Rugby and Covid-19: 'There’s no rabbit to track down'

Simon Lewis discovers how key stakeholders in Irish rugby are staying professional - and upbeat - in a changed world
Rugby and Covid-19: 'There’s no rabbit to track down'
Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell with his kids, Conan who’ll be three in August and Hayden who’ll be one in June. They’re keeping their parents busy during the lockdown.

Simon Lewis discovers how Irish rugby professionals are keeping ahead in a strange world.

THE PLAYER: Tommy O’Donnell, Munster back-row forward.

"I was just coming back from a hamstring injury when the outbreak reached us. I was back to full fitness and had played a couple of games off the bench, against Scarlets (February 28) and Zebre (February 21), in Milan and was asking the question about playing full games.

That seems like an age ago now. We were there in northern Italy and didn’t know the seriousness of it all. I mean, we had an idea but we never thought it was going to lock us down so quickly.

Within a week of us having left Italy they locked down most of northern Italy and a couple of days later the whole of Italy and we weren’t far behind ourselves.

We were heading into a week off after the Scarlets game and Johann (van Graan, Munster head coach) had been mentioning the potential of stopping and we said we’d see how things match up when we came back a week later but before we even got to the week off we were told ‘okay, we’re not going back in tomorrow, we’re going to apply social distancing’.

So then it was ‘okay, we’ll be grand’ but before we knew it social distancing had turned into a full lockdown. In fairness, from the minute it shut down, there was good communication from the IRFU down and through Johann.

From day one they established that we would be looking at an eight-week lay-off so we always had the idea that we would get to May 18 and we’d reassess from there. So everything has been planned in that regard.

All the equipment was divided up equally on day one and everything that wasn’t bolted down in our HPC (High Performance Centre) was given out for players to utilise and to try and keep fit.

We have our GPS units as well and all the health and fitness monitoring through the IRFU app so they can decide how players are responding to each block. If we have to go over the May 18 return date they’ll be able to adjust the programmes, whether we need to ramp it up or taper it back.

There’s no hiding place and the main thing you have to tell yourself when you’re tempted to press the snooze button for 15 more minutes in bed is that whenever we do get back we will be found out when they put a fitness test in front of you.

All the information we need, from nutrition to S&C has been there for us to help our daily routines and to help us stay out of the larder and we’ve been blessed with the weather which has been dry and sunny so we can get outside virtually all day.

We’ve two young kids, Conan who’ll be three in August and Hayden who’ll be one in June. So I’d be waking up at around 7am with the kids and myself and Elisse will work our days around them, looking after them, keeping them entertained and getting the youngest one down for his nap and then you’re doing your weights or a run, getting your training schedule in.

We have stuff we have to get through, so there’s an AM session and a PM session but there’s no specific time to do them at.

The squad’s been broken down into mini-groups each of them with a member of the leadership group and each assigned a physio and strength and conditioning personnel, who we refer to with any questions and we have a group chat every week.

They know all our personal needs in terms of mobility and strengthening and we all got individual programmes to work through on different days. So we might have an upper body prep and then a strength and rehab session, and then the same for lower body.

Then on certain days we’d have running and certain amount of speed prep to do to try and help get those max velocity runs and max acceleration runs in so when we do go back we haven’t just been doing steady runs all the time, there’ll be some explosivity about you, some good shape and technique to be able to run at high speed again when we do get going.

Running is tough because you’ve nobody to chase. There’s no rabbit that you know you can track down by the end of the run.

So we’re on our own. We’re given times and paces we’re supposed to keep and it’s down to you and your competitiveness as the sets and reps go on.

I would never have had any weights in the house or anything before this. The HPC is about a 10-minute drive from my house and so I could get in and out of there when I wanted so there was never a reason to have equipment at home. I’d have had a few fitness bands for rehabbing injuries but nothing along the lines of dumbbells or barbells or anything like that.

Munster handed out all the balls as well so I’ve a rugby ball, a tennis ball to keep the reactive skills going and I’ve a sliotar which I picked up after Tipperary won the All-Ireland last summer. I’m starting to wear the leather off it now, it’s good for keeping the hand-eye coordination going.

