Sunday 17 December 2017

Back to school time for the Boys in Blue

We are aiming for top marks on opening day but fired-up Glasgow side will be very difficult test

Leinster's Fergus McFadden
Leinster's Fergus McFadden
Leinster boss Matt O'Connor
Fergus McFadden in action against Glasgow

The start of September has come around again and it won't come as any surprise to hear that I'm happy to see the back of another pre-season and looking forward to the start of the Guinness Pro12 with Leinster.

With the kids being back to school this week, it's mad to think my first pre-season with the club was back in the summer of 2005 in the Academy system. I now look at the lads walking in through that door of the changing rooms at UCD for the first time and you can't help but think back to your own first day.

In some ways it seems like it was only yesterday when in fact it was 2005, nine years ago. Not really sure where the time has gone to be honest but time flies when you're having fun!

Back in 2005, it was Michael Cheika calling the shots but obviously then Joe Schmidt took over and now Matt O'Connor (pictured). I have learned a hell of a lot from all three and it's been an interesting journey to date. As I now look at the new Academy lads, you couldn't but wish them the very best of luck as they all take their first steps in the three-year Academy programme. For some it won't quite work out how they dreamed but I have no doubt that for others it will be the start of something great for them.

The first day back brings with it new faces and new characters. While the personalities change from season to season, one thing that remains a constant is the pre-season and it doesn't get any easier. However, it is a necessary evil for us all.

After four weeks off on holidays from a long and testing season, the month of strength and conditioning is vital to set a solid foundation for the rugby season that lies ahead. Trying to marry gains in strength and size and optimising your speed and fitness levels are key and it is all closely monitored and recorded.

Some things have progressed though in the pre-season. There is definitely more method and science behind our training now.

The balance of high-intensity training and rest and recovery is watched a lot closer these days which helps with injury prevention.

Thankfully, in Leinster we have some of the best coaches in the country in that area and you only have to look at how strong a squad we had at the tail end of last season to see how good a job they do in keeping us fresh, healthy and on the pitch. So I feel like we are in good stead before our first competitive away game to Glasgow on Saturday.

I think it's an exciting year ahead. After winning the Pro12 in Matt's first year as coach, a lot will be expected of us but all we can do is try to perform to the best of our abilities.

However, we now have a clearer idea of what Matt wants and how he wants to play having played under him for a full season.

Obviously with a new coach coming in there is a mini transition period. Thankfully, that was pretty seamless last year, but it isn't even an issue this season.

Any transition or settling in is for a select few new players or new coaches like Marco Caputo or indeed Leo Cullen who is now forwards coach. It is up to the rest of us to make that process as smooth as possible for them but so far so good.

I suppose the success of the last few years has led to high expectations from our loyal fans but that is mirrored within the team as well. We also demand very high standards from each other but that helps drive the mentality and the focus.

So what is the focus for this year?

We were very happy with winning the Pro12 league last year but that was the result of a process and performing consistently. Of course we would like to come out on top again but it won't be easy to replicate that this year especially when you look at some of the signings from teams around us.

Those teams are already hugely physical and competitive and now they have recruited well. Ultimately, we are there to be knocked off our perch and we need to match that desire week in, week out.

If we are honest, that loss to Toulon still rankles and it was a huge disappointment getting knocked out in the quarter-final last year in Europe.

As a club, we want to be challenging in the latter stages of the Champions Cup and we are relishing the opportunity to challenge there again this season. But thoughts of Europe can wait.

The couple of pre-season games were very useful against Northampton Saints and Ulster. We sent a very young and inexperienced side over to Franklin's Gardens to take on a near full-strength Saints team.

The lads showed great heart and gave a very good account of themselves losing 33-21 after a terrific effort to get back in the game in the second half.

The Ulster game was my first run-out of the season, as it was for a handful of others who were touring with Ireland in June. I played 60 minutes and got a good blow-out.

While we lost the game 7-10, these pre-season games are all about trying to put some shape and structure on your play so it's not all about the result.

I felt good physically but was rusty from a rugby perspective so I'm hoping that I blew away a few cobwebs before playing for points this Saturday.

When the fixture list came out last month I don't think Glasgow could have asked for a better way to kick start their season.

They probably feel that they didn't perform against us in the Pro12 final last year and I'm sure they will be looking forward to getting us over to their back yard for the first game of the season.

Glasgow are a quality side at the moment, Gregor Townsend has done a super job with them over the past few seasons and I have no doubt they will be a force to be reckoned with again this year. I cannot wait for kick-off and I hope we can draw first blood in what promises to be an exciting season.

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