Across the Laighin: The Physiotherapy team at Leinster Rugby
May 13, 2021 4:41 pm Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is the quarterly magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The second edition went live in March and over the coming weeks we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
In the third and final piece from the most recent edition, we spent time with the physiotherapy team in Leinster Rugby to get an insight into their backgrounds but also the work they do on a day-to-day basis to keep the players fit, healthy and available to Leo Cullen.
From the Head of Physiotherapy, Garreth Farrell to Intern, Kathryn Dane, they each gave ‘Across The Laighin’ their thoughts as to what makes their world tick.
The clock reads 61 minutes and 54 seconds.
Stuart McCloskey, the Ulster and Ireland centre, carries hard into the Leinster defensive wall.
Dan Leavy does what he has done on countless occasions before. He does what any good back rower would do. He stands his ground, makes his tackle before being cleared out by two Ulster players.
It is then that time stands still for Leavy.
While play continues down Leinster’s left flank with Ulster building phases, Leavy lays where he fell. Prostrate on the Lansdowne Road turf.
Looking and listening back to the clip on YouTube you can actually hear the moment. On Romain Poite’s referee mic you can still make out the groan. Then the reaction.
Both of Leavy’s hands immediately go to his left knee. He’s in trouble.
As we now know the 26-year-old Leinster and Ireland flanker suffered, to use the terminology used at the time, a ‘complex knee ligament injury’.
By 62 minutes and 12 seconds, the Leinster physiotherapist Karl Denvir is on the scene, followed quickly by Prof. John Ryan.
Ten seconds later and Denvir is indicating to the sideline that a stretcher is needed.
The Ulster team doctor is soon over as are the ambulance crew to take a clearly distressed Leavy away to safety and to immediate care.
Denvir is calm. He is on his knees, he is talking to Leavy, close to his ear.
Looking after his player – his patient – is his primary concern but his role is also as the key communicator back to the coaches’ box and after another few seconds he is on his mic communicating with Leo Cullen and delivering the bad news.
He is also passing on vital information to the medical team on the sideline so that they can have as much first hand medical information available for when they take over.
The news is not good and that much is clear to even those without any medical knowledge.
Nick Mullins on commentary for BT Sport that day sets the scene.
‘We are hearing by the way that Dan Leavy has suffered an horrific knee injury which we are not inclined to show you again on the screen. Take it from us. It’s horrible.’
The BT Sport cameras pan to Leo Cullen, Brian Colclough and Felipe Contepomi in the coaches box. Their faces tell you all you need to know.
Ashen-faced. Crest-fallen. They know.
Within four minutes of Leavy falling to the ground, Denvir, Ryan and their associates from Leinster and Ulster Rugby are back patrolling the sidelines. Waiting. Waiting for the next man down.
That is their gig, that is their lot on match day. In the eye of any and all storms that might come their way.
Please not Dan again…
“I actually remember it with Dan pretty clearly,” says Denvir, looking back on the day. “Not just because of the injury or the nature of it but because it was Dan.
“Seeing him go down it was ‘oh no, what now’ because Dan had just come off a serious calf issue and a few months before that there had been a shoulder issue so he had been through the ringer a bit.
“I had been working very closely with him on those injuries so I knew what he had been through so that was my initial thought when I saw him there; ‘Please not Dan again’.
“Then it’s ‘I need to get to him quick’ and pretty quickly I could see it wasn’t good. He was white as a ghost and actually nearly turning blue and then it’s just a case of assessing as quick as I could what was wrong.
“I admire Dan so much. He is made of serious stuff because every challenge that he has faced he faces it down brilliantly and even though he was in agony, he is calm and composed and is able to communicate clearly, ‘it’s my knee’.
“Then it’s about making the assessment, communication with the paramedics, with the coaches and all the while trying to make Dan as comfortable as possible.”
Leavy has of course thankfully made a recovery from that knee injury and although he is now out with another injury, it remains one of the most high-profile injuries Leinster Rugby have had to deal with.
Player first mentality
Some of the relationships between player and physiotherapist go back a long way but that all has to be put to one side when you are dealing with this issue in front of you.
That can be easier said than done as Denvir again explains.
“You owe it to them to be objective and make that call and put their interests first but I mean, you know these lads.
“I get on very well with the players, we all do, at the end of the day they are colleagues and you’d go for a coffee with them or lunch or whatever, some I have known for quite a while and some that I have worked very closely with on various injuries.
“I remember against Connacht a few years ago and Dave Kearney went down with an injury and I remember seeing it on the big screen after he had been treated and taken off and I couldn’t shake the image from my head for the rest of the game.
“Dave and I had already been through a few injuries together so I knew what he had been through and I just couldn’t shake it from my head.
