were before. We are in a great place going into these games in August.

I know your parents live in Mayo, did you get to see them when the restrictions were lifted?

I stayed in Galway during the lock-down, my girlfriend is a nurse in the University hospital, I wanted to make sure I stayed. I didn’t see my parents until the county to county restrictions were lifted. I saw them recently, it was great to see them, they live in Aughagower just outside of Westport. They had just moved there after retirement and were delighted to be in the countryside and have the fresh air.

We had some fantastic news at the start of the summer with your brother Sean signing his first professional contract. Your parents must be seriously proud. How does it feel to officially have your little brother on the team with you?

Last year was a big year for him, he made his debut on the Connacht team back in October against Treviso. It was cool to witness that, he did come on to replace me which I wasn’t too happy about. It was great that he got on and made his debut, he played again later in the year against Leinster and did well. It’s fantastic that he will be here for another year and that he has graduated from the academy and is a fully pro player. I am looking forward to having a few more good days together and hopefully we can share the pitch a few more times. It’s tough on my mom as she is a bit of a worrier, I think she would have liked us to play golf or something instead. But I think she is getting used to it now.

Two members of your household are now professional rugby players, is there a history of rugby in the Masterson family, how did you both end up playing rugby?

My dad was a keen rugby player himself but didn’t play at a professional level. I would say the professionalism kicked in after he was finished his rugby career. He played at a high level in Scotland with Sterling county, that’s where is he from. He then moved to Westport where he met my mother. He played rugby for Westport and was a builder by trade initially, he helped to build the clubhouse in Westport RFC. I have a photo of him working on that which makes me very proud. My cousin’s farm is the farm that is beside Westport RFC. We have a lot of roots in Westport, I never played with them myself as my dad became a prison guard and moved to Portlaoise after that. He would be well known around Westport RFC.

My uncles would have played rugby in Scotland, it was my dad who got us into it initially, my sister didn’t pick it up, she wasn’t as keen on it but she has been doing plenty of running over the lockdown period. My dad was a huge influence on Sean and I growing up, we played rugby in the back garden and he was able to show us a thing or two and teach us things that I still remember to this day like forwards should never kick the ball.

Were you and Seán competitive growing up and were you able to teach him some rugby lessons?

I am five years older than Seán, so by the time I was taking rugby seriously at around 13 years of age, he would have been 8 or 9. But that’s not to say that he wasn’t incredibly keen, as I was hitting adolescence he was still only a boy, that’s not to say I didn’t take it easy on him. He certainly did his best to get a few up on me, Last year was great, because of the age gap, we were never in school at the same time or got to play on the same team. Now we get to train and play together, I am trying to appreciate it and enjoy it.

Would you say it has made you closer?

“Hmmm, maybe you will have to ask Seán that?” We have our moments and do fight now and again. I think overall, we are lucky that we have a good relationship with my mum, dad, and my sister. We all get on well which I am very appreciative of that.

You are in your 3rd week of pre-season training, what is the new setup like and are things changing as the weeks go by?

There is no dressing room, which is a massive part of the team and where the craic happens and it’s a place where you get to have a lot of the small conversations with people and get to know them a bit better during those down periods. Everything has been condensed the last few weeks, initially we trained in groups of six. There are three-time slots, one group is in the early morning, the next is in at lunch and the final group comes in during the evening time. The groups have increased week by week, we are now in two groups of twenty players this week and we were able to do some team stuff on the pitch in the bigger group. I am looking forward to the restrictions being lifted a bit more and getting to see all the lads together on the pitch at the same time and hopefully getting our dressing room back too.

It must be tough to go from training at home to going to intense sessions back in the Sportsground and eventually into games?

I think our athletic performance department has been good in that aspect. They have been able to build us up to a certain level where we can transition to go back on to the pitch and play rugby. The weight sessions that Johhny, Dave, and Bob provided, built up nicely which made it much easier to adjust when we returned. If you hadn’t put in the work it would have been a shock, as David Howarth says we “we do not like shocks or surprises”.

We have had lots of news with new signings over the past few weeks, do you know any of the players previously and have you had a chance to talk to the ones that have arrived?

I didn’t know of them previously on a personal level, but in my group the first week I was in a group with Oisín Dowling, Jack Aungier, and some of the lads who graduated from the academy. I got to know them over the first couple of weeks quite well, they are all great lads and full of energy and enthusiasm. They are all young players and I have been impressed with what I have seen from them so far. This week I got a chance to train with Sam Arnold and Conor Oliver and they seemed to fit in well. I am looking forward to meeting the rest as the weeks go by.

That is one benefit of being in the small group, would you say it gives you a chance to get to know the guys a bit better?

It’s good to be in a group with new people, if you were in a group with the lads that you already know then you wouldn’t have an opportunity to get to know the new guys as well. I am glad we had that small environment to get to know the lads better and hopefully they have felt that they settled in quicker because of the group they were in.

Looking towards the games in August, how are you preparing yourself to get back to that match fitness again?

This week we had our first proper rugby session back on the pitch, we did a combination of running before the session to get you fatigued, and then we progressed on ball skills. We did a bit of defence work with Pete, ball carrying, and contact with Jimmy (without contact that is) along with some attack stuff with Nigel. Over the next couple of weeks, most of our fitness training will come from the pitch in rugby like scenarios so when the games come around, we will have that experience. We won’t have played games for almost five months at that stage since we played the Kings back in March. I think training as much as we can on the pitch and in the right way will be as close as we can to full match fitness.

