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Crossfit and rugby: Dublin's melting pot perfect for ex-Norway coach Burke

St. Mary’s coach Peter Burke is part of Crossfit 353 alongside Leinster prop Royce Burke-Flynn.

FLYING INTO TEL Aviv as head coach of the Norway national rugby team ahead of a meeting with Israel in 2012, Peter Burke was wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

With the plane being thrown around by the worst turbulence he’d ever experienced, the Dublin native “was convinced we were going to die.”

Fortunately the pilot completed his landing safely, and in truth it was a rare bad experience for Burke in his year in charge of Norway, although he did find himself lost in the woods somewhere above Tel Aviv on the same trip. A story for another day.

unnamed (2) Burke (right) is part of the Crossfit 353 team along with Gary Featherstone and Leinster prop Royce Burke-Flynn.

An Irishman in charge of the Norway national team?

With a master’s degree in marketing, Burke found himself placed in Oslo as part of Jameson’s international graduate programme in 2011 and the former St. Michael’s, Leinster Schools, UCD and Blackrock RFC man instantly searched out a team to join.

“The first thing I did when I moved to Oslo was look up a rugby club, just to socially get in with a group of lads, like-minded people,” says Burke. “A guy I had played schools with, Rob Gannon, was playing in Oslo Rugby Klubb and told me to come down.

I played one game and I was so lucky, the coach got fed up and decided he wanted to leave. I said I’d rather coach than play and we had a great season.”

Burke wasn’t simply stepping into the role without any background or qualifications, having worked with Wanderers U20s and the St. Michael’s College junior cup team between 2007 and 2010.

Good enough as a player to be involved in trials for the Ireland Schools side in 2004, Burke had realised his professional dream wasn’t to be and instead invested himself in a passion for coaching others, starting at the age of 19 with Wanderers and Michael’s.

After guiding Oslo to their first title in five years, another happy coincidence occurred as the coach of the Norway national team left his position and Burke was asked to step in on a short-term basis.

“It was daunting enough going out to training with a squad of 40 guys and they’re probably thinking I’m the water carrier,” says Burke of his first foray into the job at the age of 23.

unnamed (1) Burke watches his Norway team in action in 2012.

“But we played Sweden shortly after and they were ranked 50th in the world, while we were ranked 92nd. We were beating them until the last five minutes and just lost. The lads thought it was great, so they offered me the position full-time and I took it.”

The Norway role was no way to make a living, however, and Burke’s working career meant he was based in Dublin again at this stage, meaning regular flights over and back to Oslo, Bulgaria, Hungary, Isreal and wherever else his team was playing.

Whatever about the slog involved, Burke loved working with the likes of his old friend Gannon (still the Norway captain today), native Norwegians, naturalised Kiwis, Fijians and Australians, as Norway gradually rose up the world rankings and developed a more professional approach.

“The first training camp we had was up the mountains near Oslo and we were basically training in a public park,” says Burke.

The lads were in sleeping bags on the ground in school dorms at night. If you can make someone feel they’re professional and important, it translates onto the pitch to a degree. We managed to fight a bit for that and it changed.”

Eventually the strain of balancing his job with PWC in Dublin and the Norway coaching role proved too great and Burke reluctantly stepped down. “A poor decision in hindsight,” says the former centre, as he left that job with PWC six months later.

Again there was a hint of fortune in what his stint in Oslo had given him, however, Burke having found a passion for Crossfit on account of a Canadian friend’s love for the fitness philosophy.

A small group of Crossfit fanatics including Burke and his good friend Royce Burke-Flynn – the tighthead who is now on contracted to Leinster – went into business and created Crossfit 353.

The first incarnation was in St. Michael’s school two nights a week, but rapid growth meant a swift move to Sandyford and then on to their current custom-fitted 4000 square feet gym on Bath Avenue.

unnamed (3) Crossfit 353 is located on Bath Avenue in Dublin.

Former Ireland U21 and 7s international Kevin Croke is another part of the team at Crossfit 353, meaning the rugby connections within the gym are strong.

Indeed, the Crossfit community in Dublin as a whole is one that it inextricably linked with the oval ball game. Former Connacht and Leinster prop Rob Sweeney is part of CrossFit Navitas and there are several other current and ex-players involved in other gyms.