“I wouldn’t say I was in a daze but yeah, definitely, there are times on a pitch or back at UCD when it is very difficult to separate the personal from the professional because you know the lads so well. You only want what’s best for them so it is very tough to see them at a low point.”
The Leinster Rugby physiotherapy team
So, who is the team?
The physiotherapy team in Leinster Rugby consists of eight full time members of staff.
Cavan native Garreth Farrell leads the team and he has been with Leinster Rugby since 2008 when he joined as the Academy Physiotherapist as well as the Assistant to the Senior team.
In 2012, he was promoted to the Head of Physiotherapy in Leinster and has since then been steadily building a team and a programme around him to help manage the more than 90 athletes in the Senior, the Academy and the sub-Academy programmes in Leinster.
Farrell’s team now includes:
- Karl Denvir (Senior Physiotherapist)
- Diarmaid Brennan (Senior Rehabilitation Co-ordinator)
- Fearghal Kerin (Rehabilitation Physiotherapist)
- Darragh Curley (Academy Physiotherapist)
- Brendan O’Connell (Academy and Youth Programme Physiotherapist)
- Mark Kenneally (Sub-Academy Physiotherapist)
- Kathryn Dane (Physiotherapy Intern)
They are a disparate bunch from a mixture of backgrounds.
“My mother works as a Guidance Counsellor in Templeogue,” explains Brendan O’Connell, who has been with Leinster Rugby since his internship in 2013 and is now the Academy and Youth Programme Physiotherapist, “and I was all set to do BESS and work in business but it just wasn’t for me.
“Sitting behind a desk all day didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t like the blood and gore either to be a doctor but from my time playing rugby I had seen physios at work and the brilliant work that they did and that stood out for me as a viable option.
“When I was studying in Trinity, Karl approached one of my professors Fiona Wilson about potentially doing the internship and also a Research Masters with Leinster and it took off from there. Apart from another Masters in the UK, working in Leinster Rugby is all I’ve known.”
The internship route was also taken by Dublin-born but now Meath man, Diarmaid Brennan.
“I’m a Swords man but we moved to Meath, Rathoath, in my teens. A massive GAA family. I played at inter-county level for a few seasons with Meath hurlers. My dad, John, was also big into the GAA and hurled for Roscommon actually and he would have coached a lot of my teams growing up and Meath teams that I would have been involved with. Just a huge GAA family and sporting family really.
“My mum, Mary, was a nurse, a midwife nurse and then dad worked in pharmaceuticals so I suppose that sporting background and the interest in sport started something in me and then like anyone you start looking at courses and the sporting route appealed to me and the medical side of it was probably brewing around there as well in the house with mum and dad.
“I saw an undergrad course in Carlow IT in Sports Rehabilitation and Athletic Therapy and that would have been the route for me.
“I was with St. Patrick’s Athletic from when I finished my undergrad in 2008 so that was a full-time role essentially and I became the sole therapist there for a while. Twenty-one full-time professionals and me!
“Six months out of my undergrad and there was so much learning on the job there but it was great exposure and a great group of lads to work with. We were in the Europa League in 2009 and actually it was with St. Pat’s that I had my first experience of a game day in the RDS!
“We played Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League in the game. A great few years with them. Jeff Kenna was the manager at the time and I really enjoyed it and during this time I also completed my Masters in Football Rehabilitation from Edgehill University. A busy time but then there was quite a bit of change and they went part-time and it just wasn’t feasible for me.
“In 2012, a role came up for an internship with Leinster Rugby and I did that and then an Academy role came up a year later and I went for it and got it, then a Senior role came up a year after that and I’ve been in that role ever since.”
The internship model leading into hopefully a full-time position is one that the current Ulster and Ireland scrum half, Kathryn Dane, is pursuing.
A former Northern Ireland underage soccer player, she studied physiotherapy in Trinity College while also playing with the Ireland Rugby Sevens team at the time and it was exposure to professional physios that convinced her that this was the role for her.
“Growing up I always knew that I wanted to help people when I got older and then from U-15 to U-19 level with Northern Ireland I suppose gave me my first taste of elite sport but also that element of the physiotherapy team and what they did.
“I was in awe of what they did for us as players and how they worked to keep us going really and trying to help us to achieve optimal performance.
“When I moved to Dublin to study in Trinity, I joined Old Belvedere and then was lucky enough to train with the Ireland Sevens team and I just wasn’t strong enough or robust enough. I was picking up silly niggles, loving the social scene, trying to scrape through college, enjoying the rugby when I did play but the balance was all wrong.
“I remember the physio at the time, Emma Gallivan, and she really took me under her wings. She sat me down and said this is now when you need to make a decision on your career and are you going to put in the work. It was a eureka moment, it really was.
