Meet the Fuerty man who’s on tour with the Lions!




Roscommon native, Brian Cunniffe, who works as a sports scientist for the English Institute of Sport and has worked with Welsh Rugby in the past, is on tour with the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand this summer. Brian, who originally hails from Fuerty, spoke to Dan Dooner about working closely with some of the biggest names in rugby in order to prepare for crunch tests against the All Blacks.


So Brian, how did you become involved with the British and Irish Lions?

I used to work with Wales Rugby a number of years ago and kept in touch with staff there since. I was very lucky to meet Adam Beard (Head Performance WRU) before the last tour in Australia at a conference and he enquired if it was something I would be interested in, as the Lions had never had a sports scientist on tour previously. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

  The world of elite sport, although rapidly moving at pace and expanding all the time, is still relatively small in real terms and you do get to know some great people in the industry, Adam being one of them.

What does your role entail?

My role can probably be broken down into two areas: helping to optimize our environment to perform and providing coaches/players with objectivity to make more informed decisions.

  Regarding the first part, this is mainly collecting information or chatting to clubs in advance of getting on the plane itself so we understand the players as individuals and are up to speed from day one. I will look into players’ existing physical loading patterns before they come on tour, what their preferences are regarding recovery, game day preparation, what a typical night’s sleep looks like and integrate our planning and processes on tour itself so that we can best cater for the individual within the group.

  One would think that players are relatively similar but the reality is everyone is different and to get the most out of players, we need to understand how they operate in their normal club or home country environment and then try to marry that with a typical Lions touring environment.  Simple things make a big difference over an 8-week tour. I will look into travel schedules and liaise with operations teams, strength and conditioning and medical colleagues to ensure we have certain protocols in place and manage player fatigue appropriately.

  I guess our collective raison d’etre would be to try and increase the player’s and team’s probability of success. This starts before the tour in getting structures and operations in place and then carrying out daily activities when on tour to meet this.

What are the major challenges for the backroom team on tour?

Beating the All Blacks would be the most obvious I guess! Besides this, I would probably break it down into a ‘people’ and ‘environment’ challenge.

  Regarding the first one, many staff members will not have worked with each other previously and will not have worked with many of the players before, so like anything, we need to ensure egos are put to the side and we absolutely deliver when it matters collectively. Little things that you might normally say or do need to be kept in check at times, while understanding that people are under fatigue and strain. This takes a bit of time but you have to take yourself out of the comfort zone from day one. Ramping up or toning down a message at the right time and knowing when to do so given the rapidly changing environment around you. 

  With respect to environment, there are many. First of all, we have our first game three days after landing. This will be a unique challenge to manage for us, particularly after travelling for 24 hours.

  Besides this, the main challenge for us on the physical preparation side of things is catering for the individual player in terms of load management. Many will come into this tour from different starting points. For instance, some will have finished their domestic season and may need gradual reintegration to training intensity. Others will literally finish up from European finals the day before we depart and need some recovery. Throw into that certain players who may be carrying knocks and others who will have to stack up in both mid-week (against Super 15 sides) and weekend games, it’s a very difficult challenge to manage the group and individual loading patterns.

  Ultimately we will work backwards from the last three tests and ensure we have the majority peaking when it counts.

  Another challenge is maintaining the energy levels on tour. What I found on the 2013 tour and also at the Olympics is that you must accept chaos. We will have 11 flights, 15 changes of hotel base and 10 games (one every 3.5 days). What that looks like on the ground is packing and unpacking your kit 30 times so energy management will be key. 

What advice would you give to local athletes in terms of performance, preparation etc. this summer? 

Do a bit of self-reflection. What are you good at? What needs developing? Are you allowing yourself to show your talent when it matters and do you prioritise effort to close the performance gap that needs developing? 

  Often we can get into routines and end up in that grey area middle ground! A training week only has so many hours so ensure you make the most of it.

  If that isn’t your thing, then that’s perfectly fine too. Local sport is there for many reasons, the most important of which is health and enjoyment!