ONE OF THE most impressive aspects of Ireland’s campaign in the current Women’s Rugby World Cup has been the sheer professionalism of Philip Doyle’s squad.
The players and management all have day jobs, but their mindset and actions in recent years have belied their status as amateurs in the sport. Wins over the US, New Zealand and Kazakhstan were the results of superb preparation, while Ireland can secure third place in the tournament by beating France tomorrow [KO 3.30pm Irish time, TG4].
In order to get an insight into the planning, monitoring, communication and intelligence that goes into Ireland’s routine, TheScore.ie went behind the scenes at the squad’s Marcoussis base, 25 kilometres south of Paris.
The following article recounts Ireland’s training yesterday, Friday 15 August, and reflects some of the consistent elements in their schedule, without necessarily being the routine Ireland operate under every day.
08.45 – Monitoring and mobility
The first port of call for Ireland is strength and conditioning coach Marian Earls’ mobile monitoring station, where the players run through a series of physical tests and fill out a sheet to account for their psychological state heading into the day.
Sleep is a major factor in a tournament such as the World Cup, with Earls advising the players to get at least eight hours a night, which may not always happen. As a result, 20-minute top-up naps in between sessions during the day are also part of the schedule.
Once the players are awake and up in the morning, they head for Earls’ monitoring area on the balcony outside the team room in Marcoussis, where the Wicklow native guides them through a well-worn routine.
“They come in and take their body mass, do a sit and reach test, knee to wall, shoulder mobility and abductor squeeze,” explains Wicklow native Earls. “Then we compare their scores to normative scores we have for them.
“We have the four weeks leading into the tournament and then the average scores since we got here. If they don’t match their normative scores, they would complete a three-minute ‘primer’ activity before going into our formal mobility session.”
Once each player has completed that range of tests, they fill out a form that helps Earls to assess how the squad feel about their own fatigue and recovery progress.
“We have some psychological readiness scores, so we have categories like ‘slept well’, ‘looking forward to today’s activity’, ‘vigorous and energetic’, ‘muscle soreness’, ‘appetite’,” outlines Earls.
“They’re all graded out of five – five is strongly agree, one is strongly disagree. I’ll get through those sheets during breakfast time and pinpoint anyone that needs to talk to me or talk to the physio.”
The entire process is designed to allow Earls to monitor each player’s wellness, as well as feeding into how heavy a workload each individual will take on for the training day to follow.
Earls, who will begin work with the Connacht men’s set-up just 10 days after the World Cup ends, points out that the ideal scenario is no player missing a pitch session, even if some may need extra physiotherapy before training.
When those processes are finished, the entire 26-player squad gather in the team room and carry out a mobility session, loosening their muscles and activating their bodies for the day.
This 15-minute block of mobility is “guided” by Earls in order to ensure the most efficient use of time.
09.30 – Breakfast
Following the monitoring and mobility, the players sit down for their first meal of the day. Breakfast usually consists of hot foods like eggs, bacon and mushrooms, as well as cereals and fresh fruit.
Marcoussis’ on-site staff have already set places and laid out the food before the players arrive to eat, while Ireland’s bagman Andy Weir has left each player’s Omega-3 fish oil capsules, probiotics and any other tablets they require neatly at the tables.
All the while, in the background, the Irish coaching staff are buried in their computers carrying out analysis of the defeat to England and planning to face France. This process has been underway since the morning after the semi-final, and is painstakingly detailed.
Performance analyst Len Browne, who works in UCC and also with the Cork footballers among other teams, often puts in 15-hour days of analysis, chopping game tape into accessible compilations for the coaches to use [for example, 'France starter plays'].
Head coach Philip Doyle, attack coach Greg McWilliams and scrum specialist Peter Bracken also rack up long hours of analysis, studying the strengths and weaknesses of France, as well as reviewing what needs to improve from the English loss.
Analysis is a huge part of this Ireland set-up’s working, reinforcing the intuition and knowledge of the coaches, while allowing them to prepare intelligent game plans for each specific opponent.
10.30 – Hydration deadline
On what Earls terms “post-game day two and post-game day three,” each player must provide a urine sample, with the S&C coach testing them for an accurate reading of hydration levels.
Earls uses a refractometer to carry out analysis of each sample, performing this during the first block of squad meetings of the day. On this occasion, she tells the players that their hydration levels aren’t “acceptable” and reminds them to consume adequate amounts of fluids, alternating between water and Lucozade.
10.30 to 11.15 – Unit meetings
At 10.30, the backs meet with McWilliams in the team room, while the forwards are forced out onto the balcony with Doyle, Bracken and Brown, centre Grace Davitt joking that they can handle the cold.
