This is my 10th season as a professional and each campaign starts with two months of pre-season, followed by nine months of matches and one month off, and then you hit repeat. Now, thankfully, there is usually a week or two off during the season but, still, it’s a pretty hectic calendar.
The last five years have been particularly full-on for me. I was averaging around 25 games until this season, driving up and down between Limerick and Dublin, which is great actually. Life is easier for internationals as opposed to purely provincial players, who are in the same environment for 11 unbroken months. I know. I’ve experienced both.
I’ve played 92 games in the last three and a half seasons - as heavy a workload as any back three player in the country. But it’s a good complaint, and better than not playing enough.
Even in summer holidays, which used to be four weeks and are generally now five, for the first two weeks you’re just letting your body recover. Then two weeks before coming back you’re conscious of not returning in bad shape. Especially before the Rugby World Cup, some of the sessions I did were heavy going. And I wanted to do it because of the carrot in front of us.
It wasn't even about what Keith Earls or Jacob Stockdale or other wingers were doing. It was about how hard I could go. If you can push yourself to your absolute best, it doesn't guarantee selection for a World Cup squad. But if you're not picked, at least you know you couldn't have done any more.
It’s the times when you could have done more that eat you. Again, I’ve experienced both.
During a session on my own I can get to a really deep place. I've chatted with Niall Scannell about this and you can earn extra mental strength from going deep when no-one is looking. It's just you and your mind. As Stephen Larkham puts it, doing the right things when no-one is looking actually reveals your character.
Maybe finding the right balance has been more of a challenge for me. I used to think experience was over-rated, but with it you better understand what you need to do to go onto the pitch and be the best player you can possibly be. I went from not doing enough, to doing too much, to doing the right amount.
People probably think we have plenty of time. We train for maybe 90 minutes on the pitch, along with a gym session, and that’s it. But that’s not how it works, not for me anyway. I used to do it that way, train hard, do my weights hard and then go home, not do any recovery, pick up niggles and injuries, and wonder why. In my opinion if you’re going to get as much as you possibly can out of your career, you have to put as much as you can into it.
I admire how international players can juggle a career with a degree. Eoin Reddan used to tell me what a positive impact studying had for him while he was playing. Redser is a smart lad and that balance clearly worked for him.
Everyone is different. For me, being a professional rugby player is all-consuming, and playing well in a big match takes a lot out of me. When it wasn’t all-consuming, it wasn’t good.
Intrinsically linked with this is my meditation and well-being. In pre-season before the World Cup the management brought in a girl called Susan Quirke who did one session of group meditation. I thought it was incredible.
I’d done some in the past so I understood what she was asking of us. It didn’t work for some lads although I do think there’s something for everyone in meditation. But it’s like anything, being taught the skill by the right person is so important She’s based in Lahinch and I visited her there four times before the World Cup and, as has happened with meditation in schooldays, it filtered in to my performance.
For whatever reason it works for me and I’ve been to her five more times since the World Cup. It’s part counselling, part meditation, part energy work. They’re usually an hour, but can be up two and a half hours.
She can’t do one-on-ones during the lockdown but has been doing sessions called ‘being techniques’ through zoom calls. I did them on three consecutive days last week. It commits you to two 20 minute practices a day.
She’s been incredibly influential on me, as a player and a person.
It’s just me, Liz and our dog Sadie here in Castleconnel, so I have the time and, all in all, we’re very well looked after in Ireland. But this has been our first big break for body and mind, and I needed it.
My head is in a way different place because, for the first time, it’s been a while since my last game and the restart line is not imminently in place. It’s a funny place, seeing things differently, but in a clearer way. You’ve proper time to come up for air and assess things with 20-20 vision, so to speak, whereas normally your mind is blurred by what’s just happened or is looming next.
Time will tell but eventually we’ll see some players emerge from this break and kick on, and others maybe won’t, but I am definitely looking at the positives of it.
As Paul O’Connell said recently on The Late Late Show players who’ve been playing European Cup and test rugby for years will find this break beneficial. The guys who could get the most out of it were probably very fatigued. This ‘time out’ mightn’t cost them but instead rejuvenate them.