“I felt like the youngster in the team, that I didn’t fit in or belong and instead there I was being taken care of in a way and someone taking an active interest in me, saw my potential and invested time in me and I suppose that reinforced what I felt about physiotherapy as a profession and what I could potentially achieve.”
The Offaly connection
Others like Offaly native Fearghal Kerin had to be more patient for his opportunity to work with Leinster Rugby but his perseverance eventually paid off.
From Cloughan in west Offaly, his late father, Phelim, was an auctioneer and his mother, Eileen, a teacher, and from day one he and his siblings were all into sport and, in particular, were Leinster mad.
Originally attached to Birr RFC, they made a contentious move 15 minutes down the road to Tullamore where his eldest brother Alan would eventually captain the club and represent Leinster Youths.
That particular region is well stocked currently with Leinster royalty as both Peter Dooley and Michael Milne are proud Birr men and the Kerins would have known them very well.
“Mick’s side and his cousins, all those Milnes would be playing in Tullamore even though he is Birr. So I’d know a lot of those and then my dad would have known Peter’s dad and Alan would even have played against Peter’s dad as he came to the end of his playing career.
“Alan says Peter’s dad was getting involved in all sorts of dark arts! And I mentioned it to Peter recently and he just looked at me knowingly so I don’t think it was too great a secret and that his dad’s reputation preceded him! Peter wouldn’t be into that type of thing to be fair but I’d say it’s in there somewhere!
“Both my brothers would have coached against Peter though. They had the Tullamore team that was at his age grade so played his Birr team plenty of times. I remember being at the games and I remember Peter. It was all about stopping Dooley. He was a brilliant player, a No 8 back then.”
Alan was the talented one of the brothers concedes Kerin begrudgingly – “I captained Tullamore to the Harry Gale though,” he laughs – and while sister Caitríona went with the teaching, Alan with the Gardaí, it was left to Eoin and himself to follow the sporting professions.
“Eoin did a degree and a masters in Sports Science in University of Limerick and did a placement with Crusaders but it didn’t work out for him in the long run and he’s now an optician. I had an eye on physiotherapy and journalism but in the end went with the physiotherapy.”
As Kerin navigated his way through his education first in UCD studying physiotherapy, he started to dabble in the professional side of sport first with London Harlequins rugby league team (formerly London Broncos) and very quickly he found he liked what he saw.
He did a year in Trinity studying Sports Medicine before landing his first full-time role with Shamrock Rovers and much like Brennan before him, he found that it coincided with a remarkable period of success for the club and many adventures.
“By 2011, they had won the league the year previously so it was a great time to get involved with them but it was also very lucky with my timing.
“Coming out of college I emailed everyone and anyone in the UK and Ireland looking to get a break. I emailed Garreth Farrell, James Allen, all these lads, hounded them, but no reply.
“I used to remind Garreth of that fact very often in my first few years – less so now! He also overlooked me in 2013 but thankfully I got a break in 2014 when they finally saw sense!
“Anyway, I actually only got one call back for all my efforts and it was from an unknown number. It was Michael O’Neill who is now with Stoke City, but was then the Rovers manager. A role was open at short notice and my email landed on the very day where it became available and I was Dublin-based and could start tomorrow. Pure chance but what an adventure.”
He enjoyed brilliant days with Michael O’Neill and Rovers. The Europa League group stages, playing in England against Spurs, in Greece, in Russia in minus-15 degrees in the winter but by 2014 he finally got his break with his home club.
The Evolution of the Team
When Garreth Farrell arrived in 2008 it was only himself and one other, James Allen.
“When I started it was two physios. When I look back then I cringe but again that wasn’t a criticism of what we did, it’s just how far science and medicine and the practice of it have moved on so much.
“It was a passive treatment culture as well so the player comes in and it was ‘fix me’!
“Now it is far more aligned between our team and the players. We are trying to get to the root of this issue and let’s get you armed with a programme that is going to change that and we will give you the tools to get rid of it as opposed to just treating the symptoms of the issue. We will map it out for you, we will review it as we go and we will work together on it.
“Right from the start of the injury process we have unbelievable resources in our three doctors.
“Prof. John Ryan who is the lead doctor, then Stuart O’Flanagan and also Jim McShane. They all bring a wealth of experience and differing skill sets with a huge passion for the role.
“There is also better integration with Charlie (Higgins) and Joe (McGinley) and the performance team and with the rugby coaches. There is an understanding that the injury is not seen as an isolated medical issue but that there can be other aspects that feed into why an injury occurs which can be for example a technical skill execution.
“We have a collective responsibility to ensure number one that the athlete is safe and robust and secondly performs to the best of their abilities. We get video footage from Emmet Farrell and the analysis team who work through the night to identify the mechanism of injury at the start of the journey and we integrate with Hugh Hogan for example through the rehabilitation journey to iron out any technical deficiencies associated with the tackle.