We were also given a ShadowBall as well, which is like half a rugby ball with a flat end. You can throw it against the wall and it’ll come back to you which is handy because my lads are interested in the rugby ball but they’re not the best at giving it back to you at the moment.

At least you know when you throw a ShadowBall against a wall that it’s going to come back to you. It’s good for passing and catching mobility.

We’ve a nice-sized garden and when I retire I’d like to be able to set up a home gym and this time has given me a few ideas about how to utilise the space in the garden and what to put in, so there is an upside to all this.

I’ve got a bit of gardening done and a few DIY pieces. Before the DIY stores closed down I was going Dambusters and when it did shut down I had a bit of timber left at home and had to really think wisely about how I was going to use it.

So I built a little cubby house for the two lads to play inside on the patio but every piece of timber I cut I had to really think about how I was going to maximise it and literally by the time I got to the last board I was out of timber.

So that killed a couple of days, designing and building that and painting it up as well.

That’s always something I’ve liked to chip away at, at home. I wouldn’t be making cabinetry or anything like that but I’m able to screw two pieces of timber together and keep them square.

You’d miss the chats every day at work. We’ve had a couple of team meetings by video and everyone was logged in a few minutes before they started and the banter was firing back and forth, it was like being back in the auditorium again before Johann would come in and say ‘okay, time to start the meeting’.

Even though it was Microsoft Teams, it had a familiar feeling about it which was good, keeping up that team vibe and checking in on each other.

Everyone seems to be staying mentally strong and we’ll be firing each other texts every now and then, ‘how are you getting on?’ when I haven’t spoken to someone in a while. Everyone seems to be doing okay. The only moans seem to be ‘I wish I had a better home gym set-up’. Who’d have guessed that a few weeks ago?"

"The last thing you want to do as a coach is overplay your hand in this window"

THE COACH: Stuart Lancaster, Leinster senior coach

Stuart Lancaster has been trawling through videos of games.
Stuart Lancaster has been trawling through videos of games.

"There are things I’m doing in terms of my personal development, watching games, surprise, surprise.

I’m not watching games for nostalgia but I’m watching loads of games. I’ve really enjoyed doing coach development things online. Remote coaching is something I’’ve really enjoyed doing. It’’s forced me to go back and gather clips and give examples.

We did an attack session for AIL coaches, a defence session for 60 to 80 AIL coaches, a coaching call for GAA coaches with 1,000 coaches.

It’s made me go back and reflect on all these principles I learned as a teacher and try to relate them to Gaelic football, for example. There’’s a lot of games I wanted to watch and I’’ve been lucky to get the wide view of the World Cup, particularly the knock-out games. That’’s been big for me, having a look at the players.

I’’ve wanted to analyse them and then feed them back to the playing group at the right time, explaining why things happened, England beating New Zealand and then losing to South Africa, etc.

You can still learn remotely and there are still ways on calls like this that you can connect with the players. We have done that while trying to pick our moments. There was a period initially... We were just about to fly to South Africa and we had trained on the Thursday at Energia Park and then we got put into lockdown and we have not been together since.

We very much left the players to their own devices to settle in to what lockdown felt like and get themselves organised. Gradually as coaches we have had to drip-feed stuff into them just to stimulate some ideas as to where we are and where we can go.

For example, I did a WhatsApp message to the group which was about what we have achieved this season and the areas that have gone well, where we can improve and what we can achieve in this window.

Then, as well, where we can go in the future. We have got a very young team and we’’ve obviously got a blend of youth and experience so it’’s just trying to keep that fire ignited in them. Hopefully this will end and we want to come back in a better shape than when we left it.

Since then we have been sending stuff through to the players more as units, forwards and backs, just to keep the grey matter ticking over and they are obviously doing their training when and how they can.

Certainly in the lead-up to the lockdown phase, the man management of the playing group is a combination of myself, Leo, a huge amount around the selection, the communication of that, there’’s a contractual cycle, decision-making around rest periods for players.