Outside of rugby, we know you like to read a lot, did you read any interesting books over the past 3 months?

I read a lot during quarantine, one of my favourites was “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holliday which is a book about stoicism, embracing setbacks, and using them as fuel and motivation to progress to the next thing which I found very interesting. My favourite overall was “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, which a lot of the players have read. It is relevant to us now because there is a lot of talk around building good habits, setting up a good routine, and making something automated so you don’t even have to think about it. I have taken a lot on board from that especially around planning your day, manufacturing your environment in a way that can help you be successful.

Lastly, Friendy requested that you all come back to The Sportsground having learned or mastered a new skill on or off the pitch, what would you say yours was?

One of the cool things I did over lockdown was walking, it wasn’t for my fitness but more to clear my head and pass a bit of time. During the lock-down, my girlfriend and I decided that we would do a marathon worth of walks within our 2km radius in one day. We managed to do 42km within that 2km radius which took us 7.5 hours. I can’t say I ran a marathon, but I have done a marathon “slowly”. That was a cool thing to have done and somewhat tick of the bucket list.

It’s week 3 of pre-season training at The Sportsground where the squad are continuing preparations for their ‘Return To Rugby’.
 
A squad of 41 are training across two groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with new signings Ben O’Donnell and Abraham Papali’i to arrive later in the summer.
 
One new arrival who is among the squad is Alex Wootton, with the winger continuing his integration with the playing squad.
 
Check out some of the best pics below.
 

Living together can test many of us, whether that is living with a friend, workmate, or partner. Living with another human being is never a harmonious experience but it builds relationships and can make them stronger.

Teammates Jack Carty and Jonny Murphy have been living together in Galway the past year. They talked us through what it was like to be each other’s teammate and housemate during the quarantine period. They provided a good anchor for each other to push through and create a routine to come back to The Sportground better and stronger than they were before.

Guys, how is everything? What has been like living together over the past 2 and half months during lockdown?

Jonny: It’s been good, beforehand, we would have joked that Jack and I fought all the time, but it was Joe Maksymiw who was the instigator! When Joe moved out there was harmony for most of the lockdown period. Of course, we both have qualities that we annoy each other with.

Jack: We were getting annoyed with certain things that the other person did, Jonny would get annoyed with me when it came to the recycling bin and I would get annoyed if he left stuff out. We had a frank conversation from the offset, we were able to air it out and eradicate those tensions from the start. Apart from that, it has been good fun, Jonny has been doing loads of baking and I have been doing nothing which has made me feel inadequate. Jonny also built a bar in the back garden and “I helped him”.

Both your families are living outside of Galway, I am sure you became your own family during quarantine but was it hard not seeing your actual family during that period?

Jonny: When Connacht Rugby divided all the gym equipment out, it made sense for me to stay in Galway from a training point of view. By not going home it took the temptation away when it came to visiting friends and family, it was good in that respect. By staying in Galway, Jack and I were able to train with each other. It’s always better when you have someone beside you to push you even harder. The first month was fine but then I began to miss the interaction with my family, facetime was a lifesaver and I ended up getting used to that as the main way of interacting with them.

Jack: At the start of lock-down it was my nephew’s birthday, missing that was tough enough. My whole family lives on the same road in Athlone, that would have been the thing that I missed the most. Before lock-down, I would have been in Athlone once or twice a week because my girlfriend lives in Dublin, it would have always been a stopping off point. Not having that anymore and not seeing them in person was hard, but eventually, you end up getting used to it. When the restrictions were lifted it was nice to be able to get back home for a week and spend some quality time with them. It made me appreciate seeing my family a whole lot more.

When all this began, did you establish a routine together or did you both do your own thing?

Jack: We did most things together whether it was training or road running. We got into a good routine together and we were doing well, it did get to the point where we were nearly over training. We ended up at a plateau when week nine came around, then there was a gradual fall off which is to be expected. It was hard when you didn’t know what was going on around games and the season. We trained hard during the week from Monday to Friday and took our weekends off to have a few beers or eat the things we craved during the week. It was great to have Jonny here to push me on because there would be some days where I wouldn’t want to train and that would be the day he would push me and vice versa. It was important to have him.

Jonny: When we had a down week, it was weird, without having a routine you wouldn’t know what time or what day it was. It felt like that period between Christmas day and New Years’ day when you don’t know what’s going on. Living with Jack meant I had structure and we were able to keep each other sane.

It sounds like you both needed each other during lock-down, what did you do to motivate each other if someone was slipping and not eating healthy or staying on track with training?

Jack: We never said anything directly to each other but if I saw Jonny going out doing his training, he would set the example of going out and getting it done and put pressure on me to train. It would have been very easy to take shortcuts at various times but if I saw Jonny doing his training, it would make me feel guilty that I wasn’t so I would go out and join him. At the end of the day, it is our job, we had Johnny O’Connor, David Howarth, and Barry O’Brien sending us through really good stuff throughout the whole period so it was important to do the work, as they put a lot of time into making the plans and put a lot of trust in us to get it done.

Jonny: I don’t think we were ever not going to get the training done because we are both so competitive. If one person was doing something you felt obliged to do it. Jack might have added in an extra assault bike session and I would think to myself, I guess I will have to do one too, even though I hate them. For some of the runs you could choose self-selected pace, sometimes we would have to run separate ways because we would end up going too hard and would end up racing each other, towards the end of the run we would be completely dead which wouldn’t have been the aim of the session. If we kept that up, we would have been dust by the end of the week.

