It came from Patrick Molihan, 2015 Rugby World Cup team manager for the Qantas Wallabies, the Australian national rugby team. As part of the run-up to the World Cup, the Wallabies were headed to Chicago to play an early September game against the USA Eagles—and they were looking for a training site for a week before and a week after the Chicago date.
At first blush, the request seemed routine.
But, as Notre Dame officials did a deeper dive, they realized it might well present a fabulous opportunity for both parties to share best practices when it came to training and sports performance. In particular, the Australian Rugby Union is known for its strong commitment to these areas—and Notre Dame staffers weren’t disappointed in what they found.
On the surface, it was a simply a couple of weeks of training sessions for the second-ranked rugby program in the world. But the Australians, who stayed at the Morris Inn on campus, also made great use of training facilities at the Compton Family Ice Arena—and there were plenty of training philosophy exchanges, on both a structured and ad hoc basis.
For example, on the Friday of the second week of training, the Australians abruptly cancelled their planned on-field session. Why? The numbers told them it was the right move.
“It was fascinating one morning to see them cancel a practice strictly based on data,” said Notre Dame associate athletics trainer Kevin Ricks.
“Their strength coach looked at all the data from the previous day’s practice and their players’ wellness questionnaires that came in. Then he met with their physio and said they overdid it the previous day. They went to the coach, showed him the data, and said, ‘Hey, we got enough out of them yesterday, and maybe too much if you want to do two sessions a day for the next two days.’
“And so coach (Michael Cheika) cancelled practice. It was amazing. So that Friday they brought their guys into Compton for a strength session and then did a recovery session in the afternoon. And it was all purely based on data. It was a glorious thing to see their system and all the buy-in they have from their staff. It’s structured, they trust it and the athletes absolutely buy in, too.”
Ricks noted that massive amounts of data played into daily decisions made by the Australian team.
“Haydn Masters, the team’s head of physical performance, was really in tune to this system. He shipped data back to Australia every morning through the cloud and it was being analyzed by people back there--and he would receive spreadsheets sent back to him showing all sorts of things. It was great to see that level of advancement – we’re heading that way but we’re maybe a step or two behind them.”
Ricks also was impressed with the Australians’ commitment and ability to virtually eliminate soft-tissue injuries (such as hamstring and groin strains and hip flexors):
“In a year and a half they’ve had one, maybe two, soft tissue injuries. That’s phenomenal. It speaks to their dedication of watching every move they make in terms of training.
“That dedication involves 30-40 minutes a day of foam rolling and very specific stretching before they step on the field or touch a weight. That dedication was there seven days a week. It’s just driven into them. They’ve done a great job of creating that mindset with their coaches and it seems to be paying off for them. They still have collision injuries, but if you can prevent soft tissue injuries you’re got a decent handle on it.”
Ricks and Dr. Matt Leiszler, Notre Dame’s football team physician, both took note of the long-term database built by the rugby union.
“Their injury management system is fascinating, the way they keep track of not just their top 31 guys on the Wallabies but how it also filters down to five elite club teams, plus an under-18 team and a 15-year-old team for each of those five,” said Ricks.
“Every single person in the entire organization is part of this system. They are already creating profiles on 14-year-old kids and having them fill out daily questionnaires – they have all sorts of data from fitness testing on everyone in the system. By the time some of these people would reach the Wallabies they would have years and years of data on them.”
Added Leiszler, “Every single day each player completes a survey. How did you sleep? Do you have knee/calf/ankle pain? Do you have a runny nose? Each player does a five-minute test looking at heart-rate variability, which can give information on stress levels in the body. This allows them to catch illnesses and injuries early to prevent them from becoming more of an issue.
“They also are looking at some interesting concussion research with supplementation of a certain peptide (glucagon) which raises the glucose levels in the blood and, secondarily, the brain, to see if this may be a beneficial early treatment for concussion.”
During the two-week period, virtually all the Notre Dame athletic trainers, strength and conditioning staffers and physicians had some contact with their Australian counterparts. Irish football coach Brian Kelly spent 15 minutes with Cheika after Notre Dame’s practice the Wednesday prior to the opener versus Texas, and all Irish head coaches were invited to attend any of the Wallabies’ training sessions.
“I think they were blown away by the dedication of the whole University to athletics,” said Ricks. “They watched football practice and saw how many staff members were dedicated to that sport. The facilities in the Gug and at Compton really wowed them. They are the biggest sport in Australia, and one of the biggest in the world, but their facilities are not what we have. But they run their program a lot like our football program—it’s just on a smaller scale because they have 31 guys.”
Said Masters (he came with Cheika from the NSW Waratahs club team), “I would consider Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning, training and recovery facilities to be world class. The sheer size of each facility and the equipment enabled the Wallabies program to have the world’s best preparation during our training camp. Notre Dame is one of the world's top universities, and we are a better program for visiting.”
What else did the Wallabies take away from their Notre Dame visit?
“They were impressed by our integrated approach--dry needling, massage, chiropractic care, laser treatments,” said Leiszler who joined his Notre Dame sports medicine colleagues in meeting with Dr. Mike Cadogan, the Perth-based team physician for the Wallabies. “They felt like in this area we were well ahead of their approach.”
Ricks also noted some progressive recovery items at Compton that the Australians decided they liked:
“We use NormaTecs – they pump air to flush the lactic acid out of an athlete’s legs. They’d heard about them but never really seen them in action. Once their players jumped in and used them the second week, they said, ‘Hey we’ve got to get some of these.’ They were already looking for dealers in the United Kingdom so they could use them this week before the World Cup.”
Irish strength and conditioning staffer Tony Rolinski noted that both organizations make use of similar technology—including GPS and heart rate monitoring and force plate usage.
“They just want to help their athletes maximize their genetic gifts,” said Rolinski.
Howley noted several other take-aways from the collaboration between the Wallabies and the Irish:
The abilities of Australian rugby players aren’t lost on the American sports scene.
Former Aussie rugby star Jarryd Hayne plays as a 27-year-old rookie running back (he had 175 rushing yards during the preseason) and punt returner for the NFL San Francisco 49ers.
Indianapolis Colts pro scout Jon Shaw also came to South Bend to observe the Wallabies.
“He took notes at practice and at a weight room session and chatted with four or five of the Australia players. He told me, ‘I don’t watch football players—I watch rugby, lacrosse, cricket.’ He’s purely looking for a diamond in the rough player,” said Ricks.
“The All-Blacks played a year ago in Chicago and now with an Australian player in the NFL, there’s some intrigue from both directions.”
As the Wallabies spend the next month to six weeks chasing the Rugby World Cup title in England, Notre Dame sports performance officials will be watching closely to see how they fare.
Said Howley, “We have built what we hope to be a long-standing relationship of learning and sharing between Notre Dame and the Wallabies. That can only assist in the progression of different integrations within each of our settings.”
“If these things are working well for a team that might win the Rugby World Cup, that will spark more conversations at this end to see what we have to do to get to the point where they are,” said Ricks.
-- by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director