Massive physicality of Northampton and Leinster a reminder of the worth of hard bodies
Former trainer Paul Darbyshire popped into my head, a hard man who was taken by Motor Neuron Disease
Northampton Saints’ Ken Pisi is tackled by Leinster’s Dave Kearney last weekend. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
At the Aviva on Saturday, the ferocity and physicality really stood out. It really made a mockery of the idea put forward by some English journalists and ex-players – Austin Healey for one – that the reason for Leinster’s huge win in the first game was that Northampton lacked freshness due to such a tough schedule in the English Premiership.
Surely if that was the case, they would have been even less fresh last Saturday?
Instead they were massively physical, full of running and energy. Some of their players put in enormous hits – the likes of Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa especially. You can’t produce those kinds of performances if you’re tired.
And anyway, at this point in the season, the idea that the Irish provinces have some sort of advantage fitness-wise is just wrong. Yes, the front-line Irish players have fewer miles on the clock right now than players at English and French clubs but the benefit of that at this point in the season should be in the amount of injuries they’ve picked up, not the levels of energy they have. If there is a case to be made for English and French players being more tired than Irish ones, you can make it next April and May. Not now.
Northampton got hammered by Leinster two weeks ago because their attitude was wrong and because Leinster were excellent. It was nothing to do with them being tired. In fact, just now is the point of the season where players should be reaching their physical peak.
The whole point of pre-season training is for players to come into these coming months with their bodies hardened. Pre-season is when you get rid of all the niggles and start loading up the body and building muscle. Once you start playing games on top of all that work, you feel yourself coming around to the sort of condition you need to be in.
There was something about the sheer level of hardness and hitting in the game that made Paul Darbyshire pop into my head over the weekend. Paul joined Munster as a strength and conditioning coach in the summer of 2007. He came from rugby league and had been with Warrington for a long time.
Paul was a hard man. In a rugby dressing room, the best S&C coaches are the ones who are ready to get stuck in and do the same work as the players. Straight away, a guy like that gets respect from everyone. Paul was older than us, in his late 30s, and yet he took pride in being able to do the exercises he was pushing us to do.
There would be lots of times when you’d be absolutely hanging, thinking you couldn’t push the pain threshold another inch and Paul would be there telling you to quit complaining, that, if an old guy like him could do it, you had no excuse. I often thought some of the things he was asking us to do were unrealistic but then he’d go and show us up by doing them himself.
I remember one pre-season, we were in Boston at Harvard University. Paul had us doing a session on the bench followed by 50 chin-ups. You got off the bench with your arms feeling like they weighed a ton each and then had to go straight to the bar for the chin-ups. It was complete torture. But Paul was able to do it.
He was just such a strong guy. He would often do the same session with two or three different players over the course of a day. You’d be coming away from it having given everything and nearly being fit for bed and you might check back an hour later and he’d be doing it again with one of the others. He loved training, he loved pushing himself. That enthusiasm and mindset rubbed off on everyone else.
The Cork lads got to know him very well, as he was based down there. Some of them became very close friends with him. It made it all the harder then to see what happened to him as time went on.
He got Motor Neuron Disease and started to deteriorate in front of our eyes. It was scary to watch, to see someone who was this phenomenal trainer and motivator find his strength just wearing away.
When you thought of Paul, you thought of strength and of what the body is capable of. You thought of this guy who could knock out 50 chin-ups at the drop of a hat – bang, bang, bang, bang, as if he was picking his phone up off the table.
But the MND just took hold of him. He got some tingling in his arms around September/
October and by the following June he was gone from us. It was so quick and devastating. You could hardly believe that somebody like him could wither away in such a short space of time.
I was reading recently about Joost van der Westhuizen, the former Springbok who is in a wheelchair now with the same disease. And poor Colm Murray from RTÉ who died this year as well from it. It just goes to show it doesn’t matter who you are, how healthy your lifestyle is or how hard you make your body – something like Motor Neuron Disease will have no mercy on you.
Everybody knows people with tough stories and nothing comes tougher than illness. It’s the one problem you can’t fix – you can do everything possible to contain it but a bad illness will do what it likes to you and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Watching the game on Saturday, it occurred to me that it’s important to realise the value of what you have.
Those guys crashing into each other, going at it full pelt for 80 minutes – the last thing they would possibly think of is their bodies fading away. But looking in from the outside and knowing how things can go wrong, I think it’s possible to be thankful for the days when I was able to do that.
When you finish playing, your body softens and the hardness that Paul Darbyshire forced into you back then is only a memory. But you try to stay healthy, you try to keep pushing it whenever you can. You try to hold on to that time when you were fit and strong and were able to do all the chin-ups in the world even though your arms were hanging off you. He’d have slagged you anyway, regardless of how many you managed.