Talking about motivation, routine, and staying healthy we know you have been baking a lot Jonny, Jack how did you stay away from all of Jonny’s baked goods and avoid eating every single thing that he baked?

Jack: I think I am pretty good at not eating everything. I didn’t want to come across rude but by not trying anything it meant that I could keep that self-control that I had, I knew if I had tried a small bit I would keep eating more. Some of the stuff that he has baked has just been unreal, especially when he started making cakes and things that I hadn’t seen him bake before and seeing how creative he can be. There would be some days he would be on his feet for 6 or 7 hours baking jam doughnuts and I was like “Murph, how have you been standing in the same place the past 6 hours filling doughnuts with jam?”. It was nice to be able to test a few things, but it did require a lot of self-control.

Jonny: I did try and only make bad things on the weekends and then do healthier protein snacks during the week. To be fair, we weren’t that bad.

Jonny, how does a rugby player get into baking?

Jonny: It extends form when I was younger, during the summer or anytime I was off I would stay in my granny and grandad’s house. When my granny baked, I was over her shoulder giving her a hand, if I wasn’t doing that, I would have been with my grandad helping him out in the garden. I took it from there and seemed to have a knack for it. I started making stuff for the players after our tough sessions on a Tuesday, from protein treats to some of the “unhealthier” stuff, but we won’t tell Gavin our nutritionist that. The guys in the team encouraged me to do something more with it, so I made a social page and it took off from there.

Spending 2 and half months with anyone is intense, what has been the best part of quarantine while living together?

Jack: I enjoyed the time when we built the bar, we got the pallets delivered to the house and it was like a mini project for us. It kept us preoccupied for a while, then getting the keg put it in and having our first pint was cool. We also got into cooking a bit more, I wasn’t big into cooking before, but I got into smoking food on the barbecue and making things like beef brisket. Overall, nothing too exciting, we are coming across as really boring but I will save some of the other stories for another time.

Jonny: I agree, we started to build it in week 5 when we thought quarantine was never going to end. It was a nice pick me up. We said one evening that we should build a bar in the shed and next minute we had the structure up, then we had the shelves in then the tap was installed. It was a nice accomplishment for us and the pint at the end was a nice reward.

You have just finished your second week of Pre-season training, what is it like being back at the Sportsground and what is the new setup like?

Jonny: Initially it was strange, especially in the 1st week, the areas in the gym are taped and you must stay in your section. We are used to giving each other a high five and hugging each other but now you can’t do that. It’s weird trying to keep your distance, after every gym session you are wiping down and disinfecting everything. I think we are getting used to it now in week two. It’s different now because you are trying to squeeze a day’s training into around 3 hours, afterward you end being wrecked. It’s now the new normal and it’s just brilliant to be back in some shape or form.

Jack: To get back and see the work that S&C did along with the other staff in Connacht Rugby has been incredible. There was so much hard work put in by the staff behind the scenes to get us to a place where we can train again. It’s a testament to them, we are in 3 hours a day every second day, whereas they are in for a lot longer. It’s what makes Connacht Rugby the place it is. The first week we came in, we trained in small groups, this week the group was a bit larger and we got some ball work in, which was a nice change-up from the monotony of running and lifting weights. Seeing the coaches back this week and having a laugh during training was brilliant.

Looking towards the games in August, how do you plan to get yourself match fit again after being away from it for so long?

Jack: We will start getting back into larger groups in the coming weeks. All the training over the last few months will never replicate the intensity of a game, change of direction, chasing a kick, or chasing a line break. There will be building blocks this week and over the next few weeks where we can build a position where we can do that. From what we have seen and what the lads have put back in, all of them have come back in really good shape. You would think that we are ahead of a lot of the other teams in respect of that. In that regard it’s quite exciting as you won’t have to spend as much time on the physical development and we can focus more on skill development and the team plays earlier than anticipated.

Jonny: It’s a level up every week, even the difference from the 1st week to this week. There’s a plan in place to have us ready for the games even though we can’t do contact right now, we will be periodically building towards the games. Yesterday’s training was extremely tough, but it’s all just prepping you for the real thing.

Lastly, Friendy requested that everyone had to come back from quarantine with a new skill on or off the field. What would you say you improved on when you were in quarantine?

Jonny: I’ve got a beard and a blonde mullet now! I worked a lot on my cooking and my baking. I put a lot of time and effort into it and it got a following over the quarantine period and people appreciate what I have been doing. I had University stuff that I needed to get done and I got it ticked off.

Jack: I tried to add on to the stuff I have done already. I would have a keen interest in leadership, I got a list of different books to read. I got to read books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I am also in the middle of a personal reflection questionnaire. I set out a routine that I would get up early every day and it has now become a habit for me. Nothing as extravagant as Jonny, but I have gotten a lot more self-awareness of myself and a keener interest in all things leadership.

The life of a professional rugby player is spent training hard on weekdays and travelling abroad on weekends. For most professional athletes, a lot of your time is spent with your coaches and teammates. COVID brought a lot of hardship, but there has been a positive for people all over the world and that of course is more time with family and loved ones.

