Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Mick McGurn: How taking the Mick did trick for Ireland at Six Nations

Mick or Mike? McGurn puts Commonwealth Games hopeful Katie Kirk through her paces

He'd prefer it if you called him Mick, by the way. The 'Mike' McGurn name came when he got into the strength and conditioning game in the north of England. By the time he took that job with the Irish rugby team, it felt natural for the Dublin set to call him 'Mike' and, lo, it stuck.

We find him in the gymnasium of the Queen's Malone Sports Facilities, on the Dub Lane. This is his gig now, working two miles away from where he and wife Ciara are bringing up two boys. He looks after the strength and conditioning of those on the Queen's Elite Athletes Programme.

He likes it here. Less pressure. Less testosterone. Less ill-informed criticism.

And no egos, thank God. Ever since falling into strength and conditioning training by accident he has had to tread carefully around some huge ones in his work.

The biggest of all? Gavin Henson at the Ospreys.

"A complete, utter, unique character. I honestly think he loved the training, I don't know if he liked competing," says McGurn before embarking on an anecdote of what it took to get the former British and Irish Lion out onto the field on a Saturday.

"For a Saturday game, the process started on a Tuesday. Gavin had to be able to get 120 kilos clean (lifting almost 19 stone) on a Tuesday.

"Wednesday he went to the kit man and got his shorts that he brought to his granny who would tuck them in.

"Friday was grooming day, so he would totally shave his own body. Everything gone. Then he would exfoliate his skin, apply the fake tan."

On Saturdays, McGurn would have to get out to Henson's basement gym in Bridgend and lift weights with him on the morning of the game, while Charlotte Church boiled eggs for the lads upstairs.

"3% body fat," McGurn recalls of Henson's skinfolds. Gavin would come to work, with three Tescos bags. 10am, 12noon, 2pm and 4pm were his meals. Immaculate. He goes home past Tescos, buys two cooked chickens and prepares the next day's food."

Professional sport can lead you down some strange twists and turns. Originally, Mick was a runner. He says he wasn't any good, but he secured a scholarship to Philadelphia to study sports science. On summers home he would get a feel for helping out teams. He trained the Fermanagh hurlers who won an All-Ireland B in 1994.

Once he qualified, he got a job lecturing at a college in Workington, Cumbria – rugby league country, but he wouldn't have known a rugby ball if it bounced off his head at the time.

"I was bored out of my skull," he recalls. "Come five o'clock I was sitting in my flat climbing the walls and started doing circuits for the staff at the college, to music."

Workington Town rugby league team heard about it. Asked if they could join in.

It was the season that bridged the amateur and professional era of rugby league. Sky TV was coming in, offering millions to the top 12 teams who would form the new Super League. With McGurn's input they made it into the brave new world of professional sport.

Then Hull came calling. Two teams – Tigers and manager-less City. Mark Hateley was eventually appointed and the two hardly hit it off.

"His very first thing to me was, 'Are you Irish?' and then, 'Catholic or Protestant?'

"I asked him if it mattered and told him I had no problem with religion. I told him people like him were the problem."

Three years later and he was on his way to Leeds. The city wanted him to look after the condition of the Tykes team for rugby union, as well as his responsibilities for United's Academy set-up in soccer and the Rhinos in rugby league.

David Batty was there, sent to train with the kids after falling out of favour with manager Terry Venables.

"He taught me a lot about the politics of soccer. If you fall foul of a manager, they will make your life a misery."

There were other sticky situations in his next posting – mainly working for St Helen's in rugby league, but doing a bit on the side with Everton.

Old-school met new-school and tectonic plates collided.

"Archie Knox was the coach and he couldn't handle it. He wanted to run them. I was stepping on his toes.

"I had an ally in John Collins. He was there and he loved it. I think that saved my bacon. And big Dave Watson, the centre-half."

The rugby ground was more fertile for him, and in his last season with St Helen's before he answered Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland call, they won the treble of the Super League, Challenge Cup and the World Club Championship.

"When the call came, I wasn't that keen," he says of O'Sullivan's approach. "Eddie told me the background and it was like going back to the beginning, because they hadn't any training. They had no real knowledge of weights, nutrition, still eating pizza at night time."

Some took to the new guy with relish. Brian O'Driscoll's attitude to weights would resemble Armagh footballer Steven McDonnell in years to come. Neither man was mad about hanging round in gyms for 90 minutes at a time. McGurn would equip them with specialised programmes to add explosiveness to their game and would take no longer than 30 minutes. They became dedicated gym rats.

There are regrets, but that's a feature of sport at that level.

In 2007 Ireland travelled to the Rugby World Cup in France, surfing the wave of a Celtic Tiger we-can-do-anything hubris. They were far from impressive in an underwhelming win over Namibia before barely scraping past Georgia six days later. The host nation hammered them, Argentina battered them and they were gone before they could even get out of Pool D.

When the search for scapegoats began, McGurn's name was underlined.

He recalls the criticism. "Over-trained, looked fatigued, looked too big, lost too much weight, eyes looked drained, cold sores, falling out with each other, food was shit, hotel was shit, players were fighting ...

"We heard it all. It's all bull."

He knows it's all 'bull' because of the Genesis report carried out, and another inquest into the conditioning element, exonerated McGurn. But he knew that anyway.

"Their testing showed they were all hitting their personal bests, power, strength and speed. They weren't over-trained because we do jump tests to measure their fatigue levels and they were the highest jump tests they were registering.

"The bottom line was we lost and when you lose everything is wrong. Whereas when you win, nothing is wrong. That is the bottom line."

He served in a time when the expectation levels of Irish rugby went through the roof. He was there for eight Six Nations tournaments, eight summer tours, eight autumn series. He did roughly 550 warm-ups and 1,250 gym sessions over his 87 games with Ireland.

After that came to a natural end, he flirted with the idea of taking up an offer to become conditioning coach of the All-Blacks, but then Ciara fell pregnant and that was the end of that. Martin Johnson came calling and he had agreed to go to England.

Then he asked Brian O'Driscoll for his advice, who asked him: "How would you feel when England were playing Ireland in Croke Park, wearing the English Rose when the Irish team are singing Amhrán na bhFiann?"

So when Johnson had a second think and said on the basis of McGurn's accent he couldn't see the natural fit, Mick said that was fine, he understood.

A year in Ospreys was punctuated by sitting in airports on Sunday, waiting for the flight to Wales, tears falling as he thought of the new-born son, Eoin, he was leaving behind each week.

"It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life and I still haven't got over it. I am still over-compensating. From that experience, sport has become secondary for me."

A consolation at that time came in his work with Bernard Dunne. First thing he did was scrap 'The Boxer's Breakfast' and the notion of making weight. Dunne landed a World super bantamweight title, defeating Ricardo Carboda on the same night in March 2009 that Ronan O'Gara kicked the drop goal for that Ireland team to finally land a Grand Slam and a Six Nations title.

Then followed a period employed by Armagh GAA, but making the transition back to working with administrations who are essentially amateur had too many shortcomings.

So this is where he is now, keeping the head down, working hard. Katie Kirk (400metres), Kirsty Kee (judo) and Caroline O'Hanlon (netball) are his priorities, the three girls competing in the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

There might be another big job in the pipeline and don't be surprised to hear an announcement any time soon.

Men like McGurn are always in demand.

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