Across The Laighin: The Performance Nutrition Team at Leinster Rugby
August 4, 2021 11:54 am Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is the magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The third and final edition went live at the end of the season and over the last few weeks we have been giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
The final piece of the third edition is with the Performance Nutrition team of Daniel Davey and Sophie Conroy, who sat down to chat about their journey to here, their role, their interest and love of food and most importantly, their own favourite dish!
In order to understand the Leinster Rugby Performance Nutrition team, first you have to understand the people and more importantly their love affair with food and the science behind it.
The passion that both Daniel Davey and Sophie Conroy share for their profession is obvious from the moment you sit down with them.
Whether it’s growing up in rural Sligo and foraging for blackberries in the thorny brambles.
Or growing up in the heart of Dublin and foraging for blackberries in the fridge; the end result is the same for both.
Making the move to UCD to realise your dreams or going in the opposite direction and being inspired at the University of Limerick.
Food – and nutrition – has been at the heart of the journey for both.
The team is small but their remit vast.
Daniel Davey is the Senior Performance Nutritionist in Leinster Rugby, while Sophie Conroy is second in command as the Academy Performance Nutritionist.
Between them their task is to help the athletes under their watch to perform to the best of their abilities, with nutrition and the performance aspect of nutrition as the cornerstone of their workings.
Their impact starts with the age grade sides that first pull on a Leinster Rugby jersey based in the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence, to the Academy players and right up to the Senior players and international players training and playing out of the HQ in UCD.
It is demanding but is a far easier gig if they enjoy what they do, and easier again if they believe in what they do.
To understand their belief system we need to go right back.
“I’m a Sligo man!” says a very proud Yeats County man, Davey.
“I grew up in a small two-bed house in a place called Chaffpool in Tubbercurry, Sligo.
“There was my dad, Peter, and mum Eileen and my sister Marianne. A small house, two bedrooms and it was compact.
“The house was essentially the gate house to the old estate and my dad inherited it from a woman that he moved in with when he was just 12 years of age.
“He was one of five, two brothers and two sisters, five in the family and he took over that house and that was the way life was back in those days.
“So I grew up in a very loving and very caring environment but we genuinely didn’t have a lot. Meal to meal and day to day is the way it was. That was my experience growing up on a small farm but it was great. Pet sheep and a pet calf and that was the experience. Great times.”
There was no talk of nutrition back then, per say, but there was plenty of talk about food and the value of food and the Davey kids both understood and appreciated its value early on.
“There was huge value placed on food in our house growing up. Fend for yourself type of environment definitely! We guarded our plates, my sister and I, and there were very little scraps left!
“But that was just life. Maybe when you are farming you take it for granted. The quality of the food that is in front of you. Part of it is maybe that my father worked in the local dairy too and he was interested in the food and the life cycle and the production of the food.
“In today’s terms it was simple food but it was straight from farm to fork. So dairy produce came home from there. Fresh milk, butter. The local meat factory was part of the same plant so we had the best of meat, fresh.
“My mother absolutely didn’t do everything for us too. So from the age of four, I remember sitting out back with a bucket in front of me peeling spuds so my sister and I were definitely encouraged to get stuck in and help out around the kitchen.
“Both our grandparents had vegetable patches so I was only exposed to home made food and I knew what that was like and my expectations grew the whole time around food and the quality of food.
“Nothing was ever really produced or from a packet whether that was at home or at my grandparents house when we visited.
“Like I wasn’t born into a house where the food was extravagant, it was basic. It was simple food but the rituals around food and it’s prep were an excellent foundation and it was good food, quality, nutritious food and my mother was a good cook.”
For Sophie Conroy, her love of food and belief in what she was about wasn’t cultivated on a farm or across rolling meadows and woodlands.
“No, very different to Daniel. I grew up in Dublin, with two brothers, Niall and Mark, and the farthest I went for food was to Dundrum and the local Tesco or Marks & Spencer!
“I was into sport growing up and hockey and running were my two passions, but food or nutrition didn’t play any massive part or role in our house.
“Dad was an engineer and mum was a nurse, so no real sporting passions there or in food for that matter.
“But I liked sport. I liked food. But there was no connection for me between the two.
“That being said, my dad, Michael, did say to me as we were getting closer to CAO time that maybe I should consider something in the sports nutrition or food science area and I just laughed at him! He was big into health and nutrition and obviously he saw something in me.
