Winkel­man brings a lit­tle US mil­i­tary to Ir­ish rugby

IRFU head of ath­letic per­for­mance says de­ci­sion mak­ing and phys­i­cal­ity are ‘train­able’

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Johnny Watterson

It may seem like a stretch. But in terms of the tools that make an ath­lete or sol­dier, it is not such a long way from Kabul to Kingspan Sta­dium of Aviva.

Rugby, the NFL or the US mil­i­tary, says Nick Winkel­man, the IRFU’s head of ath­letic per­for­mance and science, is about peo­ple and sys­tems.

“What we do, why we do it, how we do it,” adds the Amer­i­can, who gave up work­ing in the United States with pro­fes­sional ath­letes, the army and fire fight­ers 18 months ago, to over­see Ir­ish rugby.

“I work at two lev­els. The sec­ond is around peo­ple from a lead­er­ship per­spec­tive,” he says.

Bod­ies and minds. This week in Aviva, Winkel­man pro­duced the lat­est piece of rugby gad­getry that mea­sured ham­string strength. It was to rec­tify a per­ceived is­sue with Ir­ish play­ers and their ham­strings and it mea­sured asym­me­try, if one was stronger than the other, if one ap­peared weak after a heavy work­load, all geared to­wards re­duc­ing the risk of mus­cle fail­ure.

His job orig­i­nally with the pri­vate US com­pany EXOS was to fill a mar­ket space in the pro­fes­sional sport’s cal­en­dar. EXOS worked with NFL, NBA and hockey ath­letes in the off sea­son. It was a place they could go to get the same level of care as they did in a pro­fes­sional sys­tem.

“EXOS opened its first fa­cil­ity in 1998 in Phoenix Ari­zona,” says Winkel­man. “It started to ser­vice the pro­fes­sional ath­letes where they could go on their off sea­son to get the same qual­ity of care across con­di­tion­ing, physio, med­i­cal, nu­tri­tion etc. My for­mer boss built a team like a pro team but in a pri­vate set­ting.

“They added cor­po­rate well­ness, coach ed­u­ca­tion, elite con­sul­tancy to the mil­i­tary cen­tre and fire fighter sec­tor and po­lice sec­tor. They be­came one of the pre-emi­nent au­thor­i­ties in hu­man per­for­mance in the pri­vate sec­tor and peo­ple wanted that train­ing sys­tem de­ployed into their en­vi­ron­ment.

“Prob­a­bly their big­gest busi­ness now is in cor­po­rate well­ness. There are EXOS fa­cil­i­ties in Dublin in the Google Cen­tre.”

Like the ham­string ma­chine, ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion is de­signed to im­prove the Ir­ish sys­tem, some­times by frac­tions. Rob Kear­ney may pull a wry smile. His ham­string tear shows noth­ing can pre­vent in­jury. But the care­ful at­ten­tion of science can re­duce the odds of it hap­pen­ing.

Back­line play­ers like Joe Car­bery and Garry Rin­grose can glide, sell most play­ers a dummy. But how do they be­come big­ger and stronger with­out los­ing their light­ness and bal­anced speed? How do they gain bulk and mass and also be­come bet­ter at mov­ing?

“In­di­rectly yes, I would work across how our play­ers de­velop. At the end of the day the two play­ers you men­tion, that is go­ing to come from the team in Le­in­ster,” says Winkel­man.

“Most of my work would not be at player one on one, rather look­ing at it gen­er­ally, where we need to get bet­ter. If we felt we had a cat­e­gory of play­ers that were re­ally phys­i­cally tal­ented, re­ally good mov­ing skills but lacked the size and strength, well yeah, that might be a con­ver­sa­tion we would have. But by no means has this been a dom­i­nant theme.

Lighter and faster

“What we tend to find is that lighter and faster play­ers, they are good at own­ing and tak­ing space, they ei­ther take con­tact un­der their own terms or they take con­tact with mo­men­tum and the di­rec­tion of the con­tact, which means they are not get­ting a di­rect hit and of­ten times, and you see it in the NFL as well, they can sur­vive.”

Winkel­man talks of own­er­ship of space on the at­tack­ing side of the ball. He talks of play­ers who can see how a play is de­vel­op­ing, who see where the space cur­rently is, or see where the space will be and if there is none man­u­fac­ture it with foot work and with that “sit a de­fender down”.

Yes, he says, those things can be taught, al­though ev­ery player has lim­i­ta­tions. His job is to get the play­ers to reach their own up­per bound­aries. Devin Toner will never have the lateral move­ment of Car­bery, Ring­wood or Si­mon Zebo. But in li­ne­outs, break­downs or ball re­ten­tion his ceil­ing will be higher.

But does it work? Can Ire­land say they are a bet­ter team be­cause of it?

“From where I sit that would be dif­fi­cult to an­swer right now,” he says. “I have been very happy to see the way we are train­ing our play­ers in the weight’s room and on the field.”

As ever with Ir­ish rugby, stand­ing still is rarely an op­tion.

Most of my work would not be at player one on one, rather look­ing at it gen­er­ally

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