If it's good enough for Wayne Rooney, John Terry and the rest of the English
soccer squad’s multimillionaires, then it must be good enough for Paul O’Connell and the lads.
This week, Ireland became only the second rugby squad to base themselves at St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent, the FA’s sports complex built at a cost of £156 million. They will be emulated next week by possible quarter-final opponents Argentina.
The brainchild of Howard Wilkinson in his time as FA technical director, English football's governing body bought the 330-acre site 15 years ago before building the association's National Football Centre, which was finally opened on October 9th, 2012.
Some of the Irish media accepted a guided tour of the multifunctional, multisports facility yesterday. First we were taken to the football centre, which is by invitation only, and which yesterday hosted the Burnley squad as they prepared for their Championship match with Derby last night.
soccer clubs and many from the lower tiers spend time here, often in readiness for games away to Stoke, Derby and
, full-time residents and newly promoted to the
Heavier weights have been installed for the Irish squad in the main gym. This looks out over the replica “Wembley”, which is reserved for the senior English soccer squad.
As impressive as anything is the Performance Centre, which is overseen by Perform, part of Spire Healthcare, an English private healthcare company. The Centre's Human Performance Lab is headed by Dr Carl Wells, who worked as team doctor to Sheffield Wednesday for seven years and is one of 13 full-time staff who oversee the rehab of six to eight sportsmen and women at a time.
There all manner of contraptions to measure the well-being of athletes, as well as a room which can assimilate heat and altitude. On the wall is a quote attributed to Mo Farah: “It’s just hard work and grafting. Then anything is possible.”
In all there are 13 outdoor pitches – including one of natural grass, one artificial, three of artificial fibre and three “hybrid” pitches. There is also an impressive full-scale, covered 3G football pitch, with enough glass and air to replicate outdoor conditions, and off it a three-lane athletic track, complete with state-of-the-art video equipment.
"Our core business is our English football teams, which accounts for about 30 per cent of our use," said the FA's Holly Murdoch. "But many other sports and football teams have used our facilities, including Barcelona for a week last year, and they then went to win their treble."
In effect, it is what Abbotstown could become for Irish rugby were they to relocate their training base to the National Sports Campus, which would welcome the IRFU coming on board along with the GAA and FAI.
The key to St George's Park is the on-site Hilton Hotel, with its 220 bedrooms, which runs at 80 per cent occupancy and has a lecture theatre (which can be converted into a cinema) and a games room.
As Johnny Sexton said the night before, an on-site hotel equates to a six- or seven-minute walk to their training pitch, which has also been designed as a replica of what they will experience at Wembley on Sunday.
The five days here is well-timed. Any longer than five days and the squad would suffer cabin fever. St George’s is somewhat remote, about 40 minutes from Birmingham, and for their down day tomorrow, events such as nine holes of golf and a visit to
have been lined up.
St George’s Park is more than three hours from Wembley, and while Abbotstown is only 20 minutes or so from the Aviva, an on-site hotel at the National Sports Campus along with a covered 3G rugby pitch, would make it a feasible home for rugby as well.
The NSC has planning permission in place for a 100-bedroom hotel which has still to be put out for a public-private partnership and could be in place within two or three years.
The other key component for the IRFU’s involvement in the NSC is the half-sized, covered rugby pitch and having ancillary facilities akin to those in St George’s.
The IRFU is understood to have a substantial amount held in reserve to help fund this project, which must be in the region of €2.5 million, but this is dependent upon Government approval and backing.