“They are the biggest changes and us all working together to achieve them as a cohesive unit has been great to see. The pressures have grown so it had to evolve really. The pressures of the game have grown, the demands of the game have grown.
“Back then players could return maybe not at the performance level required and get by but now the fitness demands are far greater. The ball is in play more, it’s faster, the players are stronger and fitter so you have to arm your player to a greater degree than you could have back then.
“We also have a situation especially in Leinster where we have guys from our sub-Academy and our Academy, young men at 19, 20, 21 years of age playing in the Guinness PRO14. They have to be ready for that challenge and we play a role in making sure that they are ready but it is very much about working with the player, whether that is down in Energia Park or up here in UCD.”
Changing with the times and the Leinster Rugby player pathway
The point on the younger players is well made by Farrell and it is why they also need their go-to people to manage their programmes and why they now need a team of eight to help manage it all.
This was a lengthy process for Farrell to build the knowledge and the programme to best deal with a recruitment system in Leinster Rugby that backs the players from within its schools and clubs pathway, rather than just buying in from abroad.
They need the young players of today to be ready to play professional rugby within a short time frame.
“Well first we actually had to define what is a senior rugby player?” says Farrell.
“It may sound straight forward but what are the base line markers and performance targets that we need from our club players and our schools players as they move along. What do we as a club want to hang our hat on?
“First into the sub-Academy, markers there, then the Academy and then finally, all going well, a Senior player and what are the base line targets there.
“But that isn’t just rocking up and saying here you go. It is very much an education and having a syllabus of sorts for our schools players, our clubs players and trying to influence the pathway good and early.
“What level of robustness is required? So let’s look at calves, hamstrings, groins as the main areas, but the shoulder and the neck strength also.
“For example, the Nordic hamstring exercise as a tool for hamstring prevention. Where were we relative to the literature that was out there and to be honest, we didn’t compare favourably at all.
“Our scores were very weak and a few landmark studies really did not paint a pretty picture for where we were headed unless we addressed it so we now have a minimum threshold for our players in Leinster Rugby at the various stages of their development.
“The average scores in Leinster were maybe 300 newtons, to our standard now which is 550 newtons and some players would have standards in the 600s, the 700s and a few even beyond that again and one fella at 1000 newtons which is phenomenally strong.
“That’s the journey we are on and I was only having this chat with Mark (Kenneally) this morning because we are in the process again of rejigging what we do in the sub-Academy and that journey. Often times we chat and we are reactive but then other times we review our processes and try to be more proactive with the pathway that we have.”
The start of the journey
Mark Kenneally has been with the club since the summer of 2017 and is the sub-Academy Physiotherapist and over the last 18 months in particular has seen a massive shift in the focus as the club tries to ensure that these markers are met consistently at all levels.
“Over the last 18 months, as Garreth has already mentioned, my role has evolved to a stage where we are now more than ever actively trying to engage with schools and the youths (clubs) programme.
“When I came in, it was about keeping the players in the sub-Academy fit and healthy but it became clear very soon that the 17- or 18-year-old athlete that arrived down to Energia Park that there was a brilliant opportunity to supplement the already great work that the schools and the clubs in our system do with these young athletes.
“The priority now is to engage with the schools and the youths programme at an earlier stage and to support them and to provide education modules across a host of different areas so that we can have a better opportunity of addressing any areas that need further support across the board.
“If we have that consistency across our competence levels, our markers, it’s a huge plus for us. We start out with more robust players and I am delighted to say that in collaboration with the schools and the Area representative side and the clubs under that, we are building stronger and stronger relationships all the time.”
Preparing the players for those first steps in senior rugby
For anyone unfamiliar with the geographical spread of the playing resources in Leinster Rugby, the players just out of secondary school and in the traditional sub-Academy model would be based in the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence in Energia Park, whereas the Academy and the Senior players would be based in UCD.
At certain times of the year with so many Leinster Rugby senior players training with Ireland, the exposure that some of the Academy players, and even some of the sub-Academy players get, to the Senior set-up is invaluable.
“It is very much a ‘one team’ philosophy particularly when all the Irish lads are away in camp,” explains Darragh Curley, the Lead Academy Physiotherapist.
“At different times during the year that can change and you can have challenges but they are all, we are all, still under the one roof and all working towards that same goal of a win for Leinster Rugby at the weekend.
“For me and Brendan (O’Connell), we want Academy lads to get capped and for them to be ready to go and because there is that continuity and because there is that togetherness in terms of the group, by and large it works well and the lads can step up when called upon.
“We now have young lads, 19, 20 years of age and they are out there and they fit in so well and I think that’s a credit to the system that we have.
