Thursday 14 December 2017

Getting Ireland fit for purpose

When he was appointed to the long-vacant IRFU position of director of Fitness, Dave Clark's selection was hailed as 'incredibly important' by the union. In his first interview since beginning the job in September 2012, the South African tells Ruaidhri O'Connor about developing the controversial 'Player Performance Management' scheme, managing the balance between fatigue and fitness and how size doesn't necessarily matter when looking to gain an edge

Dave Clark, the IRFU’s Director of Fitness, has incorporated more sports science into the decision making process of when to rest international players from club action inpho
Dave Clark, the IRFU’s Director of Fitness, has incorporated more sports science into the decision making process of when to rest international players from club action inpho
Ireland’s Jack McGrath tackles Samoa’s Jack Lam during their November
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

HAVING spent 13 years out of rugby and immersed in preparing Olympic athletes, Dave Clark last year returned to a sport that had transformed utterly since he had left it.

The basic principles remained the same as the game he had played in South Africa and had worked on as a strength and conditioning coach in the early days of professionalism in his own country and in Wales, but when moving from 'sportscotland' -- Scotland's national agency for sport -- to the IRFU he was in at once familiar and unfamiliar territory.

One thing that remains constant, the union's head of fitness explains, is the motivation and desire of the athletes whose performance he is responsible for.

Whether it's Chris Hoy or Paul O'Connell, the drive and determination remains the same. Success is everything and Clark's team of strength and conditioning specialists' job is to do everything they can to prepare those players for success.

As the man who manages the fitness staff at all four provinces, the national men's and women's teams, the women's Sevens team and the U-20 side, he may be removed from the coal face of training, but the South African is an influential figure behind the scenes in Irish rugby.

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He has already changed and rebranded the old, and in some quarters unpopular, player welfare scheme to put sports science at the heart of the decision-making process, while he is working on streamlining and standardising the work done at the provincial academy level when it comes to preparing young players for the rigours of the professional game.

Improving the use of technology to channel the data gathered on the players, continuing to develop the practices used by the coaches and improving the pathway from youth and schools rugby through to professionalism are at the top of his agenda.

It is, he explains, a big change from his old job in Scotland but he knew from meeting the players for the first time that the materials were there.

"It is a significantly different challenge, but at the end of the day the aspiration is exactly the same," he says.

"When I walked into the meal at Carton House for the very first time and met some of the players who before that were sort of TV legends for me, the characteristics and aspirations were exactly the same. Their conduct in the weight room, in training and their professionalism were the same as Olympians that I worked with.

"The difference is the structure, the collective and how to make sure that we follow the same principles as scientists and conditioning coaches, despite the changed environment."

One of the primary challenges facing the new man was the player welfare system in place.

Lauded and criticised in equal measure, depending on what side of the club versus country fence you sit, the controversial system of resting internationals during the provincial season is one of the union's key selling points when they are trying to keep players in Ireland.

Clark has worked on changing the process to incorporate more sports science into the decision making where, before his appointment, the decisions around players being rested were taken more crudely.

The importance of getting it right is clear. "In the top 10 nations in the world, I'd say the practices (in terms of S&C) in place are probably very similar," the South African explains.

"The real marginal gains come from managing that balance between fatigue and fitness in the competition cycle, making sure that we are able to play our best team on Saturday and make sure that when we put that team on the pitch on Saturday we have done as much as we can to prepare them but also to recover them, so that in that time they are on the pitch they can deliver at the power levels they are required to.

"Without a doubt, there has got to be a significant benefit from being in that structure. I want it to be absolutely clear that if a player has to make a call about where they have their contract, they are considering the quality of the strength and conditioning support they have in Ireland as one of their one, two, three factors of whether they should move because the department is so respected and it delivers."

When he arrived in September of last year, he immediately reviewed the process and has been tailoring it ever since. The arrival of Joe Schmidt, one of the fiercest critics of the system when at Leinster, has helped Clark in his process and now, together, they take decisions on who is rested and who can play. It means decisions like the one to rest almost all of the Ireland players for last weekend's games is based in fact, rather than theory.

