In the centre of College lies their home turf, their wall of honour greets you as you walk into the Pav and the scattered black and red hoodies and gear bags mingle in with the Arts and Hamilton building rushes. Although you may not even realize just how prominent it is, Trinity Rugby, or Dublin University Football Club (DUFC), is everywhere. One of the biggest sports clubs on campus, and potentially one of the most successful, I spent a little time with the team to try understand what DUFC are doing that makes them such a commercial and sporting success.
Watching a fast-paced forward drive of the First XV scrimmage training game from the sideline, I could see there was something special about this team, something that was lacking in the teams I am involved in. As the ball moved from hand to hand, a player broke through the defence line and propelled himself over the line calling an end to play. The try scorer was congratulated by almost all his teammates, both those with and against him, before both teams unified in a tight huddle. The comradery of these players continued off the pitch, with players expressing genuine delight and concern for their team-mates when news came that hooker Patrick Finlay’s injury was subsiding. I was greeted warmly by tight and welcoming handshakes by every player that I met, something their coach, Tony Smeeth, tells me he encourages all the players to do with each other in the changing room of every training and match day to build the strength and unity of the team bond. “The bond between us all is just amazing”, DUFC Captain Nick McCarthy explains, “We train together twice a day, three times a week. We spend a lot of time together so naturally we get to know each other quite well”.
We all know the iconic broad build of a rugby player, and the high performance they are expect to achieve, so what is encompassed in the DUFC training regime? Head coach, Tony Smeeth, runs through a typical DUFC training week: “We train three mornings and three nights a week throughout September and cut back a little as the term goes on and there is more college work. We could have over 30 lads in the gym in the morning for strength and conditioning and they’ll be out again on the pitch later that night. Tuesday is particularly hard on them. Tuesday is leg day. Monday mornings will usually be upper body strength in the gym, working on fitness and skills on the pitch in the evening. Tuesdays is hard and physical”. There is a fitness element involved in what Tony calls “Nine Minutes of Pain”. The First XV have Wednesdays off to recover, mirroring the training timetable of the professional teams, and coming together again on Thursday for the last weekly training day. I met with the team on the eve of their match against St. Mary’s College RFC, where the team had had a short, but intense training session to prepare them for their encounter.
Smeeth, who has been involved with DUFC for over 16 years, recalls that when he first arrived at Trinity, weight training and conditioning were not hugely popularised in Ireland, but inspired by his years in America and their widespread integration of weights into training, strength and conditioning training has come to play a vital role in DUFC’s training and match preparation. Even over the summer months, players were expected to maintain their strength and conditioning training independently, regardless of where in the world they may be, and report their progress in shared forums for the coaches to view. DUFC currently have two strength and conditioning coaches: Junior Charlie and Ross Hamilton. Charlie, a New Zealand native and ex-Connaught player, has been with Trinity’s rugby team since 2005 and has been extremely influential in developing and improving the strength and condition aspect of DUFC’s training over the years. Hamilton is a newer addition to the DUFC coaching squad, having graduated recently with Masters in Exercise Physiology. Ross’ influence has been wide-reaching with both McCarthy and Smeeth praising the changes Ross has brought to the squad and training. “Ross has a sixth sense of the body”, Smeeth claimed as he told me about a number of unexpected and rapid recoveries of player injury threats due to Ross’ initiative and advice. Although DUFC do not employ a prescribed diet plan for players, Ross is often the one to encourage players to consider their diet and remind them about the holistic benefits of appropriate diet in maximising the outcome of their training routines. DUFC has an extensive back-room team including the various positioned coaches and a number of medical staff, among others. “Communication is key”, according to Smeeth. He explained how a number of communication threads exist between the relevant parties to ensure everyone is kept up to date with player injury concerns and adapt their individual programmes to aid their recovery.
World University Rugby Cup
In the era before World War 1, DUFC could have been considered the best rugby club in the country. With the growth of the game and expansion in the number and quality of teams in the country this status soon diminished. However, this summer, DUFC came close to calling themselves the best university rugby club in the world when they reached the World University Rugby Cup (WURC) final. Trinity were pooled in what McCarthy referred to as the “group of Death” facing the Russian Siberian Federal University, University of British Columbia of Canada and New Zealand Universities. Once overcoming the physical brutality of a hard-tackling Russian side, Trinity comfortably sailed to the top of their group table after two games, with wins against Siberian Federal University and University of British Columbia. This left DUFC in a good position when they faced the intimidating power of a New Zealand haka. The bond of the DUFC rugby players seemed to have already added a few bonus points to their tournament, as their familiarity and commitment gave them an advantage over the Kiwi side that had formed less than a week before the competition began. The WURC was ran differently to most conventional leagues. Normally a rugby match runs for 80 minutes, with 40 minutes played per half. The WURC scheduled two games a day per team, with each game comprised of two 20 minute halves. Though the WURC was the first time McCarthy and many of the DUFC men had been subjected to a New Zealand haka, it did not phase their performance as DUFC pushed hard for an astonishing 11-10 win over New Zealand Universities. McCarthy spoke about the tradition and intensity of the haka: “They give it their all, and you’re at the brunt of that. The haka is tradition.”. He suggested that, due to the deeply ingrained tradition of the haka, not giving it 100 per cent would be considered an insult to that tradition. McCarthy recalled that the Kiwis were not shy in their haka renditions off the pitch too, and in post tournament celebrations the DUFC men along with other competing teams joined in with a New Zealand haka demonstration. McCarthy joked that DUFC may adapt the ritual into their pre-match routine.
