Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Ulster's gruelling work behind the scenes

The Ulster squad and management at a training session at Newforge
The Ulster squad and management at a training session at Newforge

On a wall inside Ulster Rugby’s Newforge headquarters there is a poster.

It proclaims The Ulster Code:

(1) Planning – know the game plan

(2) Attitude – positive and selfless

(3) Commitment – lead and follow

(4) Discipline – consistency on and off the field

(5) Responsibility – raise standards together.

Move out to the training area and you will see ample evidence of the pursuit of those values and goals as the players and coaching staff prepare for the task ahead.

Ravenhill may be the battlefield on which war is waged, but Newforge is Ulster’s Coleshill House, for it is here that their strategies are devised and the means of achieving victory worked upon and, hopefully, perfected.

That being the case, what happens here between now and Friday, when Ulster depart for the Aviva Stadium and their Heineken Cup semi-final date with Edinburgh and destiny, is all-important. Precision is going to be everything and it is with that in mind that this week’s preparations are being carried out.

The hope is that nothing is neglected or left to chance. Those things which can be done are done as thoroughly and meticulously as time permits and human fallibility can accommodate.

Once things move beyond those parameters there is nothing more the coaching staff and support team can do other than trust that their pre-match endeavours prove to have been sufficient. Out on the pitch, it's down to the players to deliver.

I was fortunate enough to watch a recent Ulster session. They work incredibly hard. Take it as read that there is a lot going on in a work-out ahead of a Heineken Cup semi-final. Everybody is buzzing, they are all up for this.

Those who are nursing themselves — or being nursed — back to fitness following serious or minor injuries do so away from the main group. So you find Dan Tuohy running on his own, up and down a touchline. He’ll make it, have no doubt.

Simultaneously, Strength and Conditioning coach Jonny Davis is working with Jared Payne who will not. But the good news is that he is progressing well since rupturing his Achilles tendon on October 7 and will be ready to resume playing when the new season gets under way.

The players hold Davis (pictured) in the highest regard and there is evident respect for the job he does, not only in getting them ready but in enabling them to continue performing at maximum level. At the 2011 World Cup, Ulster's Springboks Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar adhered to Davis's strategy in preference to that of his Southern African counterpart. That's quite a vote of confidence.

Out on the pitch, defence coach Jonny Bell (pictured right) is working the players hard. He won the European Cup with Ulster in 1999 so he

knows what it means and it takes. It’s all-out action, with few breaks and even then of only a couple of seconds duration when finally there is one. On a table at the side of the pitch there is water and sustenance to keep the squad ticking over.

It takes a lot to keep these guys going; making sure that they have what they need is the responsibility of resource manager, Australian Mick Ennis.

The training is done in well-thought-out blocks, enabling maximum concentration over relatively short periods of time. They don’t spend hours on any one thing in a given day. Do it hard, do it fast, do it well, move on. Maximum efficiency is the objective.

It works. There are no bored faces, there is no body language which suggests the players are fed up.

Another change is called; let’s work on the line-out. Here captain Muller is the man. As the code-caller and oft-times the player to whom the hooker — on this occasion Nigel Brady — aims his throw, Muller’s role in the complex procedure is crucial.

Young Niall Annett also throws a ball or two, getting it just right. Immediately what is noticeable is that the others are quick to congratulate him. Recognition, peer approval, encouragement from within the group — all good psychology and all contributing to the squad ethos. Remember those core values? Number five: Responsibility – raise standards together.

With the programme of professional athletes and their entourage being both busy and multi-faceted, responsibility for ensuring that individuals are where they are meant to be at the right time rests with Team Administration Co-ordinator Sarah Sherry who reckons the introduction of iCal has made her job considerably easier and the who, where, when system a lot more proficient.

“My iCal is connected to the players’ iPhones, so once I update their weekly schedule, which includes training times and PR appearances, it is automatically synced onto their phones. Now they have no excuses for not knowing where they are supposed to be!” she says.

Ulster try to be as flexible as possible in catering to individual players’ requirements in keeping with their particular circumstances. For example, out of town players — the likes of Rory Best (Gilford), Stevie Ferris (Magheraberry) or Ian Humphreys (Ballymena) — have gym times which enable them to avoid rush-hour traffic as they make their way to Newforge in the mornings.

Evidence of this all-important attention to detail is everywhere; moni

toring is a way of life here. Thus it is that Performance Analyst Alex McCloy carefully goes through each player’s role in the previous match, producing facts and figures to show what went well and what needs work. As well as assessing each unit’s contributions, he analyses the team as a collective. Fine-tuning.

He can tell you the number of tackles made — and missed — by each player in any given match. And when a problem area or shortcoming has been identified, it can be rectified. That outstanding defence against Munster in the Thomond Park quarter-final was as a result of detailed work on the minutiae.

Modern-day rugby is as much a science as it is a sport.

Head physiotherapist Gareth (GG) Robinson and assistant Alan McCalden work on the treatment of injuries, if necessary alongside Medical Director Dr Michael Webb, who stresses the importance of massage and proper diet in keeping players in prime condition.

In addition to his work as analyst, massage is where Alex McCloy specialises, while nutrition is where Jonny Davis comes into his own. Like pieces of a jigsaw, without any one of which the picture would be incomplete.

They all work together with one goal in mind – producing a team capable of winning as a result of having been equipped to do so.

That is what is going on at Newforge this week, so rest well assured that Ulster will arrive at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon fully prepared, mentally as well as physically, for the massive task – and opportunity – which lies ahead.

As coach Brian McLaughlin put it: “You don’t get too many chances like this, so when you do it’s vital that you’re ready and able to take them.”

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