"I always knew that there had been an opportunity missed in the way it had been set up, because there was no input from the sports science and fitness staff to the content of that player welfare system," Clark says.

"In the past with player welfare, the specific tool was just managing game time, just saying that we'd like to restrict or encourage game time for the purpose of making sure that you are fresh and fit for the purpose to play for the national team or have had enough exposure to play for the national team.

"That was clearly one element, but what I think had been missed was the connection between the fitness assessment at national performance and the avenue or channel to influence or assess how players were prepared provincially in terms of S&C department.

"So, when I first came in I facilitated a review of the players who had been involved in the November internationals in 2012 with management, the coaches, the medical staff and Jason Cowman (the Ireland fitness and conditioning coach)."

They consulted with the provinces, recorded data through the 2012 November games, the Six Nations, the tours and used it to manage pre-season and the workload this season.

"With Joe's significant lead on it, we discussed and agreed return to play for pre-season, length of pre-season and game-time modification for the first phase up to and including the November internationals," he says.

It is now easier to go to a provincial coach and present him with the facts to back up the decision to pull his best players from his squad.

"The dialogue is key," Clark says. "As much as the last system was criticised because it was one shoe fits all, it was probably more wrong because it didn't have a level of dialogue that meant that the relationship was built up in good times so that it was okay when the conflict came."

The role of the director of fitness is one that was left vacant for a number of years before Clark was recruited to fill it and he found a number of areas to work on when he got started, one of which was the drop in standards that players were finding when they moved from their provinces into the international set-up in terms of S&C training.

"For a couple of months before I actually started, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the 'Plan Ireland' review," Clark explains of the strategic review undertaken by the union.

"Strength and conditioning got a very definite steer from the 'Plan Ireland' review, there had been an observation that the level of support and strength and conditioning in particular for national players in camp was at a stage lower than some of the provincial support that they were coming from.

"So, without a doubt, during the first November series I was involved in, two months after I started, we addressed the facility so it was up to speed and again we have brought it up to and beyond the standard that's required.

"We also looked at the coach-to-athlete ratio, when I first arrived I got agreement to put in a coach rotation, so in the Autumn series we brought in a senior coach from the provinces to support. Jason and I also have a sports science consultant with a stats board who comes in to look at all the GPS and he has an extended role in managing and reporting the data in camp."

As the reviews of the 2013 sporting year get under way in the coming weeks, the Six Nations will be viewed as something of an afterthought after Ireland's failure to perform due to a chronic injury list that saw a host of frontline players miss out.

"We've looked at it in a lot of detail," Clark said.

"It is cyclical and I am sure there are elements of what we do that contribute to that and elements of what we do that limit that. So, exactly how and what we do is very difficult to link directly to those circumstances.

"It is following best practice and doing all the things we know are effective at facilitating recovery, ensuring that players do their preventative exercises, ensuring that all of their levels of strength and power are optimised at times when the biggest load is going to come on them.

"My personal view at the time was that we were going through a deep trough where injuries were going to be high and there was very little we could do under those circumstances to prevent it.

"There's nothing I can find from an assessment that could have made a significant difference, so the practices we put in place now in the Autumn series, which we'll review and put in place for the Six Nations, will be the same. We'll do a couple of things differently, but to say that that's in response to the injury thing would be wrong. It is evolution."

One theory that abounded after the Six Nations was that Irish players were just too small in a world where the giant Welsh wingers were showing the way forward.

"Clearly, any performance team would like bigger, faster, stronger players coming in, but, having said that, small teams with power, speed, strength and guile have as much chance of winning," Clark responds when asked if Ireland need to identify bigger players earlier.

"If you looked at the teams lining up before the anthems ahead of the Samoa game and measured thigh girth across the teams, Samoa would probably have had an extra man and a half based on thigh girth and we won and accounted for ourselves physically as well."

He has aligned the provinces so that the conditioning programmes for young players can prepare them better for the rigours of senior rugby and, with all of the S&C staff reporting to a central base, there is hope that the readiness of the youngsters coming through is improved as a result.

It is just one of the strands running through Clark's plans as he looks to have Ireland fit for purpose for 2015 and beyond.

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