Saturday 26 May 2018

Hooker looking to scale new heights in blue

The Big Interview:  James Tracy

James Tracy ahead of the South African Tour. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
James Tracy ahead of the South African Tour. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

It's the build-up to Round 4 of the Guinness PRO14 and a game against the Toyota Cheetahs, and as the sun sets on another day in Cape Town, James Tracy looks back on a day well spent.

"It's stunning. We're training in Bishop's College in Cape Town and it's overlooked by Table Mountain. This massive mountain range setting the scene for us as we prepare for the game on Friday. Between the scenery and then the weather and the hospitality afforded to us, it's easy to forget that there is a game but yeah, it's been a great few days in Cape Town."

This has been referred to as a mini-tour by tournament organisers, coaching staff, players and media alike and Tracy slips into the same habit himself on a number of occasions when referring to the ten days in South Africa. There is one crucial difference. Whereas most rugby tours have an element of relaxation and down days, this one? Not so much!

"It's been unusual in that regard in that we haven't had an off day yet. We've had an evening down by the water front in Cape Town and there is a plan for a down day before the Cheetahs game so I'm sure we'll see some more of the sights then but no, the focus has very much been on keeping a normal routine which has been good."

So what's a normal training week leading into an away match?

"We have tried to mimic what we would do in a normal away match week. Be based in one location early in the week like we'd be in UCD and then fly in the night or day before to the venue. It worked well for us last week against the Kings being based in Jo'burg early in the week and then landing into Port Elizabeth and hopefully the same will happen this week."

James Tracy with Joey Carbery arriving for training in Bishop’s College after touching down in Cape Town. Photo by Grant Pitcher/Sportsfile
James Tracy with Joey Carbery arriving for training in Bishop’s College after touching down in Cape Town. Photo by Grant Pitcher/Sportsfile

The one main difference from a trip to Rodney Parade is the small matter of altitude in Bloemfontein where Leinster face the Cheetahs on Friday. A cursory glance at the Bloemfontein tourist page explains that the city is situated at an altitude of 1,395m above sea level. But what exactly does that mean? Again to our good friends in Google we go. There is study after study outlining the benefits associated with playing at higher altitude. The benefits though seem to extend to the home side and to them alone.

"I've yet to experience it but by all accounts it takes anything up to 11 days to settle and get acclimatised to the change in altitude. So we don't have that luxury so on that basis the best advice is just to get in, trust your fitness levels and get on with it!"

And as for what to expect, Tracy isn't expecting an easy ride.

"In any game you play there is always a point when you have to dig deep, when you go to the well, have to go to a dark place and rely on stores of energy or whatever just to get you over the line. With altitude and the impact it can have on even the most athletic of players, this all happens but it happens that little bit earlier in the game.

James Tracy at the Captain’s Run in Port Elizabeth last week. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
James Tracy at the Captain’s Run in Port Elizabeth last week. Photo by Richard Huggard/Sportsfile

"But look it's easy to use that as an excuse. Plenty of teams have gone there in Super Rugby and have come away with wins. So it's a new challenge for us and for our fitness levels but we've huge faith in the work of Charlie (Higgins) our head of fitness and the rest of the S&C staff. They've made sure that we are primed and in good shape for these games and yet that we are fresh enough to perform at the very highest level."

At the moment the very highest level is with Leinster Rugby in the Guinness PRO14 and a little while after that in the Champions Cup, but beyond that again the Kildare native has serious ambitions of adding to the four caps he already has with Ireland.

"I was very happy with last season. I suppose I set myself targets and maybe I had to rely on a bit of luck along the way with injuries and what not but then it's up to you to make the most of those opportunities that present themselves.

"There were some things I was happy with and others that I wasn't. I'm very competitive and I want to be better so I will be critical of myself. Hopefully that will stand me in good stead as the season kicks on a bit over the next few months."

Lady luck may come calling again.

Only this week Ulster have been rocked by the news that a hamstring injury could cost them their captain Rory Best for anything up to six weeks. He is also the Ireland captain. And first-choice hooker.

With the November internationals only around the corner there is the potential for a scrap for that number two green jersey.

"The next few weeks are huge for Leinster with PRO14 games and then into the Champions Cup and I'm just focused on those games. The battle that I have here with Seán (Cronin) and Richardt (Strauss) and Bryan (Byrne). We all want that jersey and we're all pushing each other very hard for it.

"I think if you're going well with Leinster you're in the shop window for other conversations but if you take your eye off the ball in any way, you'll get nowhere so for me it's Cheetahs on Friday."

Cheetahs on Friday it is. He's been involved in all three games so far this season in the PRO14 with one start against Cardiff Blues. He's looking forward to the challenge.

"You can look at all the analysis in the world but until you get on to the pitch against these teams you just don't appreciate their pace. I think their physicality and the pace that they brought to the game last week, I wouldn't say it caught us off guard, but just to see it up close really hammered home how accurate we need to be in defence and attack.

"We didn't do that in the first half against the Kings but I think we were better in the second half and we played the game much more on our terms and I think our scrum played a massive part in that. We have to try to do that for the full 80 against the Cheetahs because they can definitely hurt you."

Back to our old friend the altitude and the potential impact on travelling teams as the game goes on.

"In the second half against Zebre last week they ran in five tries and really seemed to up the gears as the game wore on and we have to be ready to withstand that and the bench ready to address that head on. If we don't they'll punish us. But I think we're in a good place and we'd all love to finish off the first trip to South Africa with a second win."

Wouldn't we all.

Irish Independent

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