One of the pleasing aspects of last Saturday’s victory over Scotland was the manner in which this Ireland side seemed to be performing at the same high-octane level at the end of the game as at the start. And this is a factor that has become more prevalent in recent times as witnessed in the game against Argentina and Australia.
Gone are the days when the flame of Irish passion burned brightly for 60 minutes only to splutter and die in the final 20 – Remember the game against New Zealand in Lansdowne Road in November 2001?
And it’s probably more than a co-incidence that shortly after that game, there arrived in the Irish camp, one Mike McGurn, a fitness advisor whose pedigree was in the ‘other’ code – rugby league. McGurn brought with him a wealth of experience in preparing players to compete at the highest level. He played Rugby League with Workington and Hull but made his mark in that code as fitness advisor to St Helens.
In his final season with that club they won the World Club Championship, The Challenge Cup Final and the Super League Grand Final.
Now, a little over twelve months on from his appointment the Co Fermanagh born McGurn can see the fruits of his labour.
A self-effacing type of character, he readily deflects the credit pointing out that there are “loads of factors contributing to the current success. We have a really good coaching team in Eddie, Niallo and Declan, then there’s Brian (manager) and a really smashin back up team, Fordy’s got them humming now, so really I’m just a cog in the wheel.”
A cog indeed, but an important one because no matter what Eddie O’Sulliavan demands, no matter what defensive pattern Mike Ford weaves, if they don’t have the energy to deliver, it ain’t gonna happen.
And that’s where McGurn comes in.
“Yeh I suppose so, I’ve been in the job twelve months now, I started in January (2002) and the first thing I noticed was a distinct lack of power. They were strong athletes, but not powerful athletes, So we started off basically with a programme I’d used when I’d been in Rugby League in St Helens. It was difficult because I didn’t realise that the way Rugby Union goes, they play a lot more games in rugby union than in rugby league.”
Between the time of his appointment and the start of the Six Nations there wasn’t really much time to impose his new technique. It was a matter of maintaining what they had.
“The first real chance to introduce the technique came with the Leinster players before New Zealand because the Munster boys were involved in the Heineken Cup final. So we put the Leinster boys on a five week programme in the lead up to New Zealand – them and the Ulster players.”
“Then it was quite noticeable to me over in New Zealand, just watching the games, how more powerful they’d become in that short time. Players like Brian O’Driscoll, Reggie Corrigan, Malcolm O’Kelly and Shane Byrne.” So that sorta proved that the programme worked.”
“Then when we went back home the players had a wee rest and we went to Poland. I took the half backs, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, David Humphreys and had them for three weeks and we went back to the power programme, the same as I’d done with the Leinster boys. And that’s where I captured Ronan’s imagination which was important. He’s one of the most professional players I’ve ever worked with in any sport, soccer, rugby league or rugby union. And gradually the others began to catch on.”
“We did a fitness camp in Greystones and that’s when Victor came on board. He was worried because he had never done that type training before, that intensity. He had a good couple of weeks before the autumn series and he came up trumps too. So it just re-inforced to the lads, and to me, that we were going in the right direction.”
“That type training also helps with the defence so it’s a benefit to Mike Ford as well. If they’re strong and powerful they can make a better impact in the tackle. And that has benefited Ronan in his defence and Drico (Brian O’Driscoll) and Shane Horgan, even Kevin Magg got a lot more powerful. Maggsy comes across as a powerful athlete but he hadn’t done that type training before.”
“They used do muscle building type exercises which is good and it has its place but now we’re just about 30 weeks from the World Cup and the World Cup is about speed and power. We’re not going to die wondering. We’ve got to become as powerful as we can as quick as we can.”
“Out there it’s going to be hot dry conditions; it’s going to be big collisions. Basically rugby is a collision sport and the more powerful you are the bigger collision and the bigger contact you can emphasise on the other player. The training we were doing had its rightful place at that particular phase but now the game has got quicker and players don’t need to be as big as they have been over the last few years.”