In that session in Energia Park, we had 45 players training, we picked three teams, and there was such a positive vibe about what we were doing. We had the reintegration of the Ireland players, plus the development of young lads like Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne, that piece was handled really well.

Now, my relationship with the players has been on a global scale, more bigger picture, more about things for them to think about, what we learned and what we can do better.

Obviously there have been individuals we have caught up with but I’m mindful of players managing their own personal situations too. The last thing you want to do as a coach is overplay your hand in this window. You've got to have that balance.

"There’s a lot of grey as opposed to a lot of black and white"

THE AGENT: Niall Woods, Navy Blue Sports

Niall Woods: "We were looking to grow the business but it won’t happen this year."
Niall Woods: "We were looking to grow the business but it won’t happen this year."

“I have two or three contracts left (to resolve) at the moment, which is sort of similar every year around April. But obviously this year is a bit more difficult because the clubs can’t make a decision, particularly in the UK.

So if they’re Irish players and the other provinces aren’t looking for them, the next option is generally the UK or France but in both those jurisdictions no-one’s doing anything. The same applies in Italy as well. They’re trying to find out when they will be able to start playing again, will they be allowed to collect revenue from crowds or will there just be TV money?

There are clubs interested in players of mine and I’m sure of other agents but they can’t do anything so it’s just a matter of staying in touch. April would generally be a busy month in terms of appearances and speaking engagement work but it’s almost non-existent now.

The sponsorship market’s quiet so it’s just about staying in touch with people, with sponsors of our own clients, companies we have relationships with and PR agencies, seeing what they’re doing or if people need any of our clients to do anything. More than likely it will mean doing something different such as zoom calls and webinars and things like that, along with a lot of social media stuff.

Generally I’d be around to the clubs as well, I’d be in the UK in April and May, going around with a view towards recruitment. It’s April 2020 now so generally for recruitment, we’d be looking at the July 2021 season but I can’t do that. You can talk to somebody by phone or email them but they don’t know because they (the clubs) haven’t got a budget yet.

Pretty much everything is on hold. I am doing two transfers at the moment, which is a little bit unique but it’s proving slow. Whether it’s actually happening now, I’m not sure. Both my clients are saying ‘what do you think?’ and I can’t give them an honest answer. I could give them a bullshit answer but I don’t do that so you just have to wait.

Around this time of year I’d also be trying to meet potential new clients but you can’t go and meet anyone. You really need to sit down with someone and talk to them for an hour, an hour and a half to get the feel of each other. You can’t really do that over a Zoom or phone call, if someone’s going to trust me to represent them. So that side of it has stalled a little bit as well.

We were looking to grow the business but there’s a massive stalling in the economy and it’s not going to happen this year but you want to be in the best position so when things start again you can keep going.

"I’m dealing with a lot of clients with contract suspensions due to force majeure and speaking to my solicitor about different force majeure clauses, where people rely on an act of God, something like a pandemic but generally the contracts aren’t worded like that, they’re worded quite loosely and so that gives free rein from a legal perspective for both sides to argue.

There’s a lot of grey as opposed to a lot of black and white and then you try and look at it from a humane perspective, both ethically and morally and just try to be reasonable with people and see can we work things out.

All my clients are totally cognisant of the fact that it’s a difficult time for everyone but I’ve one case where someone’s trying to retrospectively suspend a contract back to the middle of March, which a) legally they can’t do and b) morally it’s absolutely crazy in this situation, when people have mortgages to pay.

So it’s difficult but at the same time challenging and you keep learning.

“I’ve spent the guts of 10 years negotiating contracts in difficult situations with the players’ unions, mainly here and at the start in the UK, dealing with clubs and the personalities involved and the wealthy individuals who own clubs over there and dealing with the IRFU here, then for the guts of 10 years working individually for players.

So that’s my USP, no-one else has done that. There’s a number of ex-players who’ve been agents but no-one’s done the ex-player and ex-player association. So I did all the unsexy, unglamourous work - insurance, tax, contractual issues, fighting for players’ rights, for everyone. It’s coming in handy now, put it that way.”

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