Time was when a prematch meal might have been a breakfast roll and post-match was a plethora of pints, but all has changed, changed utterly. The increased detail around nutrition in sport has intensified in the last decade, and rugby is no different.
When the Irish team’s nutritionist Emma Gardner started out in this career path 10 years ago with Northampton Saints, she reckons she was one of two or three working part-time with Premiership clubs, whereas now all clubs would have at least one, mostly full-time nutritionist.
As the IRFU’s head of nutrition Gardner oversees a department which has 11 nutritionists across the provinces and the Irish women’s team and the Sevens squads. Ireland’s World Cup squad also has two travelling chefs with them in France.
After Northampton, Gardner worked in English cricket for almost six years from 2017 to 2022, initially with both the men’s and women’s teams before concentrating on the former. She also worked with the Team Britain hockey sides in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.
Speaking to the media a year after succeeding the long-serving Ruth Wood-Martin, Gardner said that was ample time to fine-tune the latter’s “phenomenal” work over a 16-year period.
“In this squad, I actually haven’t had too many crazy requests,” said Gardner when asked. “Other teams and other sports, I’ve had some very bizarre requests. Nothing too out there. You sometimes get people wanting things like steak for every single meal that they have, as an example.
“But these guys are very straightforward. They love their food, which is good for me. It makes it easy. They’re not fussy. My life is very simple in a way. They just like food and lots of it.”
Diets vary individually, albeit their week is fairly structured.
“Our heavier days tend to be Tuesday and Wednesday, and we’ll make sure their calories are high. We’ll drop off on Thursday, usually it’s our travel day, then match day minus one is the day that we focus our attention in terms of their usual day.
“Their typical day would be breakfast, midmorning snack, lunch, midafternoon snack, evening meal, pre-bed. They have six opportunities to eat during the day and I’ll work with the individual to see what their needs are.”
Starting with their second pool game against Tonga and for however long Ireland remain in the tournament, 9pm kick-offs are the norm and this is particularly challenging.
“Very much so. I think there’s a psychology to a 9pm kick-off. We try and push our day as best we can but for some players we try and divide the day into two; they get up, eat, they may sleep and we start again with their fuelling routines.
“Sometimes the challenge is overeating, feeling sluggish because the only thing you do is eat all day, so you have to tailor it and manipulate it to what they need.
“We’ve done a lot of work in that space with individuals, to make sure they feel good going into the game when it’s that late.”
Furthermore, the squad didn’t return to their out-of-town hotel base until 1am for their post-match meal.
“They had to, there’s no other time,” said Gardner. “They’re very diligent, we prioritise eating and sleeping and we try and get them back to baseline as fast as we can for the next game the following week.
“Weeks like this are a bit easier when we’ve more time to recover, but we’re pretty aggressive with our recovery strategies as you’d need to be, particularly with guys who’ve played 80 minutes.”
Gardner, who maintained that rugby is not actually inclined toward supplements – “we’re very much food first” – said there is also increased player buy-in.
“Every collision creates a further energy demand. The time the ball is in play will influence the fuelling strategies we do. So, I think there’s a natural player buy-in because they feel it and experience it. They know what they need to do to fuel for 80 minutes.”
Pointing out that the last 10 to 15 minutes of matches is “where my area kicks in”, Gardner added: “and we never want to have an excuse where we aren’t winning a game because we’re underfueled.
“But one of the biggest things we’ve seen the difference in is our recovery, how much better they feel in a shorter space of time. If they start with a full fuel tank and only slightly deplete it, it’s easier to get them back to a baseline.
“That’s just not for performance, it’s also minimising injury risk, minimising illness. Some people just see nutrition as food. Hopefully my role spans way beyond that, and hopefully we see that in our results as well.”
As for a post-match drink or two?
“We don’t have rules, we have standards and the lads know those standards. They create those standards. My job is really easy in that space. They know, they’re very professional. They also need to look after their own bodies.
“They know the time when they can slightly relax,” added Gardner. “They can do that with food, they can do that if they want to have a drink but they also understand what’s ahead of them.
“There’s a trust either way. There’s a respect and I think what’s really nice in this environment is that we don’t say you can or cannot do that. They do things at their own discretion and we all understand what we’re trying to achieve. We’re all on the same page with that.”