I finished my ninth professional pre-season last week, and it was with mixed emotions I bid farewell to the altitude tent that had become one of the banes of my existence over the previous two months.
It’s not just a tent. Inside, you train at about 14pc oxygen, which recreates high-altitude training conditions. Also, inside said tent is the WattBike that I have spoken about before in this diary. It also has some rowing machines and treadmills. But it’s the bikes that are the real killers. Those ten seconds feel like an eternity and the 30 or 40-second breaks are never long enough.
You do eventually acclimatise to the hard work – it’s gratifying to see your scores going up week on week, and you start to feel pretty good about yourself. There’s also the prolonged break from contact that you get, which is really what causes the wear and tear, not the tough conditioning sessions.
On the other hand, you are a professional rugby player after all, and it’s good to get back into the routine of the season, and the buzz you get from running out into a packed stadium.
Scotstoun is one of the more compact venues we play in but it is usually as good as full so the atmosphere is excellent. Unfortunately last week the home supporters had more reason to cheer than we’d like. The real buzz, though, for all professional players is to run out in front of your own supporters and we are all looking forward to tomorrow in the RDS.
I did make a depressing realisation looking around the dressing-room at the start of pre-season though: I’m now the oldest member of the squad! With Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement last season, it left me in the unwanted position of being the new Father Time.
I’m not alone, though, there’s a few of us approaching our mid-30s and we’re still as hungry as ever. At this stage in my career, I tend to appreciate what I get to do more than maybe some of the younger lads, especially running out in the glorious weather we had last week when lots of people were stuck in offices.
The training is tough, but it can be very rewarding, especially when you play for a team that’s been as successful as Leinster over the past few years.
Of course there’s always younger players coming up behind you and pushing you hard and I think in Marty Moore and Tadhg Furlong we’ve two of the best young tightheads in the country, which is a testament to the superb work the Leinster Academy has been doing.
It’s the same in a number of positions – we’re well stocked in the back-row with the likes of Jack Conan and Dan Leavy coming through, as well as Luke McGrath and Steve Crosbie in the backs. Heavy competition for places is a good thing in a squad, it keeps everyone on their toes as you know that one bad game can open the door for someone to take your spot.
Speaking of which. . . The season didn’t get off to the greatest of starts at the weekend, we were pretty poor against a fired-up Glasgow side, especially in the first half.
The first couple of rounds of the season are always hard – the match fitness isn’t there yet and we made it harder on ourselves. That first half was well below the standards we have set ourselves and against a quality Glasgow side, they punished us.
It’s a hard one to get the heads around in some ways. Pre-season has gone well and we had two good tests against Northampton and Ulster but until you taste competitive action, you never really know. We were doing things that we normally wouldn’t: dropping balls, missing tackles and forcing passes that weren’t on.
Glasgow were more than happy to make us pay for those mistakes, and we were left with a 19-point deficit to climb.
There was a bit of a roasting in the dressing-rooms at half-time to say the least, but we were more annoyed with ourselves than the coaches were and they were only reinforcing what we already knew.
We did fight back well and addressed what had been asked of us. Glasgow were playing with their tails up, but we shut them down in that second half apart from the late kick which sealed the win.
Ultimately we were leading at full-time before Stuart Hogg converted that last-gasp penalty to win the game for Glasgow. They’ll be again a tough side to beat this year.
Still, we should have done an awful lot better, and thankfully we’ll have a chance to redeem ourselves this week at home in the RDS against Scarlets. They played out a fairly exciting 32-32 draw against Ulster last weekend, and will really put our defence to the test, especially with the centre partnership they have in Scott Williams and Regan King. They’re well equipped to play the tight game too, and have some big old bruisers in Jake Ball and Ken Owens.
As for us, we’ll be looking to get our first win of the season, and will be working hard this week to make sure there’s no repeat of last weekend.