“It’s a massive team effort. All the work that goes in from a Senior coaching point of view obviously, but then from an S&C point of view, a physiotherapy point of view and then an Academy coaching point of view with Noel (McNamara), Denis Leamy, Kieran Hallett, Simon Broughton and Eoin Smyth and all the lads working behind the scenes to set them up to succeed.”
And yet, room for improvement
While the Leinster Rugby model would appear well mapped out both Farrell and Kenneally agree that there is much work still to do and while it may not be possible to emulate the models seen in the UK, for example, there can be gains made.
“Other sports and other professional sports are way ahead of us and their model allows them to be able to engage with young players much sooner than we can” says Farrell.
“Ideally you want to be getting in there at 11, 10, even nine years of age to improve the movement competency and movement literacy of those kids
“For example, in soccer in the UK they do it very well. We are trying to influence the 15-year-olds to 18-year-olds, the fourth, fifth and sixth years, whereas in the UK and in soccer and their Academies they have access at a much younger age.
“That obviously isn’t our model but we are certainly working very hard to make sure that the players at sub-Academy level, into Academy level and finally into Senior level are as robust as they can be and that is why the role of Mark and Brendan, Dave Fagan and his team, and then Simon (Broughton), Trevor (Hogan) and Denis regarding technical development their team and the work that they do is so crucial for that bigger picture piece.”
Brendan O’Connell was himself a part of a number of Leinster Rugby age grade programmes and would have played with the likes of Brendan Macken and Andrew Conway.
He has seen at first hand what it used to be like and where it is at now.
“So much has changed in my time here but that point that Garreth makes about our players is crucial because it is important for them to understand that they don’t walk in to the Centre of Excellence on day one and look at a Garry Ringrose or a Tadhg Furlong and say how do I get to be like him.
“Instead, you show them the roadmap to becoming the best version of themselves that they can be within the parameters that we have for them as an 18 or 19-year-old centre or prop.
“And then from there a 20 or 21-year-old centre or prop and so on. We manage their expectations because it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s more attainable for them then I feel and nobody is thinking I’m a winger and I’m miles away from Jordan Larmour.
“Instead, I’m on track as an 18-year-old winger and I can make progress from here.
“Trevor explains it brilliantly to every new intake every summer and his explanation is that when you come in, it’s only the first step on a long journey and you don’t have to be the finished product today. You are here because you are talented, now show us what you can do but relative to the markers we set for you as an 18-year-old.
“I can see the difference that makes for them because now it is within their control and they aren’t lost in a dream that is years away and years in the making too. But also for me as a staff member it gives me clarity in terms of what I am trying to deliver and that has been hugely valuable for me too.”
Managing the resources and sharing the load
While the change described by Farrell was incremental, the arrival of Charlie Higgins in 2016 as the Head of Athletic Performance, seemed to speed things up and soon, change was afoot in other areas too.
“Charlie’s arrival was great. He had brilliant experience from Australia, Japan, the UK and had plenty of his own thoughts about how best to move things along.”
Those chats between Farrell and Higgins, often challenging but always with a view to improving their lot, moved Leinster and the way they treated and managed players in a completely new and radical direction.
The new direction is commonly known as Player Watch and it essentially means that every member of the physiotherapy team would have their own group of players to manage.
Farrell explains further.
“The return to play model changed a few years ago. Back then the physio would do the front-end elements so the acute injury, early management and then the S&C team would take over for the strength phase and they would do the back end.
“But what we found is that you have two people and with a clear line of demarcation and when it goes wrong as it sometimes does, well you have people not taking ownership of the issue.
“Now we have one person, wholly responsible and we didn’t just arrive at this process. We consulted people in South Africa, the States, the UK, Australia, we looked at loads of different models and to be honest the change or the real driver coincided with Charlie coming in.
“Charlie and I sat down and had a good look at it and went back and forth on it. What could work? What would cause it to fail? And we ended up with this new model which we still have to this day, which is one physio responsible for that player from start to finish.
“But that physio isn’t alone, he or she is solely responsible for the whole thing but crucially they can then draw on the expertise of the wider S&C team under Charlie.
“If he or she is doing the running phase for example they could consult with Peter Tierney who we had at the time, or Jack O’Brien as we have now. Do up a running plan with them. If doing strength development speak with Joe McGinley and tease that out. How will that plan work for this player.
“The incentive is to have a scenario where your stable is very quiet, all fit and healthy and you have lots of times for coffee! That rarely happens unfortunately!”
Brennan has seen how the system has evolved under Farrell and Higgins’ watch and where it helped address some of the issues that were maybe catching them out.
“When I started in Leinster working with the Senior team, we divided the roles.
“But then, through nobody’s fault, there could be mixed messaging or it could be hard to keep things aligned if there wasn’t one person leading it so that led to Player Watch so each of us has a stable of players that they look after so you pretty much manage that player’s needs.