Spending time at home with loved ones for 3 months consecutively is something Paddy McAllister had not experienced in his 10-year career as a professional rugby player. Coming out of this period away from training and his teammates, Paddy has reflected a lot and made some realisations during this time. Quarantine has given Paddy a new perspective and an even greater appreciation to do the job that he loves.

We sat down with Paddy to discuss how he dealt with his mental and physical health during this time, growing up in The Congo as a young boy where he only wanted to play football, to his first week of training post quarantine.

Paddy firstly I would like to ask how you been getting on? How has quarantine been for you?

One thing I have realised is that when I finish rugby, I do not want to wait around to start a job. I want to be able to transition quickly when that time does come. It was quite tough being at home with the two kids, but we were able to do so many things together as a family.I have never looked forward to fitness in my life but during quarantine, I enjoyed running on the pitch beside my house because it gave me an hour of peace by myself. I looked forward to those moments throughout the week. We had unbelievable family time which we will look back on in years to come with fond memories.

It was hard to manage the gym work with the two kids, I would try to get into the room for an hour but there were times I would literally barricade the door with the couches so they wouldn’t walk in! All they wanted to do was join in and do some push ups with me and participate in the training, but they always ended up getting in the way. My wife was amazing, she always organised around it and gave me the time when I had to train. Coming back into Pre-Season this week , getting to go back to the gym with your friends and being able to work hard was just great. I certainly won’t take it for granted anymore.

Quarantine made you realise that after rugby you want to make sure you have something set up when it does happen. Were there any other realisations that you had from being at home all the time over the past 3 months?

At the beginning it was a novelty, it was something I hadn’t experienced before because I went straight into professional rugby after secondary school and was given my weekly schedule and told what I had to wear and what I needed to do, we were spoon-fed. As rugby players we are so lucky, we have 90 percent of our lives planned out for us, to then walk out of that into this scenario, it was almost like I had retired but was still receiving a wage which was a luxury in the sense that if you do retire you don’t get a wage. I had that to fall back on but there was so much time to fill, you can get bored and frustrated very quickly.

I was up early in the mornings with the kids playing with them, after a few weeks you start running out of ideas on how to keep them busy, especially during lock down where they couldn’t socialise with anyone. After experiencing that, I feel like I am more prepared for when retirement does come down the line, I will be ready for the next challenge that comes my way. I think if you are not prepared it can turn into a dangerous slippery slope where you have too much time on your hands after a long career. A lot of thoughts may creep up into your head such as regrets and then boredom.

We recently saw that you are going to welcome your third child in October, how are you both feeling about becoming parents of three?

When lock-down happened, my wife was 6 weeks pregnant and feeling quite sick. I was taking care of the kids a lot more, which made me have an even bigger appreciation for my wife and all the things she does when I am at training or away at games.We are very excited and nervous but ready for the hard challenge ahead.

Usually, one adult can take a child each but with three it is an extra child running around when you have another one in your arms. We are going to embrace it; we are very blessed that we can have three kids at such a young age. Hopefully, I don’t retire too early and they can remember that I did something in my life so that I can recall the memories with them, and they remember those moments.

How were you able to stay motivated and focused during quarantine?

The coaches have been great, the biggest thing they instilled was structure. As our whole careers have been full of structure, we had to set aside a few hours in the day for training. Basically, get up, do the work and then you have the whole day off. It’s very easy for frustration to slip in, but the whole S&C team as well as the coaches were constantly freshening things up. They were always setting challenges for us to do every week, there were lots of fun and engaging activities. Connacht Rugby were constantly supporting staff and players throughout the whole quarantine period.

There were lots of Zoom learning sessions, yoga classes, mindfulness classes, all stuff that we benefited from. Connacht Rugby as a club provided something we could tap into, stay engaged, and learn from daily. The club has been very good in that way, everyone has supported each other and kept in contact with lots of phone calls. It makes you appreciate coming back into Pre-Season even more. Although we are only in groups of six you are never going to take for granted the profession we do and the people that work within in Connacht Rugby. That extends from coaches to players to office staff and all around the branch, the work has been incredible. I think every player and a staff member will be very grateful for Connacht Rugby during this time.

We know your parents are living in Congo at the moment, did you get to see them before all this happened?

They had just come back to Northern Ireland before quarantine, unfortunately, my grandad had taken ill, the doctors said it would be his last few days. All our family are spread out over the world, it was amazing how everyone came together within 2 to 3 days to say goodbye. The crazy thing is, he must have got uplifted spirits by seeing everybody, he beat off everything that was affecting him in hospital. He held on for another month and the nice thing is, he got to spend time with everyone before he passed away.

During that time, my parents got stuck during the lock-down and couldn’t get back to Congo, it worked out for them because they decided a few months back that my dad was going to take a job with the same company but based in Northern Ireland. They moved back to their old house yesterday, it will be great to have them close by and to have both sets of grandparents on the same island. It will be a luxury; they have spent their whole lives in Africa, now they are coming back to lots of babysitting duties!

At the age of 14 you moved to Northern Ireland from Congo, how did you get into rugby when you arrived and had you played other sports before that?

In Africa I played football (soccer) and loved it, I still love the sport. My two older brothers played rugby in Africa and I had no interest. Even when I went to their games, I would bring a football and play football on the sideline while they were playing rugby. The one thing I said to my dad before leaving Africa was to make sure my new school in Northern Ireland would have a football team. His reply was “Yeah, yeah, no worries”, when I arrived at the school there was no football team, so naturally I started playing rugby.

