Graduates grasp their sporting chance on foreign fields
European rugby has opened doors for Irish experts in sports science, says Marie Crowe
This time last year, 23-year-old Laois footballer Kevin Smith was preparing for the Leinster championship and in the final stages of a sports science degree at the University of Limerick.
He was facing an insecure future though as jobs in his field are few and far between. Now, 12 months on, Smith lives in Paris and works as a strength and conditioning coach for Stade Francais under the stewardship of Michael Cheika.
It all started for Smith during a work experience placement at Leinster rugby while Cheika was in charge. When he finished his course last April, he got a call from Cheika's backroom team offering him a position in Paris with the strength and conditioning team at Stade Francais.
Smith was in his first season as a senior footballer with Laois and had put in a hard pre-season and league campaign but, after deliberation, he decided it was an offer he couldn't refuse.
Cheika, in his first year with Stade Francais, has started putting together his own team and back-room set-up, just like he did when he arrived in Leinster.
"It's a rebuilding year for Michael (Cheika), the way he wants things done is being put in place," says Smith. "And that's from the strength and conditioning side of things too, the programmes are being put in place with the future of the team in mind."
The core responsibilities of the strength and conditioning coaches are to manage a weights programme particular to a player's position. All players have different needs and it's their job to tailor plans to suit every individual player. That can vary from power to strength or endurance and each specific programme is implemented in a scientific way to get the best results.
In Paris, there are three coaches running the programme and Smith is their assistant. He works hands-on with all the big-name players like the Italian duo of Sergio Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco, French internationals Dimitri Szarzewski, Julien Arias and Pascal Pape and English players Tom Palmer and James Haskall. Although Smith is a GAA man and has no background in rugby, it hasn't affected his job. Initially he had to do some extra work in order to get to know the specific role of each player but that wasn't difficult.
"It was probably an advantage that I'm not a rugby expert. I came into the job not knowing who many of the big players were, that way I wasn't in awe of anyone when I started," said Smith.
"For me, some of the big names are just guys in the gym, and if they didn't do their programmes it's up to me or one of the other guys to tell them to work harder. So I really went in with no fear."
Smith is part of a developing trend of young educated Irish people in the field of sport science and physiotherapy who are leaving the country in search of work.
London Irish have also snapped up some of Ireland's most talented graduates. Dubliner Allan Ryan is the head of strength and conditioning there, Declan Lynch from Limerick is head physio and Kerryman Colm Fuller also forms part of the physio team.
"The thing about rugby is you get different types of contact injuries, you see everything from broken fingers to long-term spinal injuries," said Fuller. "That's one of the biggest advantages of working in rugby -- you get a lot of experience because players can have trauma-related injuries but you also get musculoskeletal injuries of every kind."
Before joining the Exiles, Fuller had just completed a musculoskeletal masters. He always wanted to work in sport but knew the job prospects in Ireland were limited. However, because of the club's central location in London, he comes into contact with many of Ireland's top players and as a result maintains links with home.
"One of the good things about the job is that we still get to deal with players from Ireland. We often get calls in relation to injured Munster players about surgeons based in London," said Fuller.
"At London Irish, we have a network of top surgeons that we have access to. We have a nearby MRI centre where we can get someone scanned within 24 hours. Everything is very accessible here. In Ireland, nearly all sports players go to Santry and they may have to wait a few days to get a scan because it's so busy there."
Working pitchside in top-level sport is a dream job for many Irish people. Fuller sees himself as privileged to be working with London Irish. However, he would love to be doing the job in Ireland but for now returning home is not an option.
Sunday Indo Sport