“The training we’re doing now will make the players quicker, and sharper. If for example you have a player like Victor or Axel (Anthony Foley), big guys, who weighs around 107 kgs. And if you get them running forty metres half a second quicker than they used to, when they get into the tackle then they’re going to be a lot more devastating than they used to be and that’s what this particular programme is achieving.”
One area that McGurn will not let his charges dwell in, is the comfort zone. When McGurn talks about raising the bar he is deadly serious and he quickly re-located the players for their gym work.
“When they go into the gym, it’s place of work. The minute they go in, they hit the time clock and from the minute they go in to the minute they go out its work, work, work.”
“They can’t go in and look around. They’re there to work.We’ve cut the sessions down to 40 minutes and that 40 minutes is really vital.” So why the change from the luxury of the Glenview gym to the ‘hard core’ facility at Loughlinstown.
“The Glenview, was nice but it wasn’t necessary. It was a pretty gym. It had pretty machines. Pretty weights. Pretty girls. It had TV. We don’t need that. The gym is a place of work. But there were distractions, so now they’re doing their gym work in a ‘heavy duty gym, a hard core gym. All old weights, power bars, heavy dumb-bells. Go in get it done and get out.”
“If you need to chuck weights around, you chuck weights around. If you need to drop weights you drop weights. If you need to throw up in the corner you throw up in the corner and the Glenview is not that type of place. In the gym everything we do has to be intense. You train intense you play intense.”
And what does the Enniskillen man mean by intense?
“You simply have to push the body to the limit. You have to leave the gym shaking. Not be able to tie your shoelaces.”
That’s what he means by intense.
“”That’s been my ethos in any team I’ve worked with. I work with the players in that I’ll lift the weight I expect them to lift. So again using Victor as an example, if he sees me lifting then he’ll think ‘hang on a sec, if that wee bugger can lift 12 stone, so can I.”
Now they do things in the gym that are relevant to what they do in a game. The forwards, explains McGurn, need to be more flexible,
“They need to get lower in the scrum and be more powerful in the horizontal direction. We create that in the gym. So in all areas we can replicate what they do in the game, in the gym. All this showed quite well in the autumn series not because we won but because our defence was good. We were able to last 80 minutes and tackle for 80 minutes. Previous Irish teams might have crumbled a bit in the final 20 because they (Australia) threw the kitchen sink at us. But we were able to hold out. A lot of that was down to Fordy but the players were confident in their own ability to withstand the pressure.”
McGurn’s travels, prior to the squad coming together ahead of the Six Nations saw him driving to Limerick on a Monday, to work with the likes of Rob Henderson and David Wallace, on to Cork to work with Ronan O’Gara and his Cork based charges, then back to Limerick for an early evening session. That was all on the one day. That schedule was maintained all week until the Thursday when he went to Belfast to work with the Ulster national players.
On the Sunday he went to Leicester to work with Geordan Murphy, then on to Llanelli to work with the Easterbys (Mon/Tues); London on Thursday/Friday and an appointment with Keith Wood and back home via Llanelli (Easterbys again).
It’s hectic and it’s hard work and it’s work he loves ” It’s not work it’s a vocation, so I don’t see it as ‘hard work’. I’m not happy unless I’m working. I love it. If I wasn’t getting paid for it I’d probably do it anyway. I love training. If I don’t train I get cranky. I’m probably a bit obsessive about that. I think I got that from my mother who said to me a long time ago, ‘ Michael, if you’re going to do something do it right.’ If I knew going into the Six Nations that one player wasn’t prepared I’d be really, really cross with myself”
On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, McGurn needn’t feel at all cross with himself. There’s one championship game gone and already, that, coupled with the autumn series, has provided ample evidence that the McGurn method is working. One thing is certain, the 32 year old Fermanagh man, will not rest on his laurels – neither will the players.