“I hadn’t a notion of what I wanted to do. It was sport or music! Those were my two options as I saw it! But whatever path I would have taken, my parents would have supported me. But of course, I ignored him!
“It just goes to show you that parents maybe know you that little bit better than you know yourself at times because it’s not the first time that it has happened with them! It’s happened multiple times!
“In the end though, the penny did drop and ever since then I’ve just loved it.”
However, as we delve further into her upbringing the signs were all there and, maybe, just maybe, Michael was right?
“My mum, Carolyn, was an excellent cook and I was really into it and helping her out. Baking, cooking, whatever, just being there with her and then as I got a little bit older I started to get the confidence to try things in the kitchen and early teens I was doing a few dinners for the family.
“Nothing crazy but a few fajitas here and there, and I loved pasta, loved spaghetti and a little bit of sauce.”
From the jar?
“God no! Everything was fresh. The pasta sauce was always prepared with fresh ingredients, it was never from a jar. Take-aways a novelty, maybe twice a year I think? Really special treat.
“My mum took huge pride in what she put on the table for us and it was lovely food, nutritious and always prepared fresh.”
It may have been far away from the fields of Tubbercurry, but the habits were formed in much the same way.
Maybe dad was right after all?
“OK, yeah! When I think back on it now… parents definitely do see things differently! I’ve only got the cats so I can’t call it yet!
“Maybe if I’d listened to him it wouldn’t have been eight years in college and there could have been an easier route!
“But I got here and I think it’s important for people to see that there are different routes to this role if that’s where you want to go and I say that all the time to the young players coming into our system for the first time and looking at college options. Keep an open mind. And yeah. Maybe listen to your parents!”
For Conroy, cooking and baking at home now consists of keeping things simple and nutritious for herself, boyfriend Jake, and even their two cats Ghost and Dasher. But she also enjoys trying out different things and experimenting and looks after the sweet tooth also.
She loves pulling together a quick frittata, or a ‘fake-away’, with KFC being a messy but delicious favourite. Or pulling together a homemade chocolate biscuit cake.
On this evening’s menu she tells us is another favourite of hers, a pesto and pasta dish with prawns and cherry tomatoes.
“You have to enjoy food. People might be surprised at KFC and the cake as favourites given my role, but the mentality around food is a massive area where I feel we have room to grow.
“I’m not eating those every night by the way! Moderation!
“The guilt associated with food, the mental anxiety that is there around food and the role it plays and the amount of poor information that is out there for young people in particular on social media.
“It’s important for people to understand the balance required and that is what I love about my role. I get the chance to start forming habits, good habits, with players coming into the Leinster Rugby pathway for the first time.
“It’s very rewarding.”
On the topic of favourite dishes, what is Davey’s favourite?
He dwells on his answer and makes a weak attempt to sit on the fence.
Too many to choose from he insists but, in the end, he settles on a pork dish perfected by his mother.
“It is brilliant but again simple food done really well.
“So it’s a honey apple sauce with roast vegetables, root vegetables, parsnips, carrots, honey, orange juice, a pork fillet. All done in the one pan in the oven. It’s fantastic. I put it in my book of recipes but it doesn’t do it justice because it is really that good. She has it perfected but I can’t.
“Nothing is as good as her version.”
The easy option for Daniel Davey, if you want to call it that, was to finish his Agricultural Science degree in UCD and to head back home to Sligo and to take up where he left off on the farm, but instead he saw something, a niche, and wanted to go after it.
“You see, back then, there was maybe three nutrition jobs in the country and my best friend, Brendan Egan, was way ahead of me in terms of schooling even though we were of a similar age and he was already in the UK doing a Masters in Sports Nutrition.
“England was ahead of the world in terms of sports nutrition as a concept so I knew that there was a potential route, maybe not in Ireland though, but I just didn’t have the belief that it was possible because of my history and my experience to that point with the books I suppose.
“But I was walking to a football match one day and it was in the latter part of first year and we had done some nutrition modules at that stage and I was fascinated and I was rhyming back stuff that we had learned to my classmates.
“Nobody around me had any real interest in it but they could tell, this was it for me. ‘Daniel, this is what you have to do, that’s your track.’
“So my belief grew and then as you start getting rewarded for that interest in college and your work is recognised and I thought maybe it is possible. And it lit the fuse and I was unbelievably determined to do everything possible to succeed.
