THE Aviva Stadium is the focal point of Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations campaign as they host both England and France, in Dublin 4, over the next few weeks, but Carton House, 30 kilometres west of Lansdowne Road, is the players’ home for the championship.
The four-star hotel, spa and golf resort, outside Maynooth, Co Kildare, is an attractive prospect for anyone fancying to ‘get away from it all’ within proximity of the Irish capital. On a 1,000-acre estate, the one-time ancestral seat of the Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster is among Ireland’s greatest stately homes and boasts championship golf courses designed by Mark O’Meara and Colin Montgomerie.
After years of wasting hours of valuable match preparation in Dublin traffic, travelling from team hotels to training grounds, the greatest asset for the Ireland rugby team is that Carton is just a short walk from work.
The Carton House training facility, which boasts two FIFA-regulation soccer pitches and a GAA pitch the same size as Croke Park, also has two 100m x 70m rugby pitches and an additional training area for scrummaging drills, all 50 metres from the main entrance of the hotel.
However nice their previous base camps, in Killiney and Mount Merrion, at Citywest and in Wicklow, this is a much better situation for players and coaches alike.
“We were in Killiney, which was a lovely place, and the lads were at Citywest before that, but we had to travel across to the pitch, and we were wasting so much time on the trips to and from training,” said Munster and Ireland second row, Donnacha Ryan. “This is a fantastic place to be. The pitch is right outside and it’s unbelievable. We have everything here, a swimming pool, gym, although I don’t think anyone’s used the snooker room. That’s probably just as well; send the louts down there and they’d probably tear it apart. But everyone here is very accommodating and always talking to (team manager) Mick Kearney, getting things we need, or organising stuff we’d like to do.
“We had the Irish boxers come in to us, in the autumn, and just listening to the set-up they have, compared to ourselves, and you think what the GAA clubs make do with, you do appreciate what we get.”
So what do they get during the four weeks they spend at Carton, before and during the November series of tests, the intermittent weekends of mini-training camps, and the eight-week stretch across the Six Nations campaign? The training field may be the most photographed portion of the Ireland camp, but it is the tip of the iceberg in the day-to-day operation of Declan Kidney’s team.
An on-site state-of-the-art gym, 18-metre swimming pool, sauna, steam-room and jacuzzi cater to the requirements of the Irish strength and conditioning team, while the stately home’s former receptions rooms, including the elaborately decorated, Baroque-style ‘gold salon’ host the media for three or four press conferences each week, including team announcements co-ordinated by media manager, Karl Richardson.
The engine room of the Ireland Six Nations machine is the team room, the off-limits private space where Kidney and his backroom staff plot, plan, and hold team meetings, and where players go through copious files, and DVD clips of video analysis, get a rub down from masseurs, Dave Revins and Willie Bennett, or relax in a communal area.
Let Ryan give you a guided tour.
The team room: “We have one, big, open-plan room. The lads can use all the laptops there for video analysis, and all the coaches have their desks there, so we can go over and have a chat with them. We get some analysis done regularly and there’d be regular chats with Gert, Les, Declan, and Axel’s there as well, now, which is great.
“It’s where we eat, as well, in the middle of the room, for snacks or cereal or making a sandwich.
“Then, we have all the fitness in one area, all the physios, two masseurs and a rehab area, if the lads want to get some specific exercises done, for pre-hab and rehab, which is very important. And we have a GPS area, as well, where you can see what sort of mileage you’re clocking up and your speeds.
“We have a projector and big screen in there, as well. Sky Sports News is on most of the time and, in the evenings, if anybody wants to watch a bit of TV they can sit down on the couches there. A lot of the lads would be watching (TV series) box sets. I’d be watching line-outs.
“Then, around the corner, there’s a table-tennis table. A lot of the younger lads have taken that up. Zebo would have notions of himself, but, I have to say, I wouldn’t be playing against Rog (Ronan O’Gara) or Drico (Brian O’Driscoll). Rog had tennis lessons when he was growing up, so he’d want to be good at it.”
Of course, ‘all work and no play’, and all that, is pertinent when players are cooped up in the one place for any length of time. However comfortable the surroundings, the Ireland management is aware of the dangers of their players going stir crazy. To that end, Carton offers light relief beyond the house. The golf facilities are second to none, with the Golfing Union of Ireland headquartered on the grounds and acting as home, not just to the GUI National Academy, but also former Irish Open winner, Shane Lowry.
Carton House is Lowry’s official attachment on tour, while, this summer, for the first time since 2006, the Montgomerie Course will host the Irish Open, the tournament Lowry won as an amateur in 2009.
Not only that, Carton boasts running trails through its woodlands, and various activities otherwise available to companies for team-building exercises, such as a 4x4 off-road driving course. Plenty of options to cater for most whims among a 33-strong playing squad.
Down time: “In the Argentina week, we went out onto the off-road driving course here, there’s archery, and we also did some dual go-karting and you don’t have to go anywhere, it’s just outside,” Ryan says. “Cian Healy tries to drive his (Land Rover) Defender around the off-road track and Peter O’Mahony loves all that type of stuff, as well.
“I love playing golf, as do a lot of the guys, and there’s the two courses here, so that’s brilliant. And, in Maynooth itself, you’ve got stuff to mix things up, as well, because monotony is the worse thing that can creep in. Plus, we can always go into Dublin. The lads went off shopping for some serious impulse-buying, some of the lads went looking for boogie boards and wetsuits, though I’d have nothing to do with that (have a chat with Keith Earls, maybe, and Conor Murray. They’re looking to get into that for recovery, going to Lahinch after matches. It’s my idea of hell, though).
“But you look to make the most of your down days. Our weekend is, maybe, a Wednesday, so we look to do something then.
“There might be an entertainment committee, but I do know the youngest person gets stung with having to do the cinema, they have to write a preview on how good the film is that we’re going to watch. Dave Kilcoyne gave us a very detailed account of the last film I watched. It’s just a bit of fun.
“We’ve also had Barry Murphy’s band in, Hermitage Green, to play for us and they’ve brought in some fantastic speakers, as well. Michael O’Leary was in to us last year and the Irish boxing team. You’d think we’d be poles apart, but they’re normal guys and it’s interesting to meet them and ask them questions.
“And Christy Moore was in during the last Six Nations. He invites guys up to sing with him and that was a great thing for me to do, sing a song with him. He’s a lovely man, just chatted away, and what other environment would you get to do that in? So, all that’s good, it breaks up the monotony. We’ve had Padraig Harrington speak to us, Shane Lowry took us out on the driving range, lovely fella.
“We had a good bit of craic with Shane. Sean O’Brien broke Mike Kearney’s driver trying to hit it like a hurley, but Shane said going on tour on your own, he would miss the team aspect of our sport, because of all the fun you can have. That’s probably something we do take for granted at times, but it is fantastic.”
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