I was a bit bigger than the guys in my year, my first time playing rugby was great because I was used to getting beaten up by my two older brothers and now I was more physically dominant than the guys on my team. After a couple of years playing, I fell in love with it and the Ulster Academy came at 16 and asked me to join.

They came down and trained me three times a week in secondary school during the lunch period. At the time, neither my parents nor I knew what the academy was, I had been to one Ulster game and has no idea what it was. They instilled lots of confidence in me, they said if you put in the work, we think it could be a career for you. That was risky telling a young boy because my focus then became rugby 24/7 instead of working harder on my studies which I should have done. It took off from there, I moved to Belfast after school, started my rugby career and thankfully it paid off.

Your first season in Connacht Rugby was unfortunately cut short due to COVID, how was it for you and what do you reflect on when you look back at your first season in Connacht Rugby?

It helped moving here in the summer, the weather was good, my wife and the family fitted in well, there was lots of stuff to do on the weekends. Training started well, it was a club I had been looking for the past few years and it all fell into place at the right time. I started Pre-Season well and then sustained an injury in the fourth game away to Dragons which was unfortunate, it took me out of action for three months.

I started back into it after that and was playing a good amount of rugby, then suddenly the season was just gone. It’s unlucky the way it ended, we were pushing towards the playoff stages and were due to play Scarlets next who were one point ahead of us, if we had beaten them, we would have been in the playoff stages.

It’s frustrating, a big thing I have learned in my career is that at the end of every season when players move on, it is always important to pay a special tribute to those guys who have put a lot of effort into the jersey and the club, whether it’s retirement or moving on to another club.

It was sad that we didn’t get to have a personal goodbye for certain players who have given a lot to the jersey. The club did what we could and we had a sendoff for them through a Zoom call which has been an unbelievable communication tool for a lot of people the past few months. In all, it’s been a very good but very strange season.

You have just completed your first week of Pre-Season training, what has it been like and do things feel different with the new setup?

It’s been great seeing everyone, that buzz of waking up, getting your kit bag ready the night before, and all those excitements. Monday was tough, we had fitness and gym testing, which is never the easiest part of the job, but you just have to do it. Wednesday we did a fitness conditioning session on the pitch along with a big gym session after that.

It’s so good to see all the boys back again and see the light at the end of the tunnel and get a bit of craic going again. It’s great getting back to having a bit of competition when you are training, I am looking forward to the next few weeks. It’s crazy the amount of work and effort that has been put in by the Connacht Rugby staff to organise the facilities for us to be able to train safely in our groups of six.

To be able to walk into the club and see how things are prepared for us to train, people do so much work behind the scenes which they don’t get enough credit for. It’s very different from before, the social distancing is still there, we can’t shower on-site, we can’t use certain places in the ground, and we have to bring a lot of extra kit. The gym has little areas that are quarantined, we have to clean everything that we touch once we are finished in the gym. It’s strange, but we would do anything it takes to get back into it.

We know that the gym is a very energetic close environment, do you think training will be affected by social distancing?

As a rugby player, you must be competitive if you are going to make a long career out of it. With competitiveness brings high intensity sessions that the trainers bring to every session. Within your group of six, there is still competition between everyone in the sense of who is lifting what and what shape is everyone in. I think the buildup of excitement between everyone has already created a great atmosphere, all the players are delighted to be back in.

We are all cracking jokes and telling stories. A few of the new players are in our group, we are just getting to know them which is exciting. I don’t think we are going to have a boring day. Personally, I don’t think I will ever go into work even on a cold stormy day in Galway and wish I was in bed because life in the real world is very different from the way we have it. I appreciate even more how fortunate I am to do the job that I am in.

Looking towards the games in August, how are you preparing yourself to get back to match fitness again?

The club and the IRFU have put in a good protocol and process to get us there. We have to do all the sessions as good as we can but there is a lot of individual ownness on recovery, we don’t have a long period of time after being away for such a long time. On an off day, you need to get your recovery in and do everything you can nutrition-wise, recovery wise whether that is going into the ocean for a while, rolling out the body, things like that so that the small injuries and niggles don’t creep in.

Every province and player is excited to get back into it and the fact that the first games are Interpros gives it that extra spice. Our first game is against Ulster, which will be good, my first game back from injury was Ulster away and it didn’t go too well for the team and personally.

Lastly Paddy, Friendy requested that everyone had to come back from quarantine with a new skill on or off the field. What would you say you improved on when you were in quarantine?

I didn’t have time to learn guitar or any of those things as the kids would have broken it. I would say it has been my ability to mentally ride the wave of life after coming out of quarantine and coming into the new season. Things that are uncontrollably thrown at you whether it’s in the workplace, selections, disagreements, personal things at home which can affect rugby, I now understand better that these things are always going to happen and you can’t prevent them from happening in your life.

You just have to go with it and talk to others. I have got unbelievably close to my wife this last while because we have had to rely on each other looking after two crazy kids and luckily we survived quarantine. We managed to do it with two healthy kids, and no one got injured, which is an A-plus from us.

In the future, when things come at me, I think I am way better equipped in dealing with it. It has been really tough for some people who just went through quarantine, especially those who live by themselves, people at a certain age or those who have an illness, it can be tough mentally, we all need to help each other.

The biggest thing I have gained from this is, I am a bit more weathered in dealing with those things. I hope I don’t have to deal with a lot of them but if I do, I feel like I am in a good place and have a good structure of family and friends behind me to help deal with any problems that may be thrown at me like a pandemic.