“I got my degree in UCD and then did a Masters in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health in the University of Bristol. I had also been working with a start-up sports supplement company. I did a bit with GAA club teams and my own team in Dublin, Ballyboden St. Enda’s.
“But even after I graduated in 2008, 2009, there were still no jobs and very much like what Sophie said, when I came back from Bristol it was about paying the bills. I was handing out fliers and handing out free bottles of juice on Leeson Street Bridge just to pay the rent. So I kept busy but opportunities were limited.”
The opportunity to work in Leinster Rugby could have gone south for Davey.
Or north, east or west for that matter.
He had a round-the-world ticket booked, deposit paid and all, when the opportunity came his way.
“My first break was a role with the Dublin hurling team which was brilliant. It was during Anthony Daly’s time and I suppose it was my first real exposure to a team that was wholly committed to a cause, a strong culture and I loved it. Ambitious athletes too.
“And I think around that time was the start I think in terms of how GAA athletes were approaching their lifestyles. The on the field and the gym work was there but off the field, only starting really.
“Then in 2012 Martin Kennedy, who is now with the IRFU, was doing the S&C for the Dublin senior footballers and through him I was approached by Jim Gavin, who was involved with the Dublin footballers, for a trial and then the opportunity with Leinster Rugby came up really only a few weeks later.
“I had plans to travel the world but first Dublin and then Leinster Rugby. So there was a decision to make, to stay or to go, but it was too good an opportunity to turn down so the tickets went in the bin.”
He very nearly missed the boat with Leinster though with a faulty server back at Leinster Rugby HQ almost putting paid to his endeavours.
“I sent the application twice but on both occasions, it went into the spam box in Leinster.
“When the deadline passed and I hadn’t heard anything I thought I’d better follow up and Guy (Easterby) said there was no application. My heart wasn’t out of my chest, it was on the floor!
“So I pushed my case and he said if the fault lay at Leinster’s door they would, on this one occasion, make an exception and allow my application. So Leinster IT reviewed it and thankfully it was found on the server and my application was found sent on time and I was interviewed. But the interview was the next day!”
It was a very thorough interview but as he later found out, it was his belief and his passion in what he was about that impressed Leinster Rugby the most.
“It was a tough interview that’s for sure. Guy was there, Dan Tobin (former Head of S&C), Emma McCrudden (former Performance Nutritionist) and Ruth Wood-Martin from the IRFU.
“I found out years later that I suppose my mission statement if you want to call it that, is what set me apart from others.”
What was it?
“I said that ‘This role was who I am, what I’m about and what I live for’.
“And it’s funny because at the time I thought I shouldn’t have said that, that’s not professional but they said the opposite. They said my passion shone through in that very moment.
“Any time I get asked about career advice and I think back to something my dad said to me plenty growing up and that is that you really have to want it, and not be afraid to say that. So that’s what I did.”
Davey has now been with Leinster Rugby nearly nine years and he has seen big changes in how Leinster Rugby manages it’s players but also in the way it supports it’s programmes with resources and also premium partners like Gourmet Food Parlour and Optimum Nutrition.
“I genuinely believe that Leinster Rugby are world leaders in this field and they deserve credit and I truly believe they were visionaries in their attitude and their foresight in this regard.
“Leinster created a standard in this space. It is recognised as a pillar, like the other disciplines.
“I still see it to this day in other places where Performance Nutrition is really only paid lip service but is there the investment? Is there the support for the practitioners? Are the structures there? And often they aren’t.
“Leinster said maybe five years ago now, right how do we arm the next generation of players coming through. It’s not enough to deal with the players we have here now. Can we get to them earlier? So the funding was made available and the difference that has made, is incalculable.
“So we created a role for an Academy Performance Nutritionist and we have had some brilliant people in that role.
“Extraordinary work in bringing the level of interest, skills, motivation, desire around lifestyle that has allowed those players to develop for when they come into the Senior environment.
“People like Arthur Dunne, who is a really good friend of mine and is now working in the equine industry and working with jockeys, did great work.
“Then Gary Sweeney came in who is now with the IRFU and he had great energy and enthusiasm for the role and now Sophie is in and she is making it her own as well, putting her own stamp on things, driving the standards all the time for Leinster Rugby.