These unit meetings allow the backs and forwards to go through analysis specific to their areas of expertise, and also offer an insight into Ireland’s constant desire for improvement.
“The key thing is that when we’re looking back over the England performance, it’s never easy, I’ve been there as a player,” begins McWilliams – who is joining Yale University in the US as full-time Director of Rugby after the World Cup – as he addresses the backs.
“However, there are some things we have to look at and take on board for the next game to make us better. So when we’re watching it, we’re watching analytically, not emotionally. It’s important that we look at some of the good things and bad things. I want you to tell me more so than me telling you.”
Out on the balcony, the forwards go through the French line-out, maul and scrum, with Browne playing video clips of each on a wide screen. Doyle and Bracken encourage the players to engage in the analysis, solving problems themselves.
Inside, McWilliams guides the backs through the areas they need to improve upon after defeat to England. The likes of Lynne Cantwell, Davitt, Vikki McGinn and Niamh Briggs all speak up to voice their own opinions and solutions too.
“The great thing is that in life, as long as you’re learning, it’s being beneficial, as hard as this is to take,” says McWilliams as the players pore over footage of the England clash.
11.30 to 12.15 – Team meeting
After a short break where the players are reminded to take on more fluids, the entire squad sits into the team room and general team analysis is carried out. McWilliams talks the players through the French defence, while Doyle outlines les Bleues attack.
“Everyone stand up and move places, please,” asks the head coach when he takes over from McWilliams, refocusing the players before his presentation.
‘Goose’ Doyle explains that his concentration is often entirely on the opposition attack, allowing him to concentrate solely on how Ireland will halt it. On the flip side, attack coach McWilliams can centre his analysis and prep work on the opponent’s defensive system.
Both coaches are entirely precise in their communication, boiling their message down into concise, memorable bullet-point form and allowing the players to come away with a clarity of understanding.
“We owe it to ourselves and to our supporters to give a good performance,” says Doyle – who retires as Ireland head coach after this World Cup – as the meeting comes to a close.
12.30 – Lunch
As with breakfast, lunch consists of simple foods like pasta, chicken, roast vegetables and a wide range of salads. Again, Earls reminds players to keep their hydration in focus by taking on liquids with their meal.
13.00 to 13.50 – Down time
With a break after lunch to allow the players to digest before heading for the training pitch, there is a period of down time. These blocks throughout the day are also beneficial for the players who need to visit physiotherapist Ulrik McCarthy Persson.
“Really, it starts after breakfast and I try to hit treatments throughout the day,” explains McCarthy Persson, who lectures in physio in UCD. “There would be blocks throughout the day, depending on where they fit in, so we intersperse them between the events.”
While Ireland have been relatively fortunate with injuries during this competition, McCarthy Persson admits that many players tend to carry minor ailments and aches throughout the 17-day schedule.
“I would say that probably about 50 or 60 per cent of them may always have some kind of niggling. In tournaments like this, with so many games, there is a large portion of people needing to recover from bruises, strains, little things like that.”
For some players, their interaction with McCarthy Persson – who had a stint with Ireland’s men’s team under Eddie O’Sullivan – is simply about aiding recovery, but others are more “high-need” and require two or three visits to the physio each day.
13.50 Pre-training outline
Before their 14.00 training on the pitch, the squad gather briefly in the team room to go through the content of the session and what the coaches want to get from it. Each session is planned to the minute, with an allocated time frame for each block.
Again, Doyle concludes the meeting with a concise motivational message, urging his players to “show me these things and you’ll get selected.” The tone is set as Ireland head for the pitch.
14.00 – Pitch session
The players make the three-minute walk to one of Marcoussis’ many superb pitches, where cones, bibs, tackle bags, water, recovery drinks, spare studs, spare laces and a limitless supply of all other necessaries is already laid out.
This is the work of the squad’s bagman, Andy Weir, an Ulsterman who has been with the Ireland for the last three years but will step away following this tournament. His security firm and duties with Ulster’s U19, U20 and Raven sides will keep him more than occupied.
Weir operates behind the scenes, ensuring everything is in its right place and planning for all sorts of emergency situations. On match days, he does his best to make sure “the changing room is set up more or less exactly the same as we would have in Ashbourne.”
A Bangor clubman, Weir is a believer in having the “highest standards” and a visit to his room in Marcoussis backs that statement up, given the impressive lengths he has gone to to prepare the kit, back-up kit and back-up back-up kit for all eventualities.
“If every single person does their piece right, there’s no stress,” says Weir. “Nobody has to worry if this or that is done, we all have confidence in each other.” A neat snapshot of this Ireland set-up.
