No gremlins for Ireland, but Fitzgerald vouches for pre-season prep

WHILE ENGLAND HAVE raved about their two-week altitude camp in Colorado and Wales have seen gremlins when training in temperatures of over 40°C in Qatar, Ireland have kept their World Cup pre-season notably low-key.

Ireland’s extended World Cup squad in Cork earlier this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Welsh fitted an altitude camp in the Alps into their schedule too, as did France, but the extent of Ireland’s adventures have been short stints in Galway and Cork, as well as frequent visit to their usual Carton House base.

Joe Schmidt’s players have dipped in and out of the national camp, three or four days together as an Ireland group before heading back to their respective provinces to finish the training weeks.

It makes sense given the fact that Schmidt, captain Paul O’Connell and the rest of the squad will be on top of each other a whole deal more in August and then during an intense and, hopefully, lengthy World Cup run.

Looking back on five weeks of pre-season as Ireland get set to face Wales in their first warm-up game in Cardiff next weekend, wing Luke Fitzgerald believes Schmidt and his staff’s decision not to venture to extreme climates has worked for this group.

“Everyone has done what they think is best for themselves and, as far as our preparation goes, we’re really happy with it. We’re working very hard and working smart, and everyone’s in a good position coming into these games.

“I think it was a good idea to stay here and it suited our group. It’s been very tough, I can’t say that I didn’t find it tough, especially as I was playing a bit of catch up. With the injury you’re restricted for two or three weeks in what you can do, so I was behind the group running-wise.”

Fitzgerald is a Topaz Ambassador. Source: Alf Harvey

Shoulder surgery in May to remedy an issue with the labrum meant Fitzgerald cancelled any plans for an extended holiday in June, instead working hard with his rehabilitation to put himself in a good position for the start of pre-season.

The 27-year-old reckons he has “another week or so to be fully fit but it’s coming together nicely,” meaning his involvement in the warm-up games may come a little later in August.

With so many of the other top nations having spent time at altitude during their preparations, does Fitzgerald feel Ireland have missed out on a potential fitness boost before the World Cup?

Leinster used an altitude tent in their UCD training facility last summer in a bid to simulate the perceived positive benefits, but Fitzgerald explains his belief that only extended periods living at altitude bring real gains.

“We had the altitude tents last year, but we haven’t used it this year,” said Fitzgerald.

“But I think running in that chamber is slightly different, it felt odd to me. It was a good idea and it makes a lot of sense, but I think you have to be up there for a concerted amount of time to get the benefits.

“If you’re living up there and have to adapt to the full-time environment, that’s probably a major component of getting the benefit.”

The physical elements of Ireland’s pre-season training, led by the highly-rated Jason Cowman, have revolved around the more usual routine of strength work in the gym, on-field running sessions and indoor blasts of circuit-style training.

Ireland were in Galway earlier this summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Anyone who has been through a pre-season of any sort will understand that this part of the year is hugely taxing, no matter what rep range, drills or equipment they’re using. It brings recovery sharply into focus, part of the professional rugby life that Fitzgerald pays close attention to.

“I’m a big man for foam rolling, I use the hockey ball and all of that,” said Fitzgerald of how he reduces his recovery times. “I like hitting the trigger points, anything hard works.

“The worse it gets, you end up almost liking it and getting used to it, so your body is looking for more and more. It’s a weird thing how your body adapts.

“I use all the things the other guys do, although I would probably do a little more stretching than most. I’m lucky enough because I’m quite flexible, if not overly flexible!”

Diet is naturally essential, at this time of the season and every other. Performance nutritionist Ruth Wood-Martin oversees everything the Ireland players eat when in camp, while Daniel Davey is leaned upon for advice and meal ideas back with Leinster.

Fitzgerald has been working particularly diligently at this aspect of his rugby life during the pre-season, his intention being to shed some weight after bulking up to around 99 kilos last season.

“I felt that an extra couple of kilos might be a good thing for me, but at the moment I’m actually trying to strip down a kilo or two. I reckon I’ve been a bit too good to myself for the last while!

“But it was very hard because I couldn’t train with my shoulder. Your lean muscle mass and your fat is obviously going to go up in that period as you do want to get enough stuff into your body when it’s working overtime to help a big trauma like that.

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Ireland fans turned out in force at Musgrave Park in Cork. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It makes the first couple of weeks of pre-season harder as you’ve got to work extra hard on the diet and sometimes you don’t have as much energy for cooking and prep.”

Fitzgerald explains that he’s a particular fan of using swimming as a recovery tool, with the summer months having made dips in the sea easier. Otherwise, it’s down to David Lloyds in Ballsbridge, where a relatively shallow pool allows him to jog and stretch in the water.

He is a fan of compression leggings post-training too, although he admits he doesn’t know how “tangible all that stuff” is, while Fitzgerald points to sleep as perhaps the most important recovery component of them all.

However, he admits that this is something he still has to work hard on. Adding in naps, whether in his room at Carton House or nipping back to his Clonskeagh home after Leinster training, has been key for him.

“I always feel you have a bit of a window, whatever your time is – maybe 9.30pm to 10.30pm. If I miss my window, I find it very hard to sleep. If I get in that window, it’s a seven-hour kind of thing and then I’m awake.

“I had to learn how to nap and that’s been a game-changer for me, because I would have been really bad all through school and really bad for the first while I was in Leinster. That’s helped a lot, the power naps are great for me.”

There’s nothing revolutionary in Fitzgerald’s recovery work away from training, although that perhaps ideally reflects Ireland’s approach to pre-season and many other things.

Getting the basics nailed down intelligently suits this group perfectly.

Topaz Ambassador Luke Fitzgerald visited the NACS award-winning Topaz site in Ballacolla, Co. Laois on Thursday. Topaz Ballacolla was recently awarded the NACS Insight 2015 International Convenience Retailer of the Year Award, beating off global competition to the prestigious prize.

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