Six Nations: Irish set-up was a joke: McGurn
For only the second year in the last nine Mike McGurn won’t be involved when Ireland defend their Grand Slam won in such style last season.
But the Fermanagh man, now living in Belfast, will be glued to the screen when Declan Kidney’s men begin the defence of their title against Italy on Saturday afternoon in Croke Park.
A highly regarded and well respected fitness and conditioning coach he first teamed up with Ireland in 2002.
He couldn’t have picked a better time to make the move and he insists he was fortunate to have had a special group of players.
But his early days working with the squad didn’t exactly fill him full of hope.
“It was a massive wake up call for me. I had just come from St Helen’s where we had won the illustrious treble.
“I was actually coming from a highly motivated team and this was a massive step back for me in terms of quality of training and professionalism.
“Even though the players were professional in name they weren’t in nature and I was very close to going back to rugby league.
“The thing that I struggled with was just how unprofessional the whole operation was.
“I had arrived into an Irish squad that were a team of body builders and endurance runners.”
McGurn was convinced it wouldn’t work, but eventually it all came right though it took the best part of four years.
When Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia in the autumn internationals all McGurns methods had been truly vindicated. But all that was a far cry from those dark days when Ireland travelled to the World Cup in 2003 with a side that McGurn scathingly described as “just a joke fitness-wise”.
“I spoke out about it and was suspended for my pains, but I don’t regret it. I was speaking on behalf of the players. They were totally frustrated and so was I.
“There’s nothing worse than going to a World Cup and not being able to produce your best simply because you aren’t fit enough.
“We played France in the quarter-final and after 50 minutes we were out on our feet.
“I remember it like yesterday, sitting in the dressing-room afterwards with Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll and Kevin Maggs.
“I told them that I was going to speak about the issue of fitness and they were prepared to back me all the way.
“I may have spoken out of turn, but I was speaking from the heart and I don’t regret it.”
Ask Mike McGurn about Brian O’Driscoll and he just laughs for it’s a question that comes up in conversation almost on a daily basis. Only two years ago the Irish captain was up in Enniskillen for McGurn’s wedding.
Northern hospitality was such that he was happy to stay over an extra night.
“In my book Brian O’Driscoll is an absolute gentleman. For such a gifted player who has made his mark at every level of the sport he remains so down to earth.
“I still speak to him every couple of weeks and we make a point of staying in touch, often chatting away without once mentioning rugby. What sets him apart as a rugby player is his absolute single-mindeness.
“He will do whatever it takes to be a winner. Nothing’s going to stop him from being a winner and he has that rare mental strength that you don’t see in too many sportsmen.”
For the affable and softly spoken Fermanagh man the onset of another RBS 6 Nations revives a host of unforgettable moments.
“Winning a championship and a Grand Slam is very difficult, but retaining them is even more so. What makes it especially demanding is that Ireland have to travel to both France and England.
“We haven’t beaten France over there since 1999 when Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick of tries.”
McGurn remains fascinated by the RBS 6 Nations and compares it to playing five World Cup finals in a row such is the intensity and fanatical commitment.
For the first time in years Ronan O’Gara has a real challenger for the number 10 jersey in Jonathan Sexton.
“With all due respect, Jonny is still the champion in waiting. Rog is the man and he’s proved that over the last few weeks especially against Perpignan and Northampton.
“Jonny’s time will undoubtedly come, but just not yet.”