“That means that the players, when they leave the Academy and come under our watch are already well advanced in their understanding of nutrition, of their lifetsyle and the part it plays in the overall performance package. And it is total alignment between what goes on down in Energia and what happens up in UCD. Invaluable.”
Conroy has now been with Leinster Rugby for 10 months.
All she has known is working with the players in a Covid-19 capacity which has created challenges but she loves the role and is thriving in the environment.
“Relationships are key and both Daniel and I believe in that massively.
“Before the player is an athlete, he is a person first and you have to understand that person, what makes them tick, what are their drivers, their ambitions, what is their situation in college, what is their situation at home. Girlfriends, partners, parents, siblings. All the factors that make up the person.
“But how do you build that with people across a computer screen? It’s hugely challenging and it was difficult to engage with the players without that in-person connection. I met some of the players for the first time in April! I still haven’t met all the staff in UCD!
“Even when we could meet up it was in very tightly controlled bubbles. But what happens when someone outside of the bubble wanted advice or a consultation? Back to online you go!
“That was a challenge but one that I got stuck into. Make this as stimulating as possible. These players are on laptops a lot of the day already with college work so this can’t be a chore. This can’t be a drudge where you are dragging them to the table or to the kitchen or to the oven.
“It has to excite them, be innovative and it has to engage with them because I can’t cook for them! I can’t ensure that they are making the right decisions around food, hydration, sleep, rest and everything else, they have to take control of that but what I can do is inspire them to make those decisions and to make those choices for the right reasons.”
So what does a typical week look like for the Performance Nutritionists at Leinster Rugby?
Conroy is based in Energia Park, while Davey is primarily based in UCD.
“There are two key things when explaining a working week for me” explains Davey.
“On the one hand there is my job description and I need to deliver there. So that is making sure that the food delivered is of the required standard, that the players have the service and the information, the guidance, the strategies to be the best that they can possibly be in training and on the pitch.
“And that is everything from developing resources, assessing the monitoring, checking body composition, messaging, one-to-one meetings, calls, whatever. That is the job.
“But also I am always looking outside of that too and looking to fill the gaps from a relationship point of view. It is so important that you nurture the relationships with the people. Can you add little pieces to the overall picture? And I feel that that part is equally as important as the job itself.
“So it isn’t just about meal plans. It’s not. It’s about behaviours and habits and relationships and maintaining the habits around the culture of lifestyle practices and behaviours.”
To the untrained ear, it sounds like the role of a Performance Nutritionist has evolved hugely in the past few years?
“Even if the player doesn’t go into professional sport, the key thing for me is the person, which we keep coming back to,” explains Conroy again.
“Making sure they have a healthy relationship with food and with physical activity and mental health rather than the negative associations around food if it’s led by the wrong people.
“Their lifestyle. That piece, the person, not just the athlete and the impact on them as a whole is critical in terms of what we do.”
As Davey says himself, it’s not just about meal plans.
“In very simple terms, over the last 10 years I have got total clarity on the key pillars that influence people’s health and performance and it’s four pillars.
“It’s stress management, nutrition, exercise and movement, and sleep.
“And then you can look at the medical side of it as well. But the key thing to understand is that none of them function in isolation.
“So if you’ve a bad night’s sleep, it affects decision-making around food. If you haven’t slept well, eaten well, that affects your training. If you’re not sleeping well, eating well, training well, then you’ll be stressed. And if you’re stressed… well..!
“So the mindset is that I am constantly trying to nurture people to be in a position where they understand how everything affects everything else.”
As a former inter-county footballer with Sligo, as well as an All-Ireland winner with Ballyboden St. Enda’s, Davey isn’t just talking the talk.
He has walked the walk as an elite athlete at the top of his own game and while he admits to leaving his own anecdotes and stories at the door, the understanding that he has of the rigours of an athlete’s life, certainly helps in building those relationships and the trust further.
But it’s not the be all and end all.
“With the players there is no question that over the years I have formed relationships a little bit easier because I have that commonality with them, and in particular from a GAA point of view and players that have played football.
“But really no matter who you meet you are looking for common ground, aren’t you? So I definitely don’t try to oversell it and the Junior B championship medal doesn’t get mentioned too often!
“So I would rephrase it I think because I don’t think it’s important necessarily that I played at inter-county level or to deal with rugby players that it is important that I played rugby or whatever. I actually tell young practitioners to just be committed to something.
