In previous years, this 12 week break from the end of one season to the beginning of the next was little more than a time of reflection of the Cov that just was and anticipation of the Cov that will be, come September.
For me, it was a time spent scouring the papers and Internet for any news coming out of the club, especially with regard to new signings or rumours thereof. There was little in the way of rugby to follow other than the international tours, with cricket and Wimbledon dominating the sporting calendar. Cricket I can live with…Wimbledon just doesn’t do it for me.
This year however, rugby has suddenly 52 weeks a year pastime. In the few weeks since the last season ended we’ve had a Members’ Forum, a meeting to vote in the new Supporters’ Club Committee and the first competitive games for the many of the new squad last Saturday, culminating in a place in the final. organised
Social events (including another hugely entertaining Comedy Club at the Butts tomorrow), open training sessions and further competitive 7s and a visit to Dublin over the next four weeks mean that the club is able to engage its supporters far more than it has previously at this ‘fallow’ time of the year.
The willingness of the club to share its journey with supporters and to include them right from the start in its regeneration is something that I, for one, genuinely welcome.
This isn’t just a rebrand, it’s a rebuild…
…and to specifications that will ultimately match any of the club’s competitors in National 1. There seems to be massive changes afoot, particularly those pertaining to the systems put in place to support players in their preparation and training.
We are moving inexorably towards becoming a full-time, fully professional club, something that is vital if we are to gain promotion and, just as importantly, ensure we are able to compete with the strongest teams in the league above.
With the club extending an open invitation to supporters to come and watch the players train on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, I decided to go along yesterday evening and have a look.
Sam (my son) and I arrived just before 7.00 pm and although the players were already out on the pitch (training starts at 6.45 pm), we were initially concerned because we couldn’t find a way of getting into the ground – all the usual entrances were closed. Fortunately, a gesticulating Tony Gulliver, in one of the upstairs rooms above the Bar area, pointed towards the turnstiles at the railway end of the ground where the gate, although shut, could be opened. Having already tried the turnstile there, I felt a bit of an idiot, but at least we managed to get in without scaling the fence or, even more embarrassingly, shouting for help.
Entering the ground reminded me of life before retirement. Many occasions as a teacher I was one of the last to leave the buildings and a school empty of pupils and staff had something of an eerie feel to it, with the few sounds that could be heard seeming hollow and deadened.
Sitting in the empty stands felt similarly unnerving; in no time we’d opted for a few circuits of the pitch, although subconsciously I think we were both uncomfortable seeing the players being put through their paces and exerting so much energy whilst we sat on our backsides…!
As for the training itself, well it was organised in an extremely efficient way. Other than a couple of water breaks, players were always engaged in what looked like very structured routines, working in mixed groups or forwards and backs separating to work on the more technical parts of their games.
Boris Stankovich was leading on the scrum and James Pritchard on a range of back play, including what looked like both defence and attack. I believe that line-outs, led by Brendon Snyman is a focus for Mondays (when the Development Squad are involved) whilst Thursdays is led by RW and focuses principally on attacking play.
Matt Price and Cliffie Hodgson were doing some light training (Cliffie looked extremely well) and I think Callum MacBurnie and Darryl Dyer are still abroad.
The forwards spend two 15-20 minute periods on the scrum machine, with BS talking them through what he expected from them and then watching eagled-eyed as they carried out his instructions. He seemed to have a real authority about him and it was clear he carried the respect of the players he was working with. He began with just the props and built the numbers up so that by the time the two sessions were over, it was a full 8 on eight.
With the backs tending to spread themselves across the pitch more, with JP leading the sessions, it was harder to follow what was being addressed. But they were just as intense.
Everyone seemed to know exactly what was expected, concentrating on what was being said by the coaches and then putting it into practice in the group sessions. When one session was over the players quickly moved on to the next, with no time for chat or distraction.
Hannah Walker, the Head Physio, looked to be busy working on a couple of players who had slight strains – hopefully, all the preparatory work she and the team of coaches are overseeing will result in a reduction in the number of injuries we suffered early on last season.
In the final 30 minutes or so Rob Norman became more involved with the squad, with players undertaking circuits or part circuits of the pitch, so although there was a lot of emphasis on skills, there was also plenty of hard yards being covered.
One player amongst the backs stood out for a number of reasons. He looked older than the rest (not old, just older), had no great size to him and wore a baggy t-shirt and shorts. This, together with his pale skin, made him look more akin to a newly arrived Brit on a beach in the Cost del Sol than a professional rugby player. RW described him as ‘the one who looked like he’d won a competition to train with a National 1 side for a day’ and that kind of sums him up.
Yet, with ball in hand, he seemed in complete control, with more time and awareness than you’d expect at this level. The midfield general.
This was Brendan Burke.
RW had spoke of him at the Members’ Forum and said he was something special and just on seeing him the once, I think he’ll be very much a crowd favourite. As the backs coach, I’m not sure how much RW intends to play him, but I can’t help but feel when he’s on the pitch he’s going to be a huge influence. Mind you, this is the person who twelve months ago said the same about Devlin Hope, so I would take this very much as the ramblings of someone who is more opinionated than informed…
RW was very welcoming and took the trouble to come over and identify who was who which was really good of him, as well as talk about some of the training and monitoring of players that is being undertaken. He did mention that he was horrified last season when he arrived to discover that after the first training session (I think it was a training session?) the players were fed burgers and chips. With the help of resident team nutritionalist Corey Hircock this is no longer the case and I believe the players were going to enjoy a meal including cold meats and eggs…
Sam and I had planned to stop off at Istanbul’s for a double cheeseburger and chips on the way home…needless to say we were suitable chastened.
It would be really interesting in a few weeks time to get the views of one or two players who have been retained from last season to see what their thoughts are on the different approaches to training under the two DoRs (which is what Scott Morgan was in all but name…?).
The fact that you can pop down and a take a look for yourself this season is indicative of this new ‘open door’ approach Cov has towards its supporters. I’d certainly recommend watching the training – by going to a few sessions I’m sure it will help me better understand what it is the coaches are expecting of the players in match day situations.
It’s free, only takes a couple of hours out of the evening and at least gives you the option of something a little different to Wimbledon or the footie.