‘Food and mood go hand-in-hand’: Fuelling Ireland’s World Cup bid

A RARE, insightful, glimpse inside the bubble. Mid-July and Ireland are into their fourth week of World Cup preparations, and for the second Friday running, Joe Schmidt has thrown the doors open for the public, and media, to come inside.

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Deep in the bowels of Thomond Park, the setting for their open training session, backroom staff have been busily readying the home and away changing rooms for the arrival of the 45-man squad. 

The Ireland squad at Thomond Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In the long corridor connecting the changing rooms, medical room and tunnel area at the home of Munster Rugby, the refuelling table grabs the players’ attention as they filter in from the bus and out towards the pitch for the final session of another gruelling week. 

Once their fan engagement and media commitments are finished, the squad are on site for no more than two hours before they disperse again for the weekend. That the team’s visit is this well-managed and choreographed is down to hours of work behind the scenes from management.

While the role of Schmidt and his senior coaching team — Andy Farrell, Greg Feek, Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy — is always well-documented, the Kiwi’s extensive backroom staff extends to up to 20 personnel across a number of departments, each fulfilling a role as important as the next. 

This will be a first World Cup for team manager Paul Dean, for example, but many of Schmidt’s staff have been there and done it all before, including performance nutritionist Ruth Wood-Martin, who first joined the IRFU in 2006 and was in New Zealand and England for the last two editions of the global tournament.

Wood-Martin has been an integral member of the senior management team during Schmidt’s reign in charge, and has built a hugely important rapport with the playing staff down through the years.

Often one step ahead of the team’s movements, Wood-Martin’s role is multi-faceted and those couple of hours in Limerick provide a snapshot into her day-to-day duties in camp, as she ensures the players are fuelled and hydrated before, during and after the session.

As is the case for all the backroom team, particularly Jason Cowman and his strength and conditioning staff, this is an important and busy pre-season block, but also in the background for Wood-Martin has been the ongoing planning for Japan.

The 2017 summer tour acted as an invaluable learning experience both on and off the pitch for Schmidt’s players and staff, and in the two intervening years, the best-laid plans have been put in place.

Wood-Martin has been absolutely central to the process, not only because she is able to lean on her experience of two previous World Cups, but because food, water and recovery are key tenets to success in any sport. The significance of her role in the build-up to, and during, the tournament cannot be understated. 

Wood-Martin during the 2015 World Cup in England. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Ireland management team, including Schmidt, Dean and head of operations Ger Carmody, have made a number of recce trips over to Japan since that tour in 2017, finalising every detail from hotels, training venues and team facilities, to ensure nothing is left to chance.

But Wood-Martin and Sinéad Bennett from the IRFU’s team services department spent a week travelling around Ireland’s five different bases for the pool stages in April, to further build relationships with the staff who will look after the players throughout the tournament.

While the performance nutritionist can prepare menus for every meal of the day and send them to each hotel’s chef and catering staff, first-hand experience has taught Wood-Martin there is more to it than simply sending guidelines ahead of the team’s arrival.

“From my end, there are plenty of challenges given Japan is a very different culture in both tradition and in food,” Wood-Martin explains to The42, taking time out of her relentlessly busy schedule.

“I had sent over some of our menus and asked them to do a bit of a tasting session for us, so I could get an idea of if they did understand what I was looking for.

“That was very useful and showed me, of course, they know how to cook but it was also about getting to a point where they know what we want and how we want it.

“When the players come in for food, they clear the decks pretty quickly so it’s important for them [the catering staff] to know there is that necessity, to have enough food.

“I will always tell the chef they are the most important person in the hotel because I can put every menu for every day together, but I’m not trained or qualified to do the cooking, so you’re very reliant on them getting that right for you.”

Regarded as the biggest ever operational project for the IRFU, the different culture, food, currency, weather and time zone, of course, all present challenges, but for Wood-Martin the most significant hurdle to overcome will be the language one.

Constantly in dialogue with catering staff and chefs to discuss the team’s needs and meal choices, Wood-Martin will use an interpreter in Japan to ensure nothing is lost in translation, as she learned the hard way during a supermarket visit in 2017 whilst trying to stock up on lactose-free milk. 

With Keith Earls and some of the backroom team after Ireland’s Grand Slam success in Twickenham. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

That said, Wood-Martin’s philosophy around food and nutrition has always been to embