Former Irish Olympians on the benefits for rugby and GAA

Gary Ryan and Tom Comyns are convinced both sports still have a distance to travel

Gary Ryan, Project manager UL Beo and Dr Tom Comyns, PhD, Lecturer in Human Movement Science, University of Limerick, at the announcement of Irish Life Health as an official partner to Athletics Ireland. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportfile

As team-mates at the Sydney Olympics and former Irish sprint champions, Gary Ryan and Tom Comyns know all about the value and importance of speed.

More lately they’ve been into the transferring of it to other sports, and it seems there’s still a little catching up to do.

Ryan spent the last five years as hurling fitness coach with his native Tipperary, opting out this season purely on grounds of refreshment; Comyns spent six years as strength and conditioning coaching with the Munster rugby team, and believes the game could still be more speed-driven.

“For sure the nature of hurling now is short sprints, every 30 seconds, and high0speed running, comparable to Premier League footballers,” says Ryan, a two-time Olympian, in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. He also won 16 Irish sprint titles and broke 30 Irish records.


“I was coming in when hurling was still seen more of an endurance game. That transition has been happening over the last eight, nine years, and everyone involved now has that since they’ve started. So we’ve seen a big change in the speed and athleticism of the game, and I think it will take another step over the next few years.

“But what that needs to do is filter down to coach education. Speed has become such a commodity, again in hurling, even with set plays, and the amount of puck outs. Coming from an athletics background you do bring a different perspective, but even the term strength and conditioning, is now more around athletic development. Strength and conditioning just is part of that.”

Ryan’s first season with Tipp, in 2014, under then manager Eamon O’Shea, saw them lose the All-Ireland final replay to Kilkenny, before triumphing in 2016: he’s now Project Manager at the University of Limerick (UL) Beo, an initiative in the areas of physical activity, health, lifestyle and sport.

“And athletics, in my opinion, should be one of them, because it’s just so good for all the other sports, if that’s what you want to do. It’s a sport for life, and a sport for everything as well.”

Speaking at the announcement of Irish Life Health as an official partner to Athletics Ireland, emphasising that the sport delivers on health, wellness and lifelong activity, Comyns is still particularly interested in the benefits of speed in rugby.

Now a lecturer in Human Movement Science at UL, he worked closely with Paul O’Connell during his comeback from injury in 2005.

Main Role

“My main role with Munster rugby was actually speed coach. And when working with senior athletes such as Paul O’Connell, Alan Quinlan, Jerry Flannery, the basis of running was missing, particularly sprinting.

“Speed is key for those sports, but they didn’t have the fundamental skill of running, or sprinting. So you have to back to basics, develop that first, get the technique right, and it’s catch-up work really, until they become more proficient.

“The IRFU funded my PhD, so before I started with them, I helped out with certain players, and one of them was Paul O’Connell. He’d broken his hand, around 2005, and wasn’t engaged in playing rugby at the time.

“So I spent two sessions a week, for 10 weeks, just working on technique, and there was a moment the year, in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final, and he caught Denis Hickie, in five strides. He just felt he could do that, had the confidence. But we had focused on what was a heavy deficit area for him. So I’ve seen the benefit of applying those speed skills, and speed coaching, directly on the rugby pitch.

“Rugby is definitely on that track, but I think it could be driven a bit more, that speed can still become a bigger part of the training, of the focus, not just the full back, or the winger. With the forwards, the speed was more lateral movement, which is of main benefit to them. But it’s still a big challenge to incorporate that speed training into sessions, between everything else.”

Comyns is currently working on a pilot study funded by IFRU looking at injury prevalence in the club and schools game.

“This is the second year, and while there was nothing particularly alarming about the club, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the schools study. We now have 36 clubs and 12 schools, which is over 1,500 players, and that will give us an insight into what injuries are out there.

“For now it’s not opinion-based, just data from physio or nurse, but from next year we will get information on player wellness and training load. But again if you have those fundamental skills, of being able to dodge someone very well, like the New Zealanders would have, or good flat out speed, you’ve a better chance of avoiding those heavy-impact collision scenarios.”