“That can be an injury, or management of an injury or making a decision as to what they can and can’t do in the gym or on the pitch, even in the down weeks and any adjustments needed there, basically it is all on you as the therapist to manage.
“So now if Charlie or Joe want to make a decision on a player they have one central contact to talk to about that player and they aren’t chasing two or three people to get an answer.
“The Player Watch system ensures that we have a central management system now and I think it works much better for the physios and also the players, coaches and back room team. It’s very different to what we had. We just felt that it ran the risk of things falling through the cracks and to be fair to Garreth and Charlie they wanted us to evolve and grow.”
“Much the same as the Senior and the Academy players training together, it is important that we too work very closely together and get along,” explains Farrell.
“We are based up in UCD and then Mark is based down in Energia with Brendan moving a bit between the two centres but that connection is vital.
“The team around me though, I am very lucky and I’m not just saying that. Often times we argue over various decisions but that’s good because you need those conflicts to stress all of our decisions.
“They all bring a great energy though and they are all competitive too. That’s human nature. They all want their stable of players to be the best prepared, the best rehabbed, the best shape, whatever.
“That is good. We are all driving each other’s standards but also then working together and sharing ideas and research. It’s a great environment to work in.”
The long term injuries and management of same
Darragh Curley spent over seven years working in Australia and New Zealand after qualifying as a physiotherapist from UCD in 2008 and has seen sporting environments in basketball, rugby and AFL.
Since 2016 he has been the Lead Academy Physiotherapist.
While the team of therapists clearly enjoy working on their stable of players under the Player Watch process that is not to say that the players never see and never engage with other therapists and coaches outside of their direct point of contact.
Curley explains the concept of their injury planning meetings which are provided for the longer-term injuries.
“Everyone is the same, they need a few days to come to terms with it so you give them that time to process the injury, the diagnosis and the recovery time but very quickly the questions start and one thing that I think we do very well here in Leinster is our injury planning meetings.
“For example we had one yesterday with an Academy player who has been ruled out for 12 weeks or so. We try to hold the meeting within a week of the injury all things being equal.
“In that meeting with the player was myself as the main point of contact for the player, then Garreth, Charlie, Noel (McNamara), Kieran (Hallett), Joe (McGinley), Jack (O’Brien), Daniel (Davey) and Hugh (Hogan).
“Every medium to long term injury in the club is managed this way so anything over eight weeks really and each of us will go through the stages of the recovery and every one of the coaches and therapists will have a chat about each of their areas and what that player can do in that time to address nutrition or S&C or speed or strength or skills or tackle technique.
“It really is multi-faceted and I think is a great way of starting out the rehabilitation process for those longer-term injuries. The feedback from the players has also been very positive in particular for those from the Academy that would be new to a process like this and it is also a chance for them to ask questions or to chat through issues they might have like college or assignments and exams.
“The goal for everyone in that room is to get that player back to play and to get you back even better and stronger than you were when you picked up your injury.”
Delivering the bad news
In those bad times and news of longer-term injuries in particular, how important is it to maintain those relationships or is it more important to remain professional?
It would appear a mixture of both and indeed Kerin views the process as a partnership where trust is crucial.
“Personally, I think it’s important not to over-sympathise with them because I don’t think that does anyone any favours. What they want is clarity of thought and of diagnosis.
“Then I think space is important and allowing them to digest the news and then when the time is right, show them that you do care, that this is the plan that you have been working on for them and then here are the steps, here is the plan and off we go.
“It’s then about trusting me, jump on my back and we’ll cross this river together.”
Curley who deals with the younger Academy players agrees and also feels that quite often players are emboldened by the prospect of a new challenge.
“I’m always conscious of not putting the positive spin on it but there is an opportunity with any injury to work on other elements of your game so to work on X, Y and Z.
“Now you choose your moment don’t get me wrong! They don’t need you trying to be positive with the bad news!
“They need space as well as Ferg said earlier but then when the time is right you introduce that positivity and what can be worked on. And then as a staff we can feed off each other in those injury planning meetings.”
Interestingly for Brennan, Kenneally and Dane, who have all excelled at their chosen sports at an elite level, they can offer the athlete’s perspective because they have been there, done that and faced down the physio or the medic.
“We are in an industry where injury is a part and parcel of what we do,” opines Brennan.
“It’s an expected part of what we do, it’s an accepted risk and you have to train everyone to have that mindset because otherwise you could have players not buying into the process that’s ahead of them.
“The acceptance is there and you have people like Max Deegan for example who did his cruciate which for a lot of people in life, ordinary joes, that is a pretty devastating injury whereas Max’s mindset was ‘OK ,what do I need to do now? I’m going to talk to Vakh (Abdaladze) because he’s been out for a while and see if he has any tips and Dan Leavy too’.
