Mikey Kiely relishing the chance to help Ulster build on strong foundations

Renowned strength and conditioning coach played key role in Limerick’s rise to hurling supremacy

 Mikey Kiely: ‘We would hope we wouldn’t come up against anyone that would play at a higher intensity.’ Photograph:  Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Mikey Kiely: ‘We would hope we wouldn’t come up against anyone that would play at a higher intensity.’ Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

 

Ever evolving rugby, shifting ambition and the long journey north along the M7 towards Ravenhill Road was more than just an interesting change of gear and emphasis for strength and conditioning coach Mikey Kiely.

From two years of All-Ireland success with the Limerick hurlers to a Belfast club growing weary of trophy cabinet cobwebs – and the close but no cigar tag – was a step into a new kind of challenge.

Last season Ulster came second in their Pro14 conference, losing just twice in the league. Both times it was to eventual champions Leinster. Ulster were game contenders but fell just short, for the past 16 years always just short.

No stranger to Gaelic games, Ulster coach Dan McFarland, who spent 15 years in Connacht as a player and coach, has always seen currency in tweaking and calibrating systems. His thinking was maybe Ulster had become comfortable, having settled into a place where they were content and where the outline of the weekly schedule had become homespun and familiar. Even the winning teams have to reboot routines, he said.

When McFarland looked at the specimen hurlers of Limerick and how physically they had dominated teams, even before emphasising it again in this year’s All-Ireland final against Cork, he saw in Kiely the potential to become Ulster’s benign provocateur.

Kiely’s arrival also represents a coup for Ulster, who had been looking to replace the outgoing David Drake when he accepted a position as the S&C coach at Worcester Warriors in the Premiership.

“Mikey will bring a different dimension, a different perspective, and we’re always looking for that, guys that can disrupt the common thinking, change things up,” said McFarland last month.

“I use the word disruption because that’s exactly what it is. Disrupt structures to create growth. We don’t want to end up in an area of group think, where everyone is patting each other on the back. We don’t want to do pretty well, we want to get better all the time. That would be the same even if we were winning trophies. You always want to get better.”

Leaving Limerick to take his method to a different city and sporting code is also a significant cultural shift for the former Limerick under-21 hurler. Kiely had worked in the county academy before the senior team and had formed friendships. He had known some of the players since they were teenagers. It was not an easy decision.

“It certainly wasn’t,” he says. “I’d built up a very good relationship with both the coaches and the players. Some of the players I would have had since they were 16- or 17-years-old in minor squads in the hurling academy. Regardless of that player-coach relationship you become close to players and you enjoy their company. Of course I would miss that.

Great challenge

“But Gaelic games are an Irish sport and their skills are transferable. The proposition of coming to Ulster in a full-time capacity in a professional sport was a very difficult one to turn down. Also, there was the challenge of a new sport. I saw a great challenge in that and that was also part of the draw for me.

“Definitely I knew I’d learn from the coaches here and different players from all around the world. I thought it was something that would advance my own career and my own knowledge. A person can become . . . stagnant is the wrong word, but you can become comfortable in your own skin and I don’t think that’s a good place to be.”

Rugby is adorned with players who began playing Gaelic games and shifted into the professional ranks. There is a shared pool of athletic ability.

While positions are more nuanced in rugby between props, hookers and outhalves, the transferability reaches as far back as Kerry footballer Mick Galwey to Shane Horgan, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Ulster’s outhalf, the former Kilmacud Crokes Gaelic footballer Ian Madigan. Competition for the best athletic material involves sharp elbows but Gaelic games and rugby have grown side by side.

“There are a lot of comparisons between both [Ulster rugby and Limerick GAA],” says Kiely. “They are very professionally set up. In an actual professional set-up you have so much more time and so much more detail. That brings challenges for coaches and players.

“I worked across a multitude of sports and I suppose one that would have been pretty abstract was horse racing where you are looking at athletes who are off feet and that are working maximally in terms of the physiological demands placed on them.

