TAKING A BREATHER Gavin Duffy takes a drink during Ireland rugby squad training in Bray back in September.
Christmas in the Premiership
DUE to the World Cup, the Guinness Premiership is scheduled to finish a couple of weeks earlier than usual as players prepare for rugby’s biggest showcase which kicks off in France next September. Cramming four games into 16 days over the Christmas period was one way of relieving the pressure at the end of the season.
But when you consider that the final two group games of the Heineken and Challenge Cups come straight after this period, followed thick and fast by the Six Nations, the top players will be looking forward to the extended off season. Ironically, Guinness Premiership teams have two consecutive weekends free at the start of February. There must be some amount of wheeling and dealing done behind the scenes as some of the decisions made by the governing bodies can leave one baffled at times!
Here at Harlequins we knew that our results over the holiday period would have a huge effect on our goals and aspirations for the rest of the season. Three of our four opponents (Worcester, Newcastle and Bath) are in a similar position to ourselves in the bottom half of the table. They are a couple of victories away from being in real contention for a Heineken Cup spot, yet are in real danger of being dragged into a relegation dogfight for the remainder of the season if results over the 16 days didn’t go as planned.
Saracens, who we faced on December 22, was the odd one out. Having hit a bit of form in November and early December, the North London side found themselves in sixth position, the last of the Heineken Cup spots. ‘Sarries’ have a big, physical pack with Fijian captain Simon Rawellui and World Cup winner Richard Hill providing much of the grunt and experience in this department. This has allowed out-half Glen Jackson to orchestrate proceedings with Thomas Castaignede from behind. In fact, it was the Frenchman who scored first for the visitors. His try in the very first minute of the game came from a turnover and a long kick downfield with the full-back winning the resulting chase to the touchdown. Worse was to follow as, only five minutes later, Saracens extended their lead to 12 points as Fijian winger Kameli Ratuvou touched down after scrum-half Neil de Kock had capitalised on yet another turnover. Jackson’s conversion attempt sailed wide on this occasion.
Having eventually found our feet (or maybe adapted our eyes to the heavy fog), we proceeded to dominate both possession and territory. Out-half Adrian Jarvis kicked three successful penalties to reduce the visitors’ lead to three before Jackson replied with one of his own to make it 9-15 with 60 minutes played. Finally, with ten minutes remaining, Mike Brown shrugged off a couple of tackles to score the try that we had been looking for. Andrew Mehrtens landed the conversion and it looked like our festive period was going to begin on the right note. However, with full time approaching, the speedy Ratuvou broke from inside his own 22. When the ball went left after the resulting ruck only yards from our line, number 8 Ben Skirving found himself in acres of room to cross the line near the corner. Jackson missed the conversion but Sarries had done enough to secure the four points. We were bitterly disappointed to have lost. Director of Rugby Dean Richards was particularly dismayed at the manner with in we went about trying to close out the game. He let us know, in no uncertain terms, about the deficiencies of the team’s performance and the improvements he expected to see for the trip to Worcester five days later … to put it in a more polite manner! Christmas was almost cancelled!
EAT, DRINK AND TAKE AN ICE BATH
WITH SUCH a short turnaround between games, the effectiveness of our recovery (together with short, sharp training) plays a major role in our ability to perform to our maximum during this intense period. The intake of fluids (isotonic drinks and water), carbohydrates and protein (sandwiches and fruit) along with stretching and the ever-popular ice baths are all important elements that aid recovery. All are provided in the dressing room immediately after the game and before we do our corporate box visits. Dinner is provided after that in the players’ area under the stand.
The next day everyone who got game time has a compulsory recovery session. A 20-minute bike ride is followed by a stretch, a compulsory massage and ice baths. For the non-22 players (i.e. the rest of the squad), there is a weights and conditioning session. We haven’t got much free time around Christmas Day due to games being played on December 26 or 27 but it’s not too bad either. On Christmas Eve, the forwards were in at 8.30am for their meeting about jumping, pushing and shoving before the whole squad met at 9.10am for a review of the Saracens game and a preview of Worcester. We were on the field just after 10.30am (there was a lot to review from the Saracens game!) for just over an hour. Having completed the same recovery procedure as after a game, we were out the gap singing Fairytale of New York!
Having had a disastrous experience four years ago when trying to return to London from home in Ballina for training on Stephen’s Day, I’ve spent Christmas with my girlfriend, Sara, and her family in Southampton for the last three years. This year we trained at 11am on ‘Boxing Day’ (again, the forwards were in half an hour earlier) and my experience told me I’d be pushing my luck to get back in time. Again we were on the pitch for just over an hour or so.
TWO WINS ON THE TROT
ON WEDNESDAY night we played the Worcester Warriors. Our 27-20 victory in Sixways not only gave us our first victory of the festive period, but also moved us to the relative security of eighth in the table. A bit of luck went our way but with the effort the lads put in, especially the forwards, we deserved it. We returned to the Stoop at 1.45am so our recovery sessions were put back to noon on Thursday. There was fitness or rugby for those who were not in the 22 or players like myself who were on the bench but unfortunately got little or no game time. A meeting at 9am preceded training on Friday with optional weights in the afternoon. Saturday was a training free day for the whole squad before meeting/training at 10am on Sunday morning.
After another quiet New Year’s Eve, we hammered Newcastle 42-15 on Monday. We face Bath next Saturday (also at the Stoop) before travelling to Montpellier the following weekend for a European Challenge Cup game. Hopefully we’ll still be in the mood to celebrate the New Year and what it may have in store for us come Saturday evening!
Here is wishing you all the best in 2007…may you be on the winning team more often than not!