The win against New Zealand left Trinity at the top of the table and set up a semi-final encounter with WURC hosts, Oxford. Trinity were quietly confident going into the game, boosted by their win against a university team of the current Rugby World Cup winners, and by being more familiar with Oxford rugby than most of the other multinational teams through previous encounters. Tries from Raef Tyrell, Jack Boland and Tim Maupin secured a 21-0 win for DUFC, knocking the hosts out of the competition and guaranteeing a place for DUFC in the 60 minute final against Cape Town University. The 17-0 loss to Cape Town in the final is still raw to the team and a visible disappointment crosses McCarthy’s face when I broach the subject. “It was heart-breaking to get so close, but it was an amazing experience and something I’ll never forget”. Speaking about how the team prepares for big games, such as the WURC final, McCarthy said: “We don’t get sports psychologists in. I don’t think we need one. We have a lot of experience and big speakers on the team – we can inspire each other. You also have your own ways of mentally preparing yourself for matches.”
Off the Ball
Although players have six training sessions a week, most players report, not only that rugby does not impede their college work, but that it actually improves their college work ethic. “I’d hate to think that rugby was interfering with college work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case”, said Smeeth. Starting training at 8am in the Sports Centre, players need to be disciplined and find that, in maintaining their weekly routine, players will go to bed earlier and go out less than their non-rugby playing classmates so that they are ready for their early morning starts and long days. “Rugby gives them structure”, says Smeeth. After finishing their morning in the gym, a lot of players will be hanging around so they often find themselves in the library. Smeeth circulates an annual survey to all DUFC players at the end of the season, and in that survey he addresses how players manage the rugby-college balance, asking if rugby is an obstacle to their college work. He reveals that rarely do players ever express that it is. When arranging their preseason arrangements, a Google Doc was circulated to the team to identify any potential summer arrangements that might clash with their training session, and Smeeth noticed that often the few players that stated they were preparing to resit exams were often those who were less committed to the club work ethic in training too.
Game analysis and preparation has advanced over the years too, as Tony Smeeth walks me through their previous few game videos and the analytical component breakdown on SportsCode. The video footage can map individual players and each player receives their own footage after games: “The guys get really into the video analysis. We normally have a quick turn around with the videos, our technical analyst has the footage broken down soon after the game and I’ll often watch it on the way home. When the guys don’t have the video by the next morning they’ll text me looking for it”.
DUFC came excruciatingly close to winning the league last year. “Last year was some of the best rugby I’ve seen played in Trinity for a long time. With Leinster having a poor season, I met a lot of people who came to College Park just to watch us”, says Smeeth. This year they are aiming to push as hard for the top spot, and Friday’s win against St. Mary’s College will be a big boost to this agenda. Last season, DUFC lost their first three league games, something that proved to be detrimental toward the end of the season when they began to close points with league leaders Galwegians RFC. “I don’t like losing. We perform to win”, Smeeth tells me. Smeeth is under no illusion that DUFC will walk through the league, but believes that if they stick to their game plans, perfect their playing style and take each game as it comes they have a good shot at challenging for the league title. DUFC have won both of the their home games played so far this season and attribute a big part of their home record to the atmosphere and crowds they attract at College Park. Playing in College Park is a unique and special experience, according to McCarthy: “I’ve played in venues all over Dublin and Ireland, even in other parts of the world, and nothing compares to College Park”.
Last year saw an official amalgamation of the men and women’s rugby team, once treated as two separate clubs, into a single DUFC entity. This move will help the continuing development of the women’s rugby team. The ladies’ team trains twice weekly, on Monday and Wednesday evenings and signed 110 players over Fresher week. Following the amalgamation, three of the men’s squad with complete coaching badges have joined the DUFC Ladies coaching team, with Brian Slater taking the head coach position. Niamh Byrne, DUFC Ladies captain, says that having the men on board has had a really positive impact on the team so far. Having three coaches available has helped them split training groups for certain exercises to cater for girls with advanced rugby experience and those who are playing rugby for the first time. Nick McCarthy is delighted to see the women becoming more involved in the club and Tony Smeeth is excited to watch the team grow and develop with advice from the experienced DUFC backroom team. Byrne tells me that the club are currently in the beginning stages of a long term development plan to improve their performance and maximise their chances of retaining players and rising through the leagues. Soon they intend to introduce strength and conditioning sessions into their training schedules, they currently include “6 minutes of pain”, a version of the men’s “9 minute of pain”, into their training, and the team hosted a player training camp on Sunday in anticipation of their season opening match this Wednesday. As numbers declined throughout last year, Byrne’s primary short-term goal is player retention. “Ireland will host the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, so women’s rugby is really growing in Ireland, and as the interest grows we expect to see more and more girls getting involved. The rate of sign ups this year was amazing”, according to Byrne. DUFC Ladies recently beat UCD 36-0 in their opening match at College Park on Wednesday October 14th.
The DUFC slogan is “a club for life”, and, even from my brief encounter with the team and the stories they’ve told me, it’s easy to see why. “These are the best years of these guys’ lives”, Tony Smeeth told me. “They don’t know it yet, and they won’t appreciate it until they leave, but I have guys coming back to me after they’ve left and they tell me that it was the best time of their life”. “The team play for the College, they play for each other”, Nick McCarthy says about the passion and drive in the team. The blend of their experienced coaching squad, individual talent and drive and the deep comradery within the team gives the winning combination that makes DUFC such an influential force both on and off the pitch.