“To analyse that and come up with training programs for those athletes, it’s just a matter of problem solving. It [rugby] is slightly different to hurling. You would have nuances. That was a challenge but with a good coaching staff up here it is not that difficult once you analyse the demands of the relative positions.”

Although immersed in Limerick hurling, Kiely was never a million miles from rugby. He grew up near Conor Murray in Limerick, close enough to kick a ball around with him and others when they were kids.

He played rugby as a youngster in primary school under Mick Lynch and John Sheehan. Lynch would have played Munster level in the amateur days. While Kiely admits as a mini, he was stuck on the wing and hurling was his chosen career path in sport, the basics of rugby and an understanding of the positional functions are ingrained.

Follow rugby

“I wouldn’t say I excelled. I was a winger that stayed out on the wing and got cold and didn’t get much ball,” he says. “I never played at a great level. I’d always follow rugby. Technically I’d have a good knowledge of it.

“I grew up on the same road as Conor Murray. We would have been friendly when we were younger. But naturally our careers grew apart and he went off to Munchins, I went off to Clements. I would have played a couple of games of soccer in his back yard when we were young.”

Initially Kiely was commuting between Limerick and Belfast, yo-yoing the 230 miles up and back. Since the hurling championship finished and rugby moved into full swing with the new United Rugby Championship, his two-year contract with Ulster has brought him more permanently to east Belfast, which is now home.

On the pitch, Ulster hope to bottle the physical conditioning that helped Limerick to three All-Ireland titles in four years and Kiely is trying to develop a game where Ulster are playing at a higher intensity than they were before across all positions.

“We would hope we wouldn’t come up against anyone that would play at a higher intensity,” he says. “We are trying to come up with a game plan that exceeds the demands we’ve come against before.

“It’s important that the players are prepared to meet and exceed the demands they meet in match play. That was our goal in Limerick. That is our goal in Ulster, that players will never meet higher intensity in a game or higher endurance than they will ever meet in a training scenario.”

But he dampens down notions that there is some kind of big reveal, or that he has come from a team culture of winning to one where the group has struggled to claim anything other than a Celtic League in 2006, the Celtic Cup in 2003 and the European Cup in 1999.

The players in Limerick, like Ulster now, he says, didn’t grow up on a diet of All-Ireland-winning role models. Instead success arrived through the mundane applications of change and industry, attaching systems and structures to a talented group that they believed gave them a shot.

“Ironically it is very, very similar between both [codes],” he says. “When I went over the Limerick academy with the under-21 teams we didn’t have a senior title at that stage. Success for Limerick hurling since 1973 has been very recent. Them lads didn’t grow up seeing All-Irelands being won.

“Similarly up here in the 1999 European Cup-winning side. I wouldn’t see a great deal of difference between the two groups. In fact they are similar in that they are process-focused. When that occurs success won’t be too far away.

End goal

“The big challenge is not getting caught up in that end goal. If your goals are over-reaching or too global you may never reach them, it’s step by step. That’s what we would have done in Limerick. Psychologist Caroline Currid would have looked at that in a lot more detail. But in Ulster it’s very, very similar to what we have in Limerick.”

Kiely says there is similarity in broad strokes between Limerick captain Declan Hannon and Ulster captain Iain Henderson. Both naturally command attention. Both lead by example. Both are grounded and rational, not over excitable.

They are driven by process and not flights of fancy of their own making. Leadership, he says, is all encompassing. Not always on field thunder, it’s also holding the door open for the person coming behind. Small details.

“From the two groups I’ve experienced, you are always looking for that inch in performance,” he says. “In rugby and in Limerick at the top level you are living just to find the inch every week.”

That chimes with an Ulster coach marrying blue sky thinking with traditional methods to make the inches feet and feet yards. Kingspan Stadium and Páirc na nGael. Belfast’s melting pot.

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