“I think what’s great about Crossfit is that unless you’re a specific high-level athlete, like a 100m sprinter, everybody can improve from general increased aerobic output and strength and power,” says Burke in relation to how Crossfit can benefit rugby players.

Kevin Sheehan, who has been captain at Mary’s for a few years and played for the USA, does a mini pre-season with us for example, and he regularly says his first six weeks of the rugby season are best when he comes off a Crossfit block.”

Burke stresses that Crossfit 353 is as much for a 70-year-old retiree or a 35-year-old working a desk job as it is for those involved in other sports. They take a deep pride in the community spirit within their Bath Avenue facility, as a cross section of people train together, the collective sessions tailored to each individual’s ability.

The rugby links are ideal for Burke nonetheless, given that he has continued to coach and now works as head of the St. Mary’s College junior cup team and an assistant to St. Mary’s RFC 1st XV head coach Peter Smyth.

The role with Mary’s JCT came about on account of Burke coaching against the school’s director of rugby, Gabriel Fulcher, in the Hospitals Cup. Burke has been in charge of the St. Vincent’s team since returning to Dublin in 2012 and continues that role today.

Crossfit 353′s Croke is assistant coach to Noel McNamara at UCD this season, while the likes of UCD U20s coach Andrew Burke also train at the gym, meaning there is a “nice little community” of young coaches bouncing ideas off each other.

unnamed Can you pick out the St. Michael's junior players who went on to become pros?

“I’m constantly onto Royce asking him what Leinster are working on too,” says Burke with a laugh.

The Dubliner is clearly deeply passionate about the game, becoming all the more animated as he discusses ‘the basics’, animation off the ball, decision-making, anything to do with rugby.

Burke takes a degree of pride at having worked in St. Michael’s during the time players such as Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath, Cian Kelleher, Ross Moloney, Denis Coulson, Josh Murphy and Dan Leavy were coming through the school.

“Michael’s for 30 years didn’t have one pro, Simon Keogh was the one success and he was a freak. But in the last 10 years, the amount of guys who have come through is huge, they’re churning out players because the foundation is strong.

They’ve got the mental side of it right obviously, the top 2%, but their basic understanding of rugby is really good. It’s put them in good stead because they understand what they’re doing.”

A Level 2-qualified IRFU coach, Burke is now hoping to help drive St. Mary’s youngsters towards the professional game if that’s their dream, while he is excited to work alongside the highly-rated Smyth and his players at St. Mary’s.

“I’m incredibly basic, I think if you do the simple things really well that’s the starting point,” says Burke of his approach to coaching.

“I think that developed in Oslo working with some guys who hadn’t actually played rugby before, hadn’t even touched a ball before. You have to be so, so clear on what you’re asking for.

“Working with guys like Mark Sexton now, even Ian McKinley was up there with us recently, I’m giving my opinion but staying open to players giving me feedback. I’m 11 years out of school and I love nothing more than being on the rugby pitch.

Peter Smyth Burke is now learning from the excellent Peter Smyth in St. Mary's. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You’re learning so much while you’re coaching. We played Belvedere the other night and even getting the lads’ feedback in real time and working with them to figure things out was great. I’m really enjoying working with these higher-level guys.”

Burke spent a short stint observing Michael Bradley at work with Edinburgh during his time as Norway national coach, and thirsts for more similar exposure to professional set-ups as he continues to learn the trade.

His love for the game extends to a business plan for ‘Pro Options,’ as he envisions running a combine for young Irish players who miss out on academy spots but still have ambitions of earning professional contracts.

Burke sees clubs from England and France attending a camp to run the rule over Irish prospects in physical tests, skill sessions and games, offering the chance for more young players to move into the pro game. The feedback he has received from initial discussions with a number of coaches has been extremely positive.

If I had had that opportunity in school, I would have bitten someone’s arm off for it. The level of guys is there in Ireland. I’m looking at this plan and trying to drive it forward now.”

From St. Michael’s to Norway, back to Dublin and into St. Mary’s club and school, Burke has been bringing energy to every rugby project he’s been involved with.

Dublin’s crossover melting pot of rugby and Crossfit has come at the perfect time and Burke’s ambitions in the game are only really starting.

- This article was updated on Monday 24 August to correct ‘metres’ to ‘feet’ in paragraph 20.

‘As long as the hunger is there, I’ll keep playing on’ — John Muldoon

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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