'I’d be more appalled by what I see now than what I saw back in the nineties!'
As some of world’s best coaches converge on Thurles, Dr Liam Hennessy casts a cold eye over the state of Irish sport
It may come as news to Brian O’Driscoll, but his three tries at Stade de France 15 years ago essentially secured the strength and conditioning template for Irish rugby in the professional age.
Dr Liam Hennessy is chuckling at the memory of a time when the game here was facing a fundamental identity crisis. He was in his first year as the IRFU’s ‘head of performance’, a role presenting the immediate challenge of trying to win the reluctant hearts and minds of Union officials. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for Irish players to play in excess of 60 games a season, a calamitous overload.
Hennessy and then Irish coach, Warren Gatland, understood the ruinous demands such schedules were placing on players’ bodies. They argued vehemently for a virtual halving of those demands and the insertion of a bolted-on, 10-week pre-season period that would not involve games as well as a month’s complete recovery at the end of every season.
Seemingly unimpressed, the Union set them an immediate challenge. “Go and win in France, then we’ll talk,” they told Gatland and Hennessy.
“We had a lot of political issues to get over before we could get that in place,” Hennessy recalled from his Setanta College base in Thurles this week. “That was our biggest challenge.
“The gun was being put to our heads, my head and Warren Gatland’s head. We were told that we couldn’t be disengaging players from their clubs, especially during Six Nations periods. They needed to be playing through those periods with their clubs.
“So in the end it boiled down to an agreement where they said ‘If you guys beat France, ok we’ll listen to you!’ It really was that blunt. The reality, I suppose, was a feeling that we would never beat France away (Ireland’s last victory there had been in 1972). So this was a seminal moment.
“I’d say they felt there was no hope in hell of us beating France. In fairness to Warren Gatland at the time, I remember him saying ‘Fair enough’. He looked over at me and said ‘I guess we’d better beat France so!’”
Fifteen years on, the basic template set by Hennessy remains in place for Irish rugby.
The protection of players was his priority as the demands of a new professional game wrestled with the obstinate blind spots of an amateur mindset. It helped sell his message that Ireland’s performances at Six Nations level began to subsequently improve in steady increments with Triple Crowns secured under Eddie O’Sullivan’s stewardship in ‘04, ‘06 and ‘07.
“That really helped,” Hennessy confirms. “Because people were able to see ‘Yes, this is making sense!’ You see the game was changing. It was becoming a game of big brutes. What were we to do?
“We had no choice but to bulk up. But there’s a threshold level of bulking up beyond which you just become slower and you won’t move as well. We were always mindful of those thresholds and, as such, probably weren’t bulking up to the extent that others were. Remember too, we’ve a small population to pick from. The majority of talent in Irish sport is playing GAA.
“Back then, there were just fifteen schools supplying the bulk of Irish rugby players. The way the game was changing couldn’t be ignored, but we had to be careful how we changed with it. Bottom line, we felt if we were given that locked-down time of a ten-week pre-season, we could set broad targets.
“So next thing you’re seeing outcomes, you’re seeing Triple Crowns and the season was phased nicely to accommodate the provinces in Europe post-Six Nations then.
“So it was a good model for a northern hemisphere programme.”
Ireland’s outstanding Six Nations record bears out the veracity of that statement. But where can it be reconciled with a World Cup cycle? Hennessy is not entirely sure it can.
His view is that the World Cup scheduling essentially penalises northern hemisphere countries. That it falls too early in the European season for players to be sufficiently ‘battle-hardened’ for the biggest tournament in the game.
“The northern hemisphere system doesn’t work to win World Cups,” he says flatly. “It means you have to be at your peak in September and October when guys are only after coming through pre-season. Your body’s DNA remembers where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Remember our natural peaking phase is February and March.
“So now you’re completely disorientated. Whereas the southern hemisphere teams have long since come through that early-season phase. They’re now battle-hardened, having played through the summer. It’s a much more natural cycle for them.”
So how do we rationalise England’s victory of ‘03?
