17 April 2023
An atypical block of fallow weeks for London Irish, especially in the final months of a season, has not wavered the focus of the Exiles’ playing group.
Despite their allocated time away from the field, personal bests were aplenty from the squad in their recent time in the gym of the Hazelwood Centre, in what has been an intermittent return to action for Irish.
Rob Palmer, Head of the Club’s Strength & Conditioning department, affirmed that the matchday personnel are “incredibly driven to succeed” despite barren weekends through April to date.
As the team near the end of a midseason interlude, Palmer tells of how he collaborates across departments to combat the obstacles faced since Irish’s last game in a St. Patrick’s Party win over Northampton Saints.
“The big challenges we face during fallow weeks are balancing some much-needed rest and recovery from a tough series of fixtures, while also staying in touch physically as when the players return, they normally return back to a competitive schedule,” he detailed.
“Three weeks with no fixture in season is a long time, so we split the weeks up to achieve a small amount of down time for the players followed by two build up weeks to prepare for the upcoming fixtures.”
Head Coach Less Kiss talked on the need to maintain that competitive edge: “It’s difficult when you have these long breaks in a season, it’s not common but we’ve sat down as a group of people from key departments to plan it out.
“Myself, Rob [Palmer], Brian [O’Leary, Head of Performance] and Deccy [Declan Kidney] have strategised the best way to train, get a bit of rest and recovery, but it’s all to maintain that key edge and momentum needed to continue.
“That’s really important, we have to keep the momentum going and we believe we put the right programme in place to have the boys humming for Sunday.”
Synergy across different areas of the on-field side of the Club sees the Strength & Conditioning, Medical, Sports Science and Rugby departments ensure physical, technical and tactical areas of preparation are explored.
Further explanation from Palmer on the behind-the-scenes work done to tailor the squad’s training programmes sees even more intricate cooperation to maximise results from their team.
“We start on the larger macro plan where myself, Brian O’Leary, Declan and Les [Kiss] meet to decide which days we would like to train based on the objectives we set out from the start, with the end goal obviously being to win rugby matches.
“As we get down to each day’s training, the performance team would meet every morning to go through the session plan draft from the day previous to begin the process of deciding which elements of training are appropriate for each individual.
“We do this from a load management point-of-view with Sports Scientists, an injury perspective from the Physiotherapy team plus the physical development needs from the S&C team.”
“We do a lot of planning with individuals and their load, as most Clubs would, but we have a specific approach so we know who needs to rest and who needs to be topped up in volume for their fitness,” Kiss added.
“That aligns with our objectives of what we want to get from next Sunday against Saracens.”
Palmer continued: “Then we speak again with the coaches regarding those players to be managed and make decisions on which elements are most appropriate for their rugby development.
“The whole process involves as many people as possible for each training day as we are aiming to optimally prepare each and every player, because without it, we could miss something and players then don’t get the training they need to perform on match day.”
Palmer states that the predominant aim across departments is to always “align the programs so each aspect of the player’s training is appropriate”, but more hurdles arise when players are away from the Club.
Trust is necessary from the management and coaches in their players to keep ahead of their fitness requirements upon return to the Hazelwood Centre.
Time to enjoy themselves during a deserved break is paramount too, of course, as the fitness coach expounded.
“As the players have a fairly busy game schedule, we always take the opportunity to let them get away from the Club but prescribe some basic running and weights sessions to keep in touch with their fitness.
“We sometimes give each players a GPS unit but it depends on what we are preparing for the following week and how informed we need to be before making training decisions when they return.
“In regards to this past break, we did not hand out GPS units but instead trusted the players to complete the work they were given, I do believe they will pay that back with the completion of the right work.”
Kiss was particularly encouraged by the fitness and determination showcased by his players upon return from the hiatus, describing it as a “confidence builder”.
“We have to try and get that freshness but also have that physical hit, we did some testing which was really a confidence builder because the boys were all in good nick.
“Now we are slowly but surely trying to build a technical and tactical plan to take forward into the week.
“Managing that process is a collaborative process, we’re very lucky here with Rob, Brian and Ben [Cousins, Sports Scientist] that work very closely with us in the rugby plan to get us better and better.”
Particularly given Irish had no weekends off from 27th November to 29th January, midseason breaks are unfamiliar territory, yet little is tinkered by Palmer and his department in recent training days to ensure maximum consistency.
“The biggest change would be the amount and focus of the meetings, as we are looking more on our game rather than the threat of a possible opposition.
“We would standardise a few things though that would be different on a traditional match week.
“For example, traditionally we have one light session in the week followed by the biggest training day, and the third is to sharpen everything up so could be called moderate for most of the playing squad.
“For these past two weeks we have trained a day on, a day off and had more big training days.
“We also completed arguably our biggest training day of the year so far which is a great testament to the players and their fitness at present especially rugby specific fitness.”
In the absence of matchdays, the coaching group encouragingly does not encounter a need to keep motivation up with the players.
A billing of a London derby against Saracens and a potential postseason decider against Exeter Chiefs awaits Kiss, Palmer and the team in Sunbury, with the squad’s training levels rising nicely to meet the expectations of the fixtures.
Kiss concluded: “All we can do is deal with the circumstances of not having a competitive game for a month, and I have to take my hat off to the players, particularly the leadership group, who manage a lot of the way the guys go about their business.
“It’s in their hands how they want to approach it, they have been motivated, focused and have worked hard to get the best preparation possible for the run-in.”
“It is always a concern that the game not being there at the end of the week would potentially curb some of the motivation to work hard on any given day, but the playing group we currently have are incredibly driven to succeed,” the Head of S&C said.
“Some of the training in the gym and on field has been first class, we have had fitness personal bests, strength personal bests, power personal bests, not from all but definitely most of the group.
“I’m really pleased with where the players are at right now.”