Gerry Thornley: Break from the norm keeps everyone on their game ahead of the Six Nations

The Counter Ruck: There are worse places to prepare for a Six Nations than Quinta Do Lago

And so it began, the final week’s countdown to the 2023 Six Nations, under clear blue skies, without the slightest sign of a cloud in sight, close to zero temperatures during the night, chilly in the mornings and the shade, but warm in the sun during the day. There are worse places to prepare for a Six Nations than Quinta Do Lago.


We arrive in the evening, the man from the Examiner has hired the car and is our driver. We eventually find our palatial, four-bedroom villa with swimming pool, and the keys to access it, all organised by the man from the42. You know the fella. Dinner in our Irish owned haunt in the Cheeky Pup.


The Irish squad, who had been here since Thursday of last week, have their first media day at The Campus, the Denis O’Brien-owned high performance centre where all four tennis courts were in use. It also has a gym, swimming pool and, of course, the Desso GrassMaster hybrid pitch of international standard.

But it’s more than the facilities. The IRFU HPC in Abbotstown is state of the art and has a half-sized indoor pitch to guard against the vagaries of an Irish winter, but sport is full of stories about teams who grow weary of going back to the same old base camp, no matter how good.


Not only does a week in Portugal guard against the extremes of an Irish mid-winter, but it provides a break from the norm and ensures the squad have 10 days together en bloc, in the build-up to the Six Nations, thereby building bonds and unity. The French, after a week in the south-west of France, will stay on the road by remaining in Rome deep into next week before travelling to Ireland. This is also sampling life in a World Cup bubble.

Hugo Keenan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris and first-up a chatty Tadhg Beirne were served up in front of the cameras, Netflix and Dictaphones. Beirne talks freely as ever. Easy piece. He is still sweating from the morning training run, which was rejigged at the last minute by Andy Farrell.

Vision access was denied to the travelling camera crews, but not before we witness the first-team train in purple tops, with those in white bibs nearer to us giving some pointers toward Farrell’s opening selection, not least Stuart McCloskey in midfield.

We work and lunch in Dano’s Sports Bar and Restaurant in The Campus, then do some shopping in the supermarket for the Palace. Dinner came at the recommendation of the team’s video analyst, Vinny Hammond, or more specifically his wife, who is Indian and said she’d never experienced a better Indian restaurant than The United Kitchens of India in Villamoura.

A charming place, we benefitted from the restaurant being quiet and having the undivided attention of the staff, and especially the owner/chef Narayan Rao and his wife, who selected our array of shared starters (crispy spinach and battered cauliflower) were exceptional, and chose each mains based on choice of meat and strength of spiciness.

Rao has cooked for the President of India and supplied the catering for Katy Perry’s wedding among many other dignitaries and celebrities. He also found time to speak with each of the eight of us, sharing his views on life and the Indian system. He also offered a compelling argument in favour of dessert as it eases the acidity which develops on one’s stomach when eating food.

The 30 Irish management went there the following night. It’s been the talk of the week.


The man from the Indo sure cooks up a good breakfast. Me? I gave some milk to the tabby cat we adopted, or the tabby cat who adopted us. Media day at The Campus features Andrew Porter, Mack Hansen and Johnny Sexton, who is pure gold as ever. We’ll miss him when he’s gone. Memo to other, younger Irish players. You don’t have to be shy, retiring and guarded.


Head to the squad’s hotel, the Magnolia, which has 74 rooms but is booked exclusively for the 28-man squad and management, for the team announcement to face Wales. Tadhg Furlong is ruled out, and Finlay Bealham comes in with Tom O’Toole is promoted to the bench. Otherwise, the team from one to 23 is exactly as forecast. Along with the closed roof in the Principality Stadium, Andy Farrell happily embraces it all.

“I think it’s been our best prep, I really do,” says the relaxed Irish head coach, in what is as much a fireside chat as a press conference. “It’s another thing translating that, isn’t there but we talk about how we translate the standards that we set in training. In that regard it’s been top drawer, probably because guys are coming in on the first day, being able to get up to speed very quickly.

“You would naturally hope that’s been a progression and that’s what we’ve seen over the last 12 days.”

Alas, January and February are the quietest months hereabouts, so both Julia’s and the Bold Octopus by the beach are closed. The taxi driver to the Melting Pot, Luis, is a Portuguese rugby fan. He tells us of Portuguese rugby bringing in Argentinian-born forwards to beef up their pack and help their talented backs. Portugal have qualified for the World Cup in France, where they are in a pool with Georgia, Fiji, Wales and Argentina. It’s daunting for them but then so would any pool.


Early start, tidy up the Palace and head to Faro airport for the flight to Bristol and the drive to Cardiff.

There’s meant to be an ending to this email, but I don’t have one. Sure, this is only the beginning.

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