“And then those lads who have been out for much longer than Max will be are dismissive of him because they’re saying ‘Six months? That’s nothing, I’d love a six-month injury’, so it’s crazy how quickly these players buy into that process and what they need to focus on now.
“The context of injury here is almost dismissed. Surgery? Grand, no problem. When am I back? Six weeks, eight weeks? Grand.
“That’s not to dismiss the process that the players go through but they look all around them and they see living, walking examples of players that have been there, done that, and are now back wearing the shirt and playing for Leinster.
“These are elite athletes and are hugely driven and they have inspiration and successful case studies walking all around them in and around UCD.
“Back to the original point though, often times it is the relapse or a setback that can be most difficult because the mind can be very much framed on a seamless process but there are often bumps in the road unfortunately.”
Kenneally in his career as a ‘decent runner’ – his own words! – has experienced the positive spin that Curley referenced earlier and he has very little time for it now in his dealings with his players.
“It’s a funny one and I’d agree with what the lads have said already because sometimes I feel you end up being less empathetic towards the player and what I mean by that is that your approach is nearly coloured by your own experiences as an athlete.
“There is an understanding that professional or elite level sport is difficult, injuries do happen and if your attitude is that you are always going to feel 100 per cent well and 100 per cent fit, well I think you probably need to change your expectation levels accordingly.
“As an athlete you have to appreciate what your body can tolerate and what it can’t so I think my background in sport definitely gives me an insight into that mindset and where they need to be on the receiving end but also what challenges there might be.
“I suppose my own experiences would also educate me around the traps because we all make mistakes as athletes so that would prove useful in terms of being mindful of what’s ahead and the challenges. Players knowing too that you competed at a certain level I think maybe helps but it’s not crucial.
“What’s crucial is trust. That is key.”
So how did he take the bad news when he was an international distance runner?
“Me? I liked it between the eyes. There were maybe one or two of the more significant injuries that I had in my career and I felt that the knowledge was there before I was formally told because they didn’t want to break the news to me but I just wanted to get cracking.
“I wanted to start my recovery.
“Of course, there is the human element of delivering that news and you have to be conscious of that. I am also very conscious of the age group that I deal with and it’s important to know when to engage and when to back away but then also when to re-engage and for them to know that we will get through this and that this is how.”
Dane, who has had her fair share of sporting disappointment and has missed out on many playing opportunities with Covid-19 over the last 14 months, is also in the no-nonsense camp when it comes to receiving bad news but is also learning as part of her internship that the balance also needs to be struck.
“As athletes we know what it feels like,” she says, “and it’s a kick in the stomach, massively so. You’re missing this match, that match. But you want it straight up.
“As an intern, I’m not in charge of those conversations with the players but it’s been really illuminating to see the rest of the lads work and their different styles and of course how they build that relationship and that trust with the players.
“Garreth is my main supervisor and we meet up on a regular basis in terms of my progress, what I’m doing well and what I can do better. Karl then is my mentor and he is responsible for problem solving with me and looking at certain players. He has been excellent in giving me the soft skills and the tools to solve certain issues and to deal with those scenarios where you are with a player and it’s not good.”
But of course. There are never any guarantees and those scenarios don’t always get resolved.
Joe Tomane joined Leinster Rugby ahead of the 2018/19 season. He was capped by Australia, had played in a Rugby World Cup and had impressed while playing in France with Montpellier.
Unfortunately he was plagued by hamstring issues during his two seasons that despite all their best efforts, they just couldn’t get right as Fearghal Kerin explains.
“I think of Joe Tomane and his time here and the pressure that was on his shoulders. An Australian international coming from a big club in Montpellier and he just had so many issues with his hamstrings and we just couldn’t get it right for him.
“That’s maybe a low for me because he was just a positive force but maybe people outside here look at it and think his time was defined by those injuries, which is sad.
“That weighs heavily on me because he spoke so positively of his time here despite all of that, despite how low he felt at times. The things he said about me on the website and how appreciative he was and for me, I just couldn’t help but feel that we had let him down in some way.”
The great days
The challenge of keeping the players well and fit is all their priority so it is no surprise to hear that the moments of pure satisfaction and joy for all of them is when they have made that difference.
Brennan has seen quite a few return from bad runs.
“It feels like Ed Byrne only made his Leinster debut about 18 months ago and here he is now an Ireland international and in Six Nations squads. The reality is of course that Ed missed nearly 28 months of rugby with knee injuries.
“How long it took for him to get back and I’ll never forget the way Leo (Cullen) spoke in the dressing room in Bath after the game where Ed had made his European debut and it still sends shivers down my spine. Special moments like that stand out. In 50 years’ time I’ll look back and that will still be clear as day.
“Josh (van der Flier) had a tough few years before he became the player he is today.