David Howarth made a career change from green-keeper to Strength and Conditioning coach back in 2005 when the importance of Strength and Conditioning had really started to take off in Australia. He now finds himself living along the rough coast of the West of Ireland with his wife and two kids, the perfect setting to fuel his hobby of surfing when he gets a day away from his busy life.

 

David is not only leading Connacht Rugby’s Athletic performance, but he is also striving to make a greater long-term impact in the world of sports science through his PhD research. David along with the IRFU and the other provinces are pushing the boundaries in Athletic Performance to build players a long-term successful career and build a legacy of success in Irish Rugby.

 

The Australian born coach arrived at Connacht Rugby in 2017 from the NBA team Oklahoma City Thunder. Working alongside Johnny O’Connor and Barry O’Brien, they have created a purposeful, energetic atmosphere inside the walls of the Connacht Rugby performance center. Their drive to succeed along with their innovative and creative nature meant that they were able to keep players focused without physical contact and proper facilities during the lock-down period.

 

As our players return to training this week, they will be unfamiliar with the somewhat changed surroundings that they left 3 months ago. The High-Performance Center has changed dramatically as Connacht Rugby prepare the Sportsground for a new safer training environment post-COVID.

 

David and his team are up for the challenge as they strive to keep engagement and motivation high when the players return.

 

Firstly, David how are you? You have two kids, you are working full time in quarantine, and in the middle of a PhD how you have coped with everything?

 

Quarantine has been good so far, we managed to get my parents back to Australia before the lock-down period started which was a lucky escape! I have been managing fine, the PhD has benefited the most and has gotten the biggest kick, which is good and bad: you settle into a rhythm with research where you start analyzing your data and writing your papers and everything gets into a nice flow.

 

But one thing no one tells you about doing a PhD, or any type of Postgraduate research, is that essentially you spend most of your time getting criticized. Every time I submit another version of the paper that I have been working on I will get a lot of criticism back from my supervisors. As they are based in Australia, we meet during the night-time here. They often come to these meetings equipped with a lot of ‘feedback’ which often means you must redo a lot of the work- it gets emotional!

 

How have you created a balance between working from home, homeschooling two kids, and doing a PhD?

 

My wife keeps on saying to me that balance is a verb, so it is an action: you must try to find a time where you can do a bit of everything. She reminds me to work hard and play hard. When you have time off you need to go and enjoy it, so I will go for a bike ride with the kids and get to the beach to go for a surf. It has been the busiest but also the most productive 3 months I have had in a long time in terms of reaching personal goals and time with my kids.

 

I have gotten to know them, and they have got to know who I am. Ashamedly I have not been able to spend much time with them over the past eight years. My eldest is eight years old, she’s learning new things about me and I am learning new things about her. It has been great from that perspective.

 

Can you tell us about what the PhD is about and how it will inform your role at Connacht Rugby?

 

My PhD title is “Quantifying neuromuscular status of elite rugby union players: measurement characteristics and moderating factors”. Essentially, we are examining counter-movement jumps of rugby players on force plates over a season (across the 18/19 season) where we collected jumps twice a week during their normal monitoring. This is a research area that I have been thinking about for a long time and is something that we also use to adjust players’ training and help them manage their fatigue and drive their adaptation.

 

We are analyzing the data to see how consistent those variables are, then how sensitive they are to then see what they relate to in terms of perceptual fatigue for a player. We want to see how they feel and how they measure going through a season and to finally relate that back to their performance both on-field and physically. We have key markers that we are tying that back to not least of which is coach opinion on how they played.

 

As you go down all these research routes, sports science has a bit of a reputation for trying to draw too long of a bow to say that this measure will tell you whether a guy is going to be able to play well or not well. What we want to know is what are the moderating factors to these measurements and how do they fit into that fatigue cycle. It has been great to be able to collaborate on this with some other practitioners and work on related areas of research, like how we measure things, understanding fatigue to a deeper level and quantifying ‘performance’. It is exciting to think that there will be some contributions in this space in the next year from Connacht Rugby.

 

You played a bit of rugby yourself back in the day, how did you make that transition into the Athletic performance world?

 

When I finished school, I was very enthusiastic about my rugby ability, even though I didn’t have a lot of it! I said to my dad “I want to be a professional rugby player” and his reply was “Really? you should get a job!”. Before I started in Strength and Conditioning, I worked as a green-keeper on a golf course for eight years. When I finished my greenkeeping apprenticeship, I moved to the USA in 2002 and lived in Naples, Florida for 18 months. I worked on a golf course in Naples while playing rugby with a local team. I had an opportunity to go to Miami University and train with their football team.

 

While training with the college team, I met a Strength and Conditioning Coach who bought me in and I ended up loving it. I loved the energy of it and the music in the weight room with the guys going mental! When I came back to Australia, I returned to playing rugby in Canberra, I noticed how big of a gap there was in training. The science in Australia was cutting edge, but the types of training that they were doing in the States was way beyond what we were doing.

 

I did spend another 3 years attempting to be a professional rugby player and a green-keeper but eventually, I realized I wanted to be involved in sports differently. By that stage, I had broken everything in my body and wasn’t getting paid much for it, so I pulled the pin and started as a fitness coach with Eastern Suburbs Rugby for a year. I then moved to Sydney as I had a good contact up there with the Waratah’s and started attending the University of Western Sydney. While studying for my degree I started working with the Waratah’s and Australian Rugby Union and it took off from there.