“How did they overcome that disadvantage?” he asks rhetorically. “Just think of what they did the year prior. They went down to the southern hemisphere and beat the All-Blacks. It was more a psychological thing because their mindset opened up then.
“And England’s focus at the time, as anybody will tell you, was only on the World Cup.”
Hennessy, one of the world’s most eminent exercise physiologists, worries that a lot of the mistakes made in sport through past decades are still being repeated today.
He was physical trainer to the Tipperary team that won the ‘91 All-Ireland hurling crown under the management of ‘Babs’ Keating, bringing an innovative approach that focused almost exclusively on short, sharp drills in sessions that rarely extended beyond an hour. Tipp also built a gym into Semple Stadium where the players could do resistance work in preparation for the serious, intense winter training.
Was Hennessy appalled by the prevailing ignorance elsewhere at the time?
“Well back then it was, largely, just the old, traditional approach of let’s run around the pitch, then play the game,” he reflects. “I wouldn’t have been appalled by anything I saw at the time because, if something is being done because people don’t know any better, you can’t blame them.
“I’d be more appalled by what I see now, to be quite frank. Because the knowledge and understanding are there now, yet it’s quite appalling what is happening. We’ve had thirty or forty years of evidence-based practices to tell us that way isn’t effective. Doing too much is damaging. We see that everywhere.”
Last week, Eamonn Coghlan was guest-speaker at the Setanta College graduation day and recounted his journey from the tutelage of his old coach, Gerry Farnham, in Dublin, through his days at Villanova University under Jumbo Elliott right through to ‘83 and his memorable 5,000 metres gold medal win at the World Championships in Helsinki.
Coghlan estimated that, by ‘83, his average weekly mileage rate (100 miles) might have been cut by as much as 30pc. Hindsight suggested to him that his successive fourth place finishes at the Olympics in Montreal and Moscow might, in hindsight, have been down to training too hard.
Hennessy was exercise physiologist to the Irish Olympic team at Atlanta in ‘96 and all but prophesised the disappointments that would come their way.
He remembers, “I could see that some of our athletes had viciously high mileage and I was saying ‘This won’t work, they won’t last...’ And they didn’t.
“You could see it happening, yet the tradition within the coaching structure that they had was high volume. So, from the ‘70s to the ‘80s into the ‘90s you had this going on and the irony is it’s still going today, but in a different guise now. Now it’s been transferred to the team player.”
The Tipperary county board is currently undertaking a study into dual-player commitments involving 30 individuals over a calendar year with a view to establishing factualevidence of the dual-player work-load.
And Hennessy is hugely welcoming of GAA director-general Paraic Duffy’s recent report on the effects of over-training and player burnout in the GAA today arguing, “The demands now are huge on the younger players especially. It is out of control and, until there’s greater communication and collaboration with all coaching staff, it’s the player that’s going to suffer.
“The biggest victims are amateur players striving to be the best that they can be because the systems fail them.”
Hennessy has had a successful 20-year collaboration with golfer, Padraig Harrington and will soon have the Stackstown man back to the futuristic LIT-Setanta sports lab in Thurles (one of the world’s most advanced) for routine off-season technical assessment.
“There is no harder worker in the world of sport than Padraig Harrington,” he says flatly. “Remember, he’s now competing against people 20 years younger. Like, if you think from the mid-90s to today, he’s still there, he’s still showing that he can win.
“And fingers crossed, he’ll keep going for another – minimum – ten years at what he’s doing.”
• Some of the world’s leading coaches will speak at this weekend’s Setanta College conference ‘Developing and Maximising Youth Potential’ in Thurles, an event that is the brainchild of Dr Liam Hennessy. Among those speaking are the renowned performance psychologist, Dave Alred; Arsenal’s head of sports medicine and athletic development, Des Ryan; Kilkenny hurler and strength and conditioning lecturer Michael Fennelly; and 2011 Denver Broncos NFL-winning coach, Loren Landow. Anyone interested in attending should log on to www.setantaconferences.com