“Will Connors the same. And even that journey for Will when he picked up his ACL and he sees Seánie O’Brien, Josh and Dan Leavy ahead of him and then Scott Penny jumps onto the scene and he’s thinking even if I come back, will I make it? And then you see how brilliantly he has done with the opportunities he has been given.
“You have to get a high from days like that. Easier to feel sorry for themselves, easier to hit rock bottom, to go the other ways but instead they keep driving and achieve what they have. Inspiring men.”
For Curley, it is those same highs that keeps him going.
“You wouldn’t be putting the hours in unless you enjoyed it and got that energy from lads making debuts from the Academy or coming back from injury.
“Forty hours a week is what the terms and conditions of the contract say but the reality is early mornings, late nights, weekends, but we all love it.
“My first year we lost two semi-finals but since then the club has been hugely successful and you definitely feel that you played a part in that. You don’t get that euphoria in other jobs and roles and that is the difficulty to always be striving for that.
“For us in the Academy, our role is to try to help the players to maintain their fitness and their readiness to play so that they can take those opportunities when the games come along which means so much to them.
“Then globally we are all working towards winning every game, making it to finals rugby, working four weeks longer every year in doing that but nobody complains! So whether it’s the B&I Cup Final or the PRO14 Final or whatever but those goals are always there.
Denvir still to this day pinches himself when he thinks of the road he has travelled.
To the young lad studying in school in Naas and then, to Farrell’s point earlier, reminds himself of the need to enjoy the moments.
“I remember when I was with Worcester Warriors and we were playing London Irish in the Madjeski Stadium and I don’t know, there was maybe 20 or 30 thousand in the stadium and it was one of my first games where I stood back and thought, this is really cool… and it is!
“Thinking back to those days in school and what road you want to take, what you want to study after the Leaving Cert, wanting to work in professional sport and here I am. Here we all are.
“The same to this day. Running out at the RDS or the Aviva, they are special days. Working with one of the world’s leading professional sporting organisations, that is special and I do think it’s important to remember that and the joy and the pride that is inherent in that.”
Sometimes though, the feeling is just relief as Farrell concedes.
“The good days? Seeing a player come back in to play and coming through OK.
“To be honest that is a buzz you get nearly every week and you can see the relief and what it means to the player and there is satisfaction from knowing that you’ve been there with them on that journey.
“There is also relief! And you have to remind yourself to celebrate those moments because often times the relief just takes over but you have to celebrate those moments because some of those returns can be months in the making.
“So it’s not highs and lows in this job. It’s more the lows into relief and then maybe some contentment but then it’s very quickly, OK, who has picked up a bang today and off you go again!”
The club as family
And for others it’s about so much more than a job or much more than a club. It’s about family.
The shared experiences of match days were a big part of growing up in Kerin’s household.
He went to his first Leinster Rugby game in 2001 and by the time 2009 came around he was attending games at the RDS Arena and away from home on a weekly basis with his family.
“Those Cheika years and Joe Schmidt years, attending games is what we did as a family and in particular with my dad, they were special days.”
Kerin’s father, Phelim, passed away in 2012 after fighting motor neurone disease.
“One of his last games was the 2012 semi-final against Toulouse and because he had motor neurone we had to wait until everyone else had left the stadium before leaving ourselves as he would struggle with the stairs.
“We were there on our own and I have a lovely pic of my dad sitting there, in his Leinster jacket, and with the Aviva in the background and I took it as I knew it could be our last time there together.
“He made it to the Ospreys final in the RDS but he slipped that day and we knew then that he was sliding and that that would be it in terms of attending games.
“He died in October of that year but what he gave to us growing up and that connection to Leinster, I suppose it frames my love for the club and how special it is for me to now be working here.”
His father may be no longer with us but the love for Leinster is still as bright as ever.
“Caitríona and my mam would still use it all as an excuse. They still come up, book themselves into the Clayton Hotel beside the RDS and make a night of it.
“It really does light up our family still to this day and we all had lunch as a family ahead of the Montpellier game in December or my mam now in lockdown, sitting on her own in Cloughan on a Friday night watching TG4 and watching Leinster, knowing that what I do and the team that I work for is bringing her that joy.
“It would mean something anyway, but to have me involved and the joy that that brings to them is very special for us as a family.”
The players… Tthey drive all our efforts!
It is only right and fitting that the final word should go to Farrell, the man charged with leading the physiotherapy team since 2012.
“I love it. It’s the only job that I wanted to do from the age of 15 onwards. I am doing my dream job. It’s not a dream job every day! Like all jobs there are ups and downs and challenges that must be faced but I don’t ever wake up and think, I’d rather not go into work today.
“There are some days though where definitely you would love another 24 hours to cram some more into your day but the biggest piece is the game at the weekend and getting the players right.
“The players. That is the focus for all of us in Leinster Rugby and that drives all our efforts.”