It was a physical battle in Cardiff but sore bodies won't come into it against England
Seán O'Brien tackles Mike Phillips last Saturday. Photograph: Inpho/Getty Images
Jonathan Sexton prevents a certain score by Toby Faletau. Photograph: Inpho/Getty Images
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:Pain is part of a rugby player’s living and Wales was the perfect preparation, writes ALAN QUINLAN
When the game was over last Saturday, I made my way down to the area of the Millennium Stadium between the tunnel and the dressing room and got to see some of the Ireland players. They looked sore and like they had taken a huge amount of bangs and knocks in the course of what was a hugely physical game.
But there is another look that you see in a winning dressingroom after a game like that. No matter how sore the players were, the main look on their faces was one of pure contentment. When you come through a battle like that, the satisfaction of the day’s work is what you feel above and beyond everything else.
When you play rugby for a living, you come to accept that pain is just part and parcel of your everyday life. You are always going to have some sort of ache or strain or bruise or scar at the very least. You would never class any of them as an actual injury, obviously. Still, just because they wouldn’t keep you out of a game doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.
Everybody who watched the game on Saturday saw the physical effort the Ireland players put in to keep Wales at bay in that second half. On the back of it, there has been a lot said and written in the last few days about how hard it will be for them to recover for the England game. But to be honest, people have it the wrong way around.
The level of physicality last Saturday will do Ireland far more good than harm building up to Sunday. This is why rugby players do so much conditioning work in their day-to-day lives. They are forever making sure they strengthen muscles and ligaments so that when they go into games they are able to absorb all the hits and bangs. It might sound strange to think of it this way but a game like last Saturday is just about the best work-out.
It was, as everybody has said, a bloody hard physical game. It would have been harder on the Irish lads than the Welsh lads because defending always takes a bigger toll on your body than attacking. To defend for that long is a tough business and there’s a lot of pain going through your body as you do it. People might think that the adrenaline means you don’t feel the pain but that’s only true up to a point. It definitely hurts.
All over the place
But it’s always better when you’re winning. I remember playing in a trial game at Lansdowne Road before the 2003 World Cup. It was one of these games where the ball was being thrown all over the place and there was no kicking. The ball was in play for ages and the team I was on was attacking. We scored a try after a passage of play where the ball was alive for ages and ages and as we went back for the conversion, Paul O’Connell turned to me and said he was wrecked.
(Well, he used other words but we’ll keep it clean). I was barely able to talk as well but the first thing that came to my head was, “Imagine how they feel after us scoring.”
It’s so much harder when you’re defending. Physically making those tackles is one thing, getting up off the floor to make the next one is something else. In the early days of professionalism, that was one of the things we didn’t really train properly for. The sport was only finding its feet and it was a brave new world for the fitness guys as well. Oddly enough, it wasn’t really known in those early days that the down-and-up scenario was one our fitness had to be prepared specifically for.
In recent years, a huge amount of emphasis has been placed on hitting the ground, getting back up, hitting the pads and running. Down and up and hit, down and up and hit. Everything you do now is rugby-specific, purely for the sort of day the Ireland team had on Saturday. Seán O’Brien didn’t make 23 tackles just out of instinct, he has trained his body to be able to withstand the kind of effort that takes.
They would have been sore afterwards, no doubt about it. The most common complaint would have been shoulder aches, just from all the hits that went in and the impact of the collisions. But you would have had a lot of groin strains, calf strains, dead legs. Every muscle would have been sore in some way.
There would have been a hell of a lot of lactic acid coursing around the body and some bruising where there was bleeding in the muscle. The first 24 hours would have been all about ice baths and massages, rehydration and eating.
The Ireland team didn’t stay the night in Cardiff on Saturday. It’s not that long since the Saturday of a Six Nations game in Cardiff would have meant a night out but that wouldn’t even have been mentioned on Saturday. They would have got back to Dublin early enough and might have had a few drinks later on. But crucially, they would have woken up in familiar surroundings on Sunday morning and got into their recovery.
You have to mentally recover as well. You have to allow the emotion, the stress and the pressure drain out of you completely before you start building it up again for the next game. They’d have gone home and slept in their own beds and as long as they weren’t suffering from a sore neck, they’d have slept soundly. You always do after as enjoyable a win as that.
Because for all that it hurts, a win like that is pure pleasure. Those players pulled it out when they were under the most severe pressure and were taking a battering from a team that was packed with seriously big players. They fought for each other and took hits for each other and when it was all over, the pain would have felt almost like a little memento of the game itself.
And it will do them a world of good. On Sunday morning they would have felt worn out but by now, most of them will be well over whatever bangs and knocks they picked up. They will be feeling stronger than they did this time last week. That game will have added an extra layer of conditioning to their bodies and made them that bit more battle-hardened for England, who didn’t have to physically extend themselves as much against Scotland. The more you put your body into tough physical situations, the better it will react. A game like that flushes any bit of weakness from your muscles.
That’s why I think people are looking at this the wrong way.
Absolutely, the players would have been sore and tired after the Wales game. But at this stage of the week, that’s a distant memory. They’re obviously not going to spend the week hammering into each other in training – for one thing, it won’t help recovery; for another, they had all the contact they needed last Saturday.
If Ireland lose on Sunday, it will because England are a very good side who are playing with a lot of confidence. Sore bodies won’t come into it.
If anything, it will stand to those Irish players. They haven’t played a huge amount of games this season – certainly in comparison to the French and English players – and if a fitness planner wanted to design the sort of game that would get them right up to battle-hardness, the Wales game would have been exactly the kind he’d have had in mind.
Just think of it as a huge work-out, a massive contact session. Ideal preparation for what lies ahead.
Undoubtedly, there will be a huge physical toll involved in Sunday’s game as well. There has to be, because Ireland just don’t have the physical size of a team like England. When we talk about the Player Management System that the Ireland players go through, that’s what it’s for. Ireland players have to be fitter – and less injured – than players from other countries because otherwise a team with a lot of bulk and size like Wales will just exploit their natural advantage.
Ireland put in a massive physical effort last weekend and the very fact that they were able to do it and hold out for the win made it the perfect result. It’s far better that they had to spend the second half putting their bodies on the line as Wales came back at them than if they’d run in a few more tries and won by 40 points. They came through a battle and the confidence of knowing that their bodies and minds were up to the task is huge.
What you have to hope now is that they use it to make another step forward in the next game. As much as I’m saying the physical nature of the Wales game is a good thing, I’m not completely sadistic. Ireland won’t want to spend nearly as much time defending their own line on Sunday. That was hardcore.
But the body is a great thing. It adapts to whatever situations you put it through. Any fitness person will tell you that you do the training so that your body isn’t shocked when the real thing happens.
You muscles get harder, your body gets harder, you get more physically conditioned when you come through a game like that. It’s important for the players to handle the recovery sensibly but trust me, they will have enjoyed the amount of punishment they put themselves through. More importantly, I don’t see fatigue being any sort of factor against England on Sunday.