Niall Ronan knows all about preparing for big games and in the context of Kildare hurling, today’s Christy Ring Cup semi-final against Kerry is a huge affair.
The Munster side are favourites but Kildare shocked them in last year’s final so there is a justifiable degree of confidence in the Lilywhite camp, even though a number of long-serving players have retired in the interim.
There is an added spice this time too. In 2014, Kildare were forced to play Westmeath in a promotion/relegation play-off just a week after the decider. A sixth consecutive week of games put paid to their hopes of Liam MacCarthy hurling.
This time around, while there is still an insulting blitz nature to the championships for second, third and fourth-tier counties, whose season is over before the summer has begun, at least the winners can look forward to moving up a level. For Kildare, whose U21s played in the A championship for the first time on Wednesday, the top flight is the next step in the progression.
Their strength and conditioning coach knows all about operating in rarefied atmosphere. An openside flanker of the traditional type in an era of increasing bulk, Ronan earned four senior caps for Ireland and 104 for Munster. He won two Heineken Cups and two Magners Leagues along the way.
Had he enjoyed just a little more luck on the injury front, he would be togging out in the roomy dressing rooms of the plush new Kingspan Stadium this evening, rather than part of a backroom team wedged into the cramped changing ‘area’ at St Conleth’s Park in the afternoon.
Having recovered from serious neck and groin issues, it was the right knee that did for him in the end, with no PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) and the cartilage shot to pieces. After a two-month period of rehabilitation proved fruitless, the Meath native accepted the advice of the medics to retire after 11 years as a professional sportsman.
That was 13 months ago. Fortunately, and thanks to the persuasion of players’ union IRUPA, he had just completed his degree in strength and conditioning and could make an immediate and seamless transition to civilian life.
Mentally, there was no problem either. Instead of harbouring bitterness and regret, he is thankful for what he achieved. His body is in decent shape all things considered and the only visible physical remnants of his decade as a groundhog is the diagonal scar in the middle of his forehead that required 14 stitches and was caused by the stray elbow of teammate, Denis Leamy.
Nowadays he is a personal trainer who takes group and individual classes at his base in Drogheda’s Southgate shopping centre. He also travels the country making presentations. Apart from that, he is head coach of his local rugby club, Boyne RFC. But the offer to join Kildare’s hurlers was what he was waiting for.
This isn’t lip service from a rugby toff now that he is working in another code. Cast your mind back to the stir his comments created six years ago when he remarked on his preference for the Munster culture over the one he had left at Leinster. It was interpreted as a criticism, though not intended as such. It was just that given his background in the GAA, as a former Meath minor footballer, Munster spoke to him in a way Leinster never could.
“What I would say is there is more of a parish mentality in Munster than there is in Leinster” explains Ronan. “That’s all I said at the time. You’re in a bigger city in the capital of Ireland but it’s more like the GAA living in Limerick for me and that’s where I’m from. I’m a Meath man, living in the local parish, playing for the local club. That’s where I fitted in more than I did with Leinster.
“My parents were supporters at the Heineken Cup 2009 semi-final when we were playing against Leinster because it just related to us. And we had relations down there too. It worked out well for me and they’re my team now.”
He was a throwback No 7, and if he looked undersized then, the fact he has lost 10kgs since retiring tells you how hard he had to work to survive in the modern game. Lithe and quick, he was a ball player. He could never get himself heavier than 101kgs but his football experience had given him other tools. It’s a common theme he maintains.
“(Simon) Zebo played hurling, Gaelic football and soccer. He could play any sport. When you have that hand-eye coordination... it definitely helped me. I was composed on the ball. Sometimes guys that didn’t have the Gaelic were a bit more robotic. Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Shane Horgan, who is from Boyne as well – they all played Gaelic football. Rob Kearney, there’s nearly a 100% chance he’ll catch every ball. It’s a good crossover.”
