INJURIES ARE PERHAPS the most frustrating factor in being a professional sportsperson, but oftentimes stints on the sideline can result in an improved player.
Naturally, there is an adaptation process involved in rediscovering one’s best form, but injuries can allow rugby players to add new strings to their bow, both athletically and in terms of their skill base.
Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran has provided a strong case study in recent weeks, having returned from a long-term knee problem to serve Irish rugby with an impressive reminder of his ability.
The 24-year-old seemed destined for great things when he first burst onto the scene out west, even training with Declan Kidney’s Ireland in 2012, but repeated injuries have stunted him since.
His first appearance this season only came in February, but O’Halloran is certainly making up for lost time. As Pat Lam’s squad prepare for Saturday’s immensely important Guinness Pro12 clash with Ulster, the wing/fullback is eager for more.
“It was a frustrating year for me personally with injury, I missed quite a big chunk of the season,” says the Galway man. “I suppose when I got back into it, it was just about training well and nearly taking each training session at a time, not getting too far ahead of myself.
Once I got selected and got my chance on the pitch, it was all about setting down a marker, just trying to consistently perform better each week.
“I take a lot of confidence from that and it’s another massive opportunity this weekend, so I’m looking forward to keeping that progression going.”
With his knee issue alleviated, O’Halloran explains that he’s feeling as fast and as powerful as he ever has, the ironic thing being that a long-term injury allowed him to improve his overall physical ability.
Additional gym sessions, the correction of minor weaknesses in his athletic make-up and hard work at rehabbing other old injuries means he looks a much-improved athlete compared to the youngster who nailed down a first-time spot in 2011.
Away from the physical side of things, O’Halloran also used his time on the sidelines proactively from a skills point of view. A superb jackal turnover penalty last weekend against Gloucester stood out, while he has been making fine reads in defence too.
“While I was injured, I did a lot of analysis work,” explains O’Halloran. “You’ve a lot more time to get to watch a lot of rugby I suppose. We’ve got a ‘return-to-perform’ protocol here, which is very beneficial to injured players.
“You do individual work with our skills coach and that’s great. You work on things like jackaling, things you might not have time to do on a normal week when you’re training fully, but when you’re injured you have time to do that.
You have time to chat to other lads as well, and they’ll tell you little things to work on. You could also pass that knowledge on from looking at games and training sessions. It works both ways and they’re some of the advantages of when you are injured I suppose.”
Connacht place a strong emphasis on this ‘return-to-perform’ culture under head coach Lam, striving to ensure that players don’t take as long to get back up to match speed when they recover from injuries.
Again, O’Halloran stands out as a strong example of the sense of such a policy and is happy to explain what’s involved.
“You’re starting at 7.30 in the morning, getting your weights in and then after that you’ve got individual skills,” says O’Halloran. “We’ve got a skills coach, Dave Ellis, who individualises what you need to work on.
“So on a Monday it might be axe and jackal, Tuesday it might be passing, it could be kicking on a Wednesday. You’re working on different parts of your game through the week.
“You’re not on the pitch training, so you’re keeping on top of the skills and improving your rugby side of things. It could be modified, so if you have a lower leg injury, you might have to do some of it sitting down or things like that, but there are different ways you can base the skills around your injuries.”
It’s all combined to ensure that O’Halloran has been swiftly able to get up to speed with the demands in the Pro12 and, last weekend, the Challenge Cup.
With Connacht’s interest in the latter having been ended by a poor showing in Kingsholm, all eyes are on the league run-in and whether or not Connacht can secure sixth position and Champions Cup qualification.
Despite being only 24, O’Halloran has a relative wealth of experience behind him, including well over 50 starts for the province. With that comes pressure to stand out as a leader in a young playing group.
The way the squad has changed over the last couple of years, I kind of felt that responsibility to step up and be one of the leaders of the squad,” explains O’Halloran. “I’m more experienced even though I’d still be quite young.
“You kind of feel the responsibility to step up in the backline there. We don’t have guys like Gavin Duffy and Dan Parks that we used to have there to step up to the mark, so it is on younger guys.
“You don’t feel the pressure, but it’s important that when there are tough times in a game you stand up and be counted. Whether you need to get in a huddle with the backs, or whatever, there’s an element there that I’d know I have to step up.”