 

It was a successful career change, I would love to say it was my own motivation, but it coincided with the time my wife and I reconnected after meeting each other in Florida. She came to visit me in Sydney, and I realised as soon as she walked into the airport that I probably wasn’t going to be seeing any other woman after that! She has been a massive driver in my career in terms of giving me space and plenty of motivation. She is doing her Masters in Adult Learning and Education now at NUIG. The irony is, she pushed me through my adult learning and education and now I can return the favour.

 

You mentioned how you noticed a significant difference between Australia and the USA after returning from the USA, can you tell me about the changes that you have seen since you came back?

 

It is worth mentioning that Australia was really advanced in Sports Science at the time. We were world leaders in Sports Science and the education system is brilliant. I am doing my PhD with some of the best Sports Scientists I have ever come across at the University of Technology in Sydney.

 

What I had not experienced then was the way that the Americans applied their Strength and Conditioning specifically, the importance of an S & C coach in a program, and the amount of energy that they injected into it. In Australia at that time, it was just the beginning. There was a group of guys there who started the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association in the mid 1990’s and they were driving it hard.  They were some of the greatest guys I have come across and was lucky enough to be mentored by one of them. That was the turning point for S & C in Australia.

 

Rugby League probably bought into it much earlier than Rugby Union, it was a professional sport earlier and they had been driving the physical and physiological capacity of their players to be able to play more games at a higher intensity, create a better spectacle and that is where the physical comes in. The more that the product is out there then the more the people can engage with it and the more money it can make. S & C coaches, in their own way, are big drivers of how professional and sustainable the game can be at that level.

 

When I returned from the States to Australia in 2003, I had noticed that more people were pushing in that area. Working with those people pushing S & C from that period until 2012, I was amazed to see the difference in the people that were doing it, the energy around it, the focus that was on being a practitioner and not just being a scientist. The most important thing was, how are you engaging with the athletes and how are you helping them find the next 4 or 5 years of their career and being able to perform at that level.

 

In 2012 I moved over to California to work for a company called Sparta Performance Science for 2 years. From there I was headhunted by the Oklahoma City Thunder as their Athletic Performance Coordinator, leading the S&C and Nutrition for those guys. This meant I was out of rugby for five years but still tried to keep contacts and dipping in and out while I was working in the NBA. The difference I saw in S & C in rugby after being away from it for five years was amazing.

 

When I joined Connacht Rugby in 2017, it was exciting to see the energy Nick Winkleman (Head of Athletic Performance and Science in the IRFU) was bringing to rugby in Ireland. I know that there has been an evolution in terms of how we take this up to the next level. Nick has been purposeful in getting guys from around the world with a variety of experience to drive it.

 

Then you have a guy like Jason Cowman (Head of S & C for the Irish rugby team) who is that breed of S & C Coach involved in understanding the science, driving the environment and helping the players to not just win games but to push their careers and set in a legacy of success in Ireland. I am under no illusions that I am some sort of ‘answer’, but I hope that I am contributing to something much longer than my tenure at Connacht Rugby and Irish Rugby. That’s why we are here and that’s why we do this. Of course, we want to win in the short term, but long term we want to create and ingrain success.

 

It’s funny, you mentioned the importance of engaging with players in S & C and now you find yourself the last 3 months in quarantine. How have you managed to keep up that level of intense training and keep the players engaged?

 

There have been several different ways we have done this. The guys I work with, Johnny O’Connor and Barry O’Brien, have been phenomenal in this exact space. Early on, we asked ourselves “How we are going to keep engagement high and how do we implement this successfully”. We set up little things like a Friday challenge for the players every week. Johnny took week one and ruined it for us because it was amazing! Suddenly, here’s Johnny with all these special effects, standing there in his orange underwear doing an isometric hold lunge and setting a challenge for all the guys.

 

It was a great way to start off, and to try and follow that up as the weeks went by was hard. It became this ever-rising scale of creativity and ingenuity. Barry rose to that challenge too; he came up with some hilarious ones and then there was me who did some terrible ones, I have no creativity compared to those guys. That was one way of keeping up that engagement and that environment.

 

Coming in here in 2017 we had just brought Johnny on as the Senior S & C coach, and we agreed that no matter what every day we want to set the tone. We both had the same mindset on that. We are likely to be one of the first faces that the players see when they come in. If we are walking around quiet with our heads down, how are they going to be for the rest of the day? If we are fired up, excited, and focused on what’s coming then the players will follow our lead.

 

We wanted to lead in that way and wanted to lead with objective data, with a positive attitude and by doing new things the best way we could. We wanted to have 3 main things that we would always create. Number one was a great environment; number 2 was innovating and push to the edge by taking our ideas and turning them into action; and, thirdly to collaborate with people. During these Covid-19 times that hasn’t changed, in terms of innovation, we have used different portals for pushing out programs.

 

Johnny has been using an online portal to send out our programs on an application that we use. We have also had so much innovation around our running programs during the lock-down.  Barry had to put together an incredible amount of work in case somebody didn’t have access to an area they could run within their 2 km. Some players were running on a piece of grass outside their house and trying to do change of direction work.