Needless to say, the 32-year-old will be tuning into this evening’s events in Belfast, as keyed up as any supporter. What he knows about the club’s ethos is that there won’t be any talk within the group about this being Paul O’Connell’s swansong in the famed jersey. The man he considers top of the pile, ahead of Ronan O’Gara and Anthony Foley in the pantheon of Munster leaders, wouldn’t allow it.
If Munster replicated what he grew up with, Kildare is just a continuation of that and given his ambition to coach at inter-county level in the GAA, it was an ideal opportunity. When he got the call from team manager Brian Lawlor, he accepted immediately, albeit without knowing what he was letting himself in for.
“I didn’t know what the fitness levels would be like. Being honest, I was surprised how fit they were and the physique of the players. I couldn’t believe it. They’re very young but the former strength and conditioning coach, Kevin Malone did a lot of the stepping stones towards where I’d want to bring them. For me to bring them to the next level was easy because they did the hard work the year before. There was a great baseline. The weights they are lifting, their fitness scores… are a really good standard. They’re a very keen young team and a pleasure to work with.”
e had worked with the UL-based Tipperary senior and U21 footballers in John Evans’ time and spent two years with Éire Óg, Nenagh. This was a challenge he was looking for.
“For the first two months Brian said ‘You have eight weeks, two sessions a week and it’s your baby’. That was brilliant because sometimes you don’t get the licence to do that with teams. I love to work alongside a coach like that. Brian is very modern, very organised, very good. He gave me licence to do the pre-season and manage it. So I would do a fitness block, a skills block and that was brilliant. We did eight weeks of hard pre-season, just like we’d do at Munster, and the scores at the end were very high.”
They have lost only one game all year. They won the Division 2B League title without a blip and have recovered from the hiccup of losing their Christy Ring Cup first round replay to London in Newbridge in stirring fashion. Both Mayo and Meath opened up substantial leads but despite being on opposition territory, Kildare had the character and fitness to prevail.
The indecent haste with which the competition is completed presents obvious difficulties in terms of training, quite apart from perpetuating the sense that it doesn’t matter to the powers that be. Meanwhile, the involvement of nine panellists as the U21s put up an excellent show against Wexford on Wednesday is another hurdle. But monitoring who needs rest and who doesn’t is just part of the gig.
So it was the pool on Sunday morning, light training on Tuesday involving plyometrics and mobility warm-ups before working on the plan for Kerry. Those that played Tuesday had Wednesday off and would do very little on Thursday apart from some stickwork. The level of detail and preparation is professional, even away from the bright lights of Broadway. The level of expertise Ronan brings to the show ensures that players will not be overtrained. The combination of conditioning and freshness has been evident in recent weeks.
So too, the spirit. That, says Ronan, comes primarily from Lawlor. In many ways, it is comparable to that sense of belonging and representation he enjoyed with Munster. Of the jersey being on loan and a player having a short time to leave some of his DNA in it. Of the group being more important than the individual. Of taking individual and collective responsibility.
“In any sport if you have a good bond and a good ethos, and everyone is honest with each other, you’ll go far.
“They are so dedicated, a great young bunch of lads and in fairness, Brian has a serious set-up. Very professional. It’s very like a rugby set-up where he breaks down all the individual skills of the game… three different coaches, and then myself, so that’s four coaches working together to try and get the best out of them. He has the tactical awareness then.
“That’s what rugby is like. Sometimes in GAA we all train together and you’re not breaking down the skill. Brian is a big believer in that.
He understands that Kerry represent a considerable potential stumbling block to their ambitions but cannot think of a better motivation than playing in a final at GAA Headquarters, particularly as there are a number of younger players that weren’t involved last year. He has his own reasons for wanting to be there too. “I played twice in Croke Park. I played for Meath minors against Dublin and got hammered by 10 points (in 2000). I had a stinker, was brutal. And I came off the bench for Munster against Leinster (in the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009) so hopefully it will be third time lucky in the Christy Ring if we get there.”
What I would say is there is more of a parish mentality in Munster than there is in Leinster