On your marks… Irish rugby players are preparing for a sprint rather than a marathon as the provinces ready themselves for the resumption of the Guinness PRO14 after what will have been a more than five-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 may have consigned professional athletes to back gardens instead of high-performance training centres but now they are back in their state-of-the-art surroundings it is full steam ahead to the return to action on August 22-23.
Or so you would think, given there are only two more rounds of the regular 2019-20 campaign to negotiate before the league goes into semi-finals with the final on September 12.
The short block of games at the business end of the season will require teams to hit the ground running, with no time to play themselves into form. It will be high-intensity, winner-takes-all rugby from the off.
Munster head coach Johann van Graan is aware of the demands his team will face as they bid to secure a semi-final berth. They are second in Conference B, two points behind Edinburgh and eight points ahead of third-placed Scarlets with a further two back to Connacht.
With derbies against both Leinster and Connacht in their first games back, however, the South African urged against going hell for leather in Munster’s preparations.
“It’s a balancing act because from a coaches’ point of view you want to be as best prepared as you can,” Van Graan said on Thursday during his first remote media conference since rugby was suspended on March 19.
“Our main priority is getting on the pitch on August 22 but finding the balance between pushing your players as hard as you can when in the back of your mind these lads were 14 and a half weeks away from us because you don’t want to end up with 20 guys injured and they can’t play in that first game. But also being as best prepared as you can be.
“That will be the main priority for us. The good thing is we’ve had some continuity so it’s not that we’ve got a coaching change at the back end of the season, so things that we’ve been doing in February we can just flow through to what we are doing for the new season.
“We’ve got to make some changes like you do in every pre-season regarding plays, in your structure, in your attack, your defence, some positional switches, some selection switches because I think the way you’re going to pick your team in the first few weeks is going to be pretty important for us.
“We need to make sure we qualify for the semi. I think we are eight points ahead of Scarlets and (another) two ahead of Connacht so you’ve got to balance results out as well and hopefully we will qualify for a semi and that might determine some selection.
“And then its four games in the Aviva and it doesn’t matter how you look at it, you’re going to face Leinster, a team that I think are unbeaten in their last 20 games, I’m not sure about the previous season but they haven’t lost in a very, very long time so great challenges ahead.
“We’re looking forward to it very much because we all just want to get back to rugby. So that balance in approach, it’s going to be very important.”
Van Graan said he had seen teams in rugby and other sports return from lockdown with varying degrees of success, some beginning with a sharp upturn in form, others seeing pre-pandemic form nosedive.
Asked if there was anything he can learn from watching those teams that could help ensure Munster make a fast start in five weeks, Van Graan replied: “How much time do you have?
“We’ve been very extensive in our research across a lot of sporting organisations, from a lot of coaches, athletic performance coaches, mental coaches; a lot of different sports. We have looked at what they have done and what they are currently doing. There’s no magic formula. I guess the tricky part is in any pre-season you get injuries.
“The risks have just gone up a lot now with a pre-season plus Covid-19 of 14 weeks and five days lockdown plus preparing for a new season, so getting that balance right is pretty important.
“The main thing I will say is individual preparation because not everyone is the same. So looking at the individual first, looking at the simple things. That might sound very strange but how they sleep, how they eat, how they recover.
“Those are the things that are almost more important than the rugby because if your recovery is up to scratch and your players sleep eight hours a night and they get the right nutrition, it’s having the right players on the pitch and that’s almost more important than the coaching bit because it’s about their bodies and rugby players use their bodies to perform.
“So that’s where most of our research and work is currently going into and then it’s about adapting. You might see today that you’ve planned for this but you need to take your team in a totally different direction over the coming day or week to make sure we get as many guys on the pitch as possible.”
The likelihood of fly-half Joey Carbery being one of those guys in August is slim. The Ireland star is on his way back from wrist and ankle surgeries, undergone in January and February respectively and Van Graan said his return to Munster colours will be “somewhere in September”.
“I think he just wants to kick a ball again. One of the most difficult things about a rugby player is your highs are so high but your lows are so low.
“You might be starting for Ireland or for Munster and then you get an injury and you’re alone on the operating table. You recover at home with only your family and then the rehab process starts. That’s the tough thing, doing the same thing day in, day out — maybe taking weeks or months before you even feel better. That’s mentally the tough part.
“Joey just wants to get back on the pitch. He’s doing everything he physically can, too. He’s got a very positive outlook on life. He came to Munster for very specific reasons, and he wants to be part of this team, be part of the 23 each week. That’s his goal, to get back as soon as he can.”