“The players respect anything where you are showing commitment or focus or attention. So whether that is the Irish language, or a hike, or cooking, or painting or playing music, that deserves attention and that facilitates good conversation and from that comes good relationships.
“So it doesn’t matter what it is but there does need to be something there to allow you to build that relationship.”
But what do the Leinster Rugby players bring to the table?
The top two are easily picked says Davey.
“Rhys Ruddock is the best. Definitely. He’s an excellent cook. Although, hang on..!
“Devin Toner is also excellent but if I can qualify that, I’d say that Rhys is an excellent cook but performance focused and then maybe Dev is also excellent but with a more sophisticated, refined palate! He likes the finer foods! So Rhys for performance and Dev for taste!
“But in general all the players are very good and the young lads in particular we are noticing that more and more in the Academy and sub-Academy. They are already very capable in the kitchen.”
Conroy is quick to agree noting that Marcus Hanan is very handy at the baking although she does raise a suspicion as to whether or not a helping hand is at play.
And who is maybe the least capable of the budding Leinster cooks? Again both have no problem identifying the weakest links.
“Will Connors for me,” says Davey.
“I mean the nickname gives it away! He needs to expand his repertoire beyond porridge and start looking at other forms of nutrition!”
For Conroy, it’s Max O’Reilly.
“We were doing a chicken curry and he forgot to add the chicken. Delighted with himself until he realised that he’d left out the crucial piece!”
For Conroy, she is back in Energia Park as we speak preparing for the summer intake and the age grade sides so there is no rest for the wicked.
While he will of course have a role in their return from the off-season, Davey is at pains to point out that this isn’t about weight and shaming after a few weeks off.
It is far more nuanced than that.
“It’s not about weight. It’s about maintaining muscle mass. You’ll have some players who find it easier and others who find it harder.
“At this elite level there is very little scope for players to not hit what they need to hit on a daily basis and for there not to be a consequence.
“And genetics play a part. There is a lot in it.
“But again I go back to the culture and your relationships. You start with people and you finish with people and it’s about seeing the big picture for those people and the relationships you have. If you have that well rooted, you shouldn’t see a massive fall off during the off-season.
“And that just isn’t about me either and my role with the players. It’s about the relationships I have with my colleagues and how we work together to best support the players during the season and in the off-season.
“Cillian Reardon, I know he has moved on to Glasgow, but we did some brilliant work together when he was here. Karl Denvir and Fearghal Kerin, have made my job so much easier because they realise that I can do my job better if we all work together and pull in the same direction.
“I remember one Saturday evening and the game wasn’t even finished and I received a text from Fearghal saying player X has a facial injury and that information allowed me to message the player the next day. So within hours we were planning for the player and his recovery.
“The way the physios do their jobs and how proactive they are, is huge in Leinster. There are no silos. All in it to drive the culture and all in the best interests of the players.”
Does he still get the same enjoyment out of it and is the drive and the fire that was lit in UCD all those years ago now, still there?
“I think what is important is that every contact that I have with someone I care about, I feel is an opportunity where I could potentially help them. And I mean that.
“Whoever the person is, whether the relationship is professional or personal, I check to see if there is room and if there is a subtle change that I can make. So when you talk about the job, it’s not a job.
“For me, it’s doing what I want to do.
“It’s a cliché but that’s my explanation.”
And for Conroy?
“I just get such satisfaction from knowing that I am helping and shaping the youth and the next generation. I take such pride in knowing we are investing in these people and in knowing that this is where the biggest area for growth is for us.
“Getting to work with them and to influence them earlier and earlier so that they take those positive habits and have that culture and that enjoyment around food and that it is a positive experience for them all.”
And how will the role evolve in the future?
“I think what Leinster Rugby have been great at is consistency,” explains Davey.
“There is a real recognition that a person’s body and mind need to be nurtured all year round.
“I just feel my presence now in Leinster is as a support and guide and to continue to nurture. There doesn’t need to be any changes in the world of nutrition because what has worked for the last 50 years will continue to work.
“So it’s about trying to find more and more enjoyment and making sure that it’s not a chore. That food is infinitely powerful as long as it is well managed.”
With Davey and Conroy at the helm, with their passion and energy, you can be sure that the enjoyment will continue but more importantly that the people, not just the athletes, will be all the better for their time with them both.