On the pitch, Earls leads the players off with a series of physical ‘primers’, involving rubber bands, one-legged jumps and a range of other exercises. Music blasts out of a set of portable speakers and Earls urges her charges to get their “game faces on”.
The training session itself lasts a strict 40 minutes, with workload management essential at this late stage of the tournament and with fatigue levels already pushed towards the limit by an accumulation of games.
A block of touch rugby serves as a warm-up, but also allows the coaches to enforce the messages and content of their analysis earlier in the day, encouraging the players to carry out what they have already discussed in terms of shape in attack.
From there, Ireland split into backs and forwards, with the latter heading for the scrum machine with former Munster and Connacht prop Bracken, while the former work on their catch/pass with McWilliams.
The squad then come together to go through their attacking plan and defensive structure, with the coaches running two teams against each other. Finally, a short block of contact allows the players to work on their skills around the collisions.
On the sidelines, communications manager Maria Boland is recording video footage, part of her busy day behind the scenes with the Ireland squad. Her duties also include dealing with media requests, of which this World Cup has seen an increasing amount.
“I’m up in the morning to deal with any media requests or breakfast morning radio,” outlines Boland. “We schedule any interviews or requests for just before or after lunch or just before or after dinner, when everyone else is together.
“I’ve been doing content for the website as well, so a video or two a day and then some training footage.”
Meanwhile, Browne is behind the goalposts with a camera of his own, recording the training session for yet more analysis. With crucial selection decisions to be made in the evening, such footage can prove a decisive factor as the coaches review the day’s work.
15.30 – Ice baths or gym session
Following the pitch session and immediately-consumed recovery shakes, 11 of the squad head for the on-site gym for a short workout. These are players who have accumulated less game time, or who missed out on the gym following the Kazakhstan fixture.
“It’s basically a CNS-stimulation gym session,” says Earls, CNS being the Central Nervous System, and while the programme is mainly focused on the upper body, the S&C expert explains that it will stimulate growth hormone throughout the body.
Box jumps, weighted push-ups, single arm rows, curl and presses and the much-loved plank rotations are all involved. Again, Earls is constantly communicating, offering technical advice and motivation: “Positivity, work together, encourage your partner!”
She asks the players to sing as they plank, and a tuneful version of Hakuna Matata rings out in the Marcoussis gym.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the squad has headed back to two of the rooms at their accommodation block, where ice baths have been prepared by team doctor Brigid Collins and manager Gemma Crowley.
Collins and Crowley are two of the backroom staff who buzz about camp throughout the day, ensuring the operation runs smoothly. Collins also works with Kildare GAA, while former Ireland international Crowley is joining the 2015 Rugby World Cup organising committee.
The pair, who have a strong bond with the players, have organised enough ice – Crowley has turned to the local McDonald’s for extra supplies – to allow the squad to go through one of their daily recovery processes.
16.30 to 18.30 – Down time
The players have another block of down time following their training session[s], with many taking the opportunity to visit McCarthy Persson, others returning to their rooms to zone out, while some get stuck into even more analysis.
Each individual is different in their interaction with game footage, with certain players constantly looking to do as much reviewing and planning as possible in terms of analysis, while others operate better with limited exposure to the footage.
Many players like to do their analysis in pairs, working with players who are usually close to them on the pitch – midfield players work together, back rows buddy up and front rows examine scrum footage as a unit.
Meanwhile, other squad members take the chance to switch off and relax, while the messers in the group take advantage of the lull to pull off their latest prank. Somehow, someone ends up in the river that runs through the Marcoussis complex and plenty of others get caught in the crossfire of a series of water balloons.
18.30 – Dinner
The third main meal of the day consists of lots of cooked vegetables, salads, pork steaks and mousse for dessert. The players can eat quite a large meal at this time of the day, with their training now completed.
19.15 – Management meeting
The entire management team convene on the balcony outside the team room after dinner to run through the planning and logistics for the next day of training, as well as the 3rd/4th place play-off against the French.
Crowley chairs the meeting in her role as lead organiser, while Doyle has the final say on all matters to do with the team and their training. Timing, recovery, transport, squad morale and other topics are all covered and agreed upon in the 20-minute meeting.
20.00 – Squad meeting
The day’s activity ends with a final meeting for the entire squad, in which the management briefly outline some of the newly-agreed-upon planning details, before head coach Doyle refocuses the players’ minds on the upcoming task against France.
He poses tactical and technical questions to gauge the understanding of the day’s analysis work, with the players providing feedback on what they feel requires more work in the following day’s training.
Fifteen minutes later, the Friday’s schedule comes to an end. The next morning, the players and management will go again, striving to finish their World Cup campaign on a high note.
All images ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.