 

So, Barry came up with a bunch of drills for these guys and those who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their house and came up with ways for them to utilize the space in their living room or backyard. The innovation alone that came out of that was incredible. We collaborated with the coaches and the medical team to try and get that cross-pollination of what it is we want to come back as whenever this is all over, which is thankfully this week.

 

When we do get back to training, we are confident that we have not only kept the course and stayed fit, but we are confident that we are coming back better than when we had left. The guys have done enough training and explored enough different things to come back with new skill sets, new ideas, and new ways to perform. That all comes back to the environmental things like the videos, chats, the facetimes, to the innovation of how we train and what we are training with.

 

We sent out equipment to all the player’s houses just before lock-down and tried to get them exactly what they needed. Johnny set them out their programs of what they needed to work on. We worked with all the coaches to find a way to ensure that the players had an ongoing focus on what they needed to be when they come back in and what it is we aspire to be. We worked hard to find a way.

 

What are the challenges of starting a Pre-season campaign having been away from a higher performance environment for such a long time? 

 

This comes back to the environment that we created from the beginning up until now. The guys know why they train, why it’s important to train and why it’s important not to rush back in. We need to have that graded ramp up return into playing games. All the provinces and IRFU are working together to implement best practice models for what a return to training would look like. This will hold us in good stead. We agreed that we needed at least six weeks of ramp-up into playing games, they have given us eight. In terms of preparing ourselves to play games again, when we go back to playing again in the Aviva on the 22nd August, it’s going to be a culmination of a long period of intense and focused training.

 

It’s not over and above what I would normally be wary of coming back into training. We are going to have a few injuries, you will always have a few. It will happen if we are training hard. We are going to do everything we can to mitigate that risk, that is going to come in the form of all the testing that we do through weeks one and two so we can understand where the guys are fitness-wise. Of course, they are going to be doing CMJ’s (Counter Movement Jumps) to understand neuromuscular status, and also testing strength and speed measures. Everything will be packed into those first couple of weeks so we have a good baseline of where they are and if there are any red flags we will be all over it very quickly.

 

How will the new operational measures and social distancing in The Sportsground affect training?

 

It’s going to be tough . . . it will be such a departure from what we are used to. The training and that environment that I talked about before, a lot of that energy comes from that interpersonal closeness. It will be interesting to see how the guys cope, it’s a little bit different when you are under a heavy weight and you have someone there in your ear. They might be saying something nice or not so nice, but either way it’s going to motivate you to drive through.

 

When you are pushing on the bench and look up and see someone screaming over you, that gives you that extra motivation. Some of that is going to be missing, which goes back to our innovation. How are we going to create that environment? We have talked about that as a group, I think it’s going to be interesting. We will have to create energy, urgency, and focus in our training sessions. That is going to boil down to our coaches and our ability to communicate with the players and understand where they are. It’s going to be a challenge, but it will be exciting and fun.

 

The gym is now sectioned up into little pods, and you can only work at one station at a time. There is at least 3 meters between you and the next guy in a taped off area, it’s very clinical and strange. If you are a regular gym-goer you will usually go to the gym, put on your headphones and hit the treadmill or bench, whatever it is. That’s quite normal, whereas when you are with a rugby team and you are used to bouncing off your mates around you it’s going to be different for players.

 

How will this Pre-Season training be laid out?

 

We are waiting to hear about our Champions Cup spot next year which is out of our hands and we can’t get into the finals of last year’s PRO14. What is in our hands is our preparation and what we can focus on is what’s coming on October 3rd. Those next two games are not throwaway games, we are not looking at them as preseason games. They are important and are particularly important for players who want to push their national team selection ambitions. They need to be able to put out their best performance in those two matches. The most important thing for us right now is to continue to get better over these next 8 weeks.

 

We have broken it up into testing and installation for 2 weeks, 2 weeks of specific preparation where we start to develop player skills on the rugby field and develop our way through the amount of load players will have to tolerate throughout the season, Then we go into competition preparation, we push the boundaries there and explore where we can grow and get better. It’s a more intense period. And finally, the pre-competition phase, really driving into those two games in August. After that we are all eyes on the ‘20/21′ season and really performing there.

 

Lastly, Dave, Friendy requested that everyone had to come back from quarantine with a new skill on or off the field. What would you say you improved on when you were in quarantine?

 

This is a nerdy one – there is an open-source stats package called R. I have been focused on learning how to use R for my stats in my PhD, learning to code and create data visualizations, dashboards and apps . . . that’s been one of my major focuses.

 

Personally, one of the biggest things for me was mental skills. One thing I invested a lot of time into was understanding the research around, but also building a practice of, mindfulness and meditation to bring me into the present. There is a tremendous amount of research on it and its direct benefits with better health and performance.

Mental skills are essentially based around your ability to be aware – aware of your environment, feelings, and the actions that you and others are taking in the moment and shaping what happens next. It’s an area of focus for us as a club too, developing our mental skills as staff, coaches and players. So, I have been trying to build my awareness and clarity around these things too.

 

Connacht captain John Muldoon has now completed 15(!) pre-seasons with Connacht Rugby! A new campaign of PRO14 rugby kicks off against Glasgow tomorrow night at the Sportsground and the skipper reveals it has been all change at the province over the summer and takes a look back at his early years at the Sportsground.

A limited number of tickets are still available for the game on Saturday with savings of up to 15% available when purchased online.

See the team announcement here.

Our new home, alternate and European kits are now available exclusively in Elverys stores and online here.

Get a closer look at our new kits ⬇️

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