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'Leicester is a very hard-nosed, tough, working-class environment'

Cobh man Shane Lehane is now head of S&C for the Melbourne Rebels after more than five years with the Tigers.
Apr 28th 2020, 7:30 PM 16,254 2

COBH IS A lovely spot, particularly when the sun is shining, but Sandringham – the beachside suburb of Melbourne where Shane Lehane and his family live – definitely isn’t the worst substitute.

Lehane has been head strength and conditioning coach for the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby since 2015, having worked with Leicester Tigers in the UK for the five-and-a-half years before that.

Add in the three years studying at Loughborough University that preceded his time with the Premiership club and Lehane has spent 13 years living away from Ireland and his hometown of Cobh.

1E2A9106 Melbourne Rebels' head strength and conditioning coach, Shane Lehane. Source: Melbourne Rebels

There’s still a pleasant Cork twang to his accent as we speak on Zoom but professional rugby has brought Lehane to the other side of the world, where he and his wife, fellow Cobh native Sarah, are now close to becoming Australian citizens, while they have a 20-month-old daughter, Lara, on the scene too.

Lehane came from a GAA background but admits that “rugby has pretty much defined my life” since secondary school in Christian Brothers College, Cork, where he came through with future Munster men Billy Holland, Duncan Williams, and Darragh Hurley.

Lehane “loved developing the physical side” of his game and having initially secured a History degree in UCC, he re-routed to study Sports Science in the highly-regarded Loughborough, “a really good mix of academia and top-level coaches and athletes.”

During that second degree, he took on internships in Ulster, with age-grade Munster teams and also in Ireland camp thanks to the legendary Dr Liam Hennessy, who Lehane highlights as his first true mentor.

Lehane managed to secure a final S&C internship with Leicester, who were a genuine force at the time – runners-up of the 2007 and 2009 Heineken Cups and having just secured the 2010 Premiership title, their third in four years.

Leicester were a relentless team on the pitch – although coming towards at the tail end of their dominance – and Lehane also discovered their famous no-bullshit culture under boss Richard Cockerill.

“It’s a very hard-nosed, tough, working-class environment,” says Lehane.

“I remember my first meeting with Cockerill, I came in from uni with long, bleached-blond hair. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Cocker’ and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Shane’ and then I went, ‘What should I call you?’

“I meant should I call him Boss or Sir or Richard. He just grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I just fucking told you what my name was.’

rugby-union-aviva-premiership-leicester-tigers-v-wasps-welford-road-stadium Richard Cockerill was Lehane's boss in Leicester. Source: PA

“I was thinking, ‘It’s day one, here we go.’ My personality is very outgoing and I wasn’t your stereotypical Leicester employee, so I probably had to win some people over with hard work.

“I was doing all sorts, wearing tackle suits, getting padded up for contact conditioning two or three times a week, coming in at 7am and leaving at 10pm, doing so much extra in an effort to impress and become part of a team.”

Lehane did exactly that, meaning Cockerill and co. were keen to keep him onboard when the initial internship ended – although the offer left plenty to be desired from a financial point of view.

“Cocker came to me and said, ‘There’s not really a position there but we’ve been quite impressed with the work you’ve done, we think you’ve added value. There’s £8,000 left in the budget and some leftover gym equipment you can sell.’

“It was an opportunity and I took it. I flogged all the gym equipment and wood from some old lifting platforms for another £4,500. I paid off my rent for the first six months in cash and then I was living off maybe £600 a month.

“I remember coming up to Christmas then and wondering what I was going to do about the next block of rent but thankfully there was some movement in the department and they put me on a more reasonable salary.”

It wasn’t big money but Lehane was in and quickly became part of the furniture at Tigers, where head of S&C, Alex Martin, was another mentor. Leicester got to three consecutive Premiership finals in his first three years there, winning the third of those against Northampton.

“The standards were incredibly high, with everything,” says Lehane. “If you wore the wrong socks, you had to leave, you just didn’t take part in sessions. Always the right kit, the right time, no excuses for not putting in the work.

“That work ethic was very high, driven by Cocker and Alex, who was very diligent.”

When an offer arrived from the Rebels in 2015, one that required a quick answer, Lehane didn’t find it easy to make up his mind to leave Leicester.

melbourne-rebels-training Melbourne Rebels boss Dave Wessels. Source: AAP/PA Images

“Leicester is similar to Munster in many regards, it represents the area and the people and there’s a very strong connection,” says Lehane.

“I remember telling Alex that I was going and I was uncontrollably crying, to be honest. It was like breaking up with a girlfriend. I had the same conversation with Cocker an hour later.”

The link to Melbourne was ex-Munster boss Tony McGahan, in charge of the Rebels at that stage, and S&C coach Bryce Kavanagh, who is now with the English FA.

While Lehane was working under Martin in Leicester, he is now the head of S&C for the Rebels. Interestingly, he says he has moved away from having a very defined idea of his own athletic performance ‘philosophy’.

“I probably made the mistake when I arrived, to be honest, of rolling out a programme that was very similar to the one in Leicester, who at the time played a very confrontational, forward-orientated, set-piece-orientated game and we trained the athletes to support that,” explains Lehane.

“But the way the Rebels play is high-tempo, unstructured, moving the ball around. So it’s all about designing an athletic performance programme that best supports that game model.

“It’s not that I implemented a bad programme at the start, it’s that it could have been more considered of the overall direction of the team. Where my thinking has evolved to is that my only philosophy is to support the team’s goals and the organisation’s goals.”

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Current Rebels boss Dave Wessels is the fifth head coach Lehane has worked with and he says the South African has “the clearest vision I’ve had from a head coach in terms of how he wants his team to play, documenting it and putting that down on paper.”

That clarity means Lehane can coach the Rebels players towards being more athletically capable of carrying out Wessels’ plans, and the Irishman stresses that “having a decent technical and tactical understanding of what the team is trying to achieve” is important.

1E2A9094 Lehane has lived in Melbourne since 2015. Source: Melbourne Rebels

While they’re currently not training collectively due to the Covid-19 restrictions in Australia, Lehane says the Rebels players are a pleasure to work with.

“Australians are very good movers, generally. There’s probably less specialisation in sport early on. Guys could be playing Aussie rules, rugby league, rugby union, they’re on the beach playing volleyball and surfing.

“So the general athletic capacities of a lot of Australians are very good. That’s definitely a positive from a pure athletic perspective.”

With their home in Sandringham just five minutes from the beach – “a little bit different to Leicester” – life is good for the Lehanes. Sarah had just started a job in London when Shane got the gig with the Rebels, meaning she had to sacrifice her own career initially when they moved over.

“It’s hard to work in professional sport without someone who is that supportive,” says Lehane, explaining that his wife is now working in the tech department of a leading property website.

There’s little certainty in pro rugby, particularly with everything that’s going on right now, but Melbourne is feeling more like home.

“I’d be quite proud of it if we become Australians,” says Lehane. “I really want to contribute towards Australian rugby improving.

“I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was 22, but that will always be home.

“I don’t know how settled you can ever be in professional sport. There have been some tumultuous times here, with a team [the Force] being cut in 2017. Rugby Australia is obviously in a financially difficult circumstance now.

“You never know what’s going to happen in professional sport, but I feel very invested in the project here.”

- This article was updated at 11.48pm to correct ‘winners’ to ‘runners-up’ in the eighth paragraph.

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Murray Kinsella

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