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'It's an atmosphere of sporting excellence, not just rugby'

Moving into a new high performance centre has made the balance of rugby and college more enjoyable for members of the Ireland Women’s Sevens team.

Ireland's Lucy Mulhall (left) and Eve Higgins.
Ireland's Lucy Mulhall (left) and Eve Higgins.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

SOMEBODY PRESSED PLAY, the group closed their eyes, and after a brief moment of silence, the first few giggles broke out. 

The practice of mindfulness was a new concept for the Ireland Women’s Sevens team, but they are a squad who have been happy to embrace change recently.

“The first time we did it there was a few giggles, but now I think it’s something everyone enjoys,” explains centre Eve Higgins. 

“It’s quite a weird thing to do in the first place, let alone doing it in the dressing room all together,” adds Lucy Mulhall, the squad captain. “But we’ve found it really good so far.”   

The pair are speaking in the gym of the IRFU’s new High Performance Centre at the National Sports Campus, a facility that screams sporting excellence. The building lies tucked away at the back of the Sport Ireland campus, past the five pitches that encompass the GAA Centre of Excellence and connected to the National Indoor Arena. 

Since opening over the summer, it is where the all of the Ireland national teams will be based. The men’s and women’s sevens teams are already well settled, with the Ireland U20s also using the facility. The senior squad trained there before the Rugby World Cup and will use it as their training base for the first camp of the Andy Farrell era in December. 

The centre includes three outdoor pitches, a spacious gym, massage and physiotherapy rooms, team meeting rooms, recovery rooms which include hot and cold baths, as well as a state of the art three-quarter length indoor pitch. The IRFU signage and motivational messages dotted around the building ensures no-one forgets they are representing Ireland, and the lay-out of the building means everything is within a short walk. So far, the schedules have been running so smoothly that despite there being three teams in the building last week, they barley crossed paths. 

In short, it is a dream for any sportsperson. 

“It’s unreal,” says Mulhall. “I never ever dreamed in my career that [something like this] would happen. You just come in here everyday and you just look forward to it. We’re at the far side of the city and it’s not an issue at all getting up early and driving across the city, because you know you’re coming in here. 

irelands-eve-higgins-runs-in-to-score-a-try Eve Higgins is one of the brightest young talents in the squad. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“Then just the atmosphere around the place, having the boys around, having members of staff within the IRFU, having the U20s, the 15s, everything, it’s an atmosphere of sporting excellence, not just rugby. You see the likes of Annalise Murphy going training in the building next door, it’s just cool. It’s a really good atmosphere of Irish sport and wanting to improve constantly every day.  

“I think it’s the atmosphere more than anything that’s helped our culture as a team. Being in here, every day you really feel like we’re training for our country and we’re training to go and play for our country. I think the way they’ve done everything around here [IRFU signage], that theme carries the whole way through, so it’s been really good and I think we’ve definitely seen an improvement in our training since we’ve come here.” 

It’s quite a difference from the previous arrangement. Before the move, the squad were based in Lansdowne Road, moving between Lansdowne Rugby Club and the Aviva Stadium across the day. 

“We would have to walk to a gym that was in the Aviva,” explains Higgins.  

“It was only around the corner, but if it’s raining [it wasn’t ideal]… then we’d train on the pitch at the club in Lansdowne. It’s great here because if it is raining, we can just train inside and not think about it.  

“I think there was times [previously] that you were struggling with time management. You felt you were running out the door, and then quickly eating food. Sometimes if we were training in Donnybrook Stadium, that meant we would have to leave 45 minutes before a pitch session in case there was traffic, because you had to be there early enough to warm up. The inconvenience of that has completely gone. Until we were in here we didn’t realise how much easier everything was.” 

It is telling that both players mention the convenience that the new training base provides, as like many of their team-mates, both juggle their sevens career with their college studies. 

Mulhall, 26, is in the middle of a Maths postgraduate course in UCD, while Higgins, 20, is studying History and Sociology at the same college. 

Both already have one eye on the future, knowing the wages on offer from sevens rugby won’t build much of nest egg. 

“It takes a while to get used to, but I think they compliment each other, because you’re here and your legs and arms are physically wrecked after training, and then you can go home or on your day off you can sit down and challenge yourself in a completely different way by studying,” says Mulhall, a former Gaelic footballer with Wicklow who joined the squad in 2015.  

“I find it really good for either when things are going well or things are going poorly. Like, if you have an injury, it’s so good to have something else to be able to focus on. It’s kind of reassurance as well, knowing that this can’t last forever and I’m not afraid of the day where it ends because I know that I’m getting ready for life afterwards, which allows me to make the most of this and hopefully make this last as long as possible then as well.” 

For Higgins, one of the most exciting young players in the squad, the challenge of balancing the two was something she was keen to tackle. 

“With History and Sociology, I picked it with a mind to training here,” she says, adding that she hopes to move on to study Criminology after her degree.

“A lot of the time you’re on learnings outside of college, which is the reading and those aspects, which suits flying and stuff like that. 

irelands-lucy-mulhall The experienced Mulhall will miss the Dubai games through injury. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“I was very conscious of not taking a year out. I wanted to get straight into things. I had started training here with the girls when I was still in school, so I had a year of going once or twice a week into training, seeing what it was like having something outside of the training, and it’s something I really wanted to do.” 

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For both, the schedule can be hectic at times, but the move to the high performance centre has ensured morale stays high within the squad. After the bitter disappointment of missing out on Olympic qualification earlier in the year, the squad are currently concentrating on improving their standing on the World Series circuit.  

Their campaign began with a disappointing eighth place finish at the first tournament of the season in Colorado last month, and restarts with a trip to Dubai next week which leads straight into another series event in Cape Town. Captain Mulhall misses out on the 13-player squad having picked up a thumb injury in training, a major blow on a milestone occasion for the Ireland sevens programme, as both the men’s and women’s teams embark on back-to-back tournaments together for the first time. 

While sevens rugby has yet to capture the imagination of the general sporting public in Ireland, the desire to grow the sport is clear. Between 2013/14 and last season, the spend on the men’s and women’s programmes jumped by over €350,000. The women’s team have been regulars on the World Series circuit for some time now, but the men’s team, which was only restarted in 2015 after a dormant period, make their debut as a core team in Dubai, having previously played as an invitational team.  

Being housed in such a world class facility also brings an expectation for both teams to deliver on the investment in them. In the case of the women’s squad, the addition of a rather common practice such as mindfulness is one of the more minor adjustments that has been made. 

“We’ve changed our training from a year ago, you’re always feeding new things in, but definitely the indoor pitch gives us a chance [to do more],” says Higgins.  

“Before the gym we’ve put in extra skills sessions, so we can hop inside with our boots, do some passing drills, so some kicking and catching drills, and then whip the boots off, put our trainers on and go into the gym. Those little extra half an hour sessions that we’re getting in, we haven’t had that before. That’s really feeding into getting quality on to the pitch. 

“Obviously if you’re working on a skill for an extra half an hour a day, you’d want it to be improving. It’s a good time to not focus on everything in a training session, and just focus on little things like a catch or a pass, or kicking. It’s hard when you are in a team sport for say, any kickers to have 30 minutes to just practice kicking, but now we have an opportunity to do that.” 

They only need to look around them to see that they have everything they need to perform to the highest level. Improvement isn’t just desired anymore, it’s expected.

Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to discuss eye-gouging, Munster’s scrum-half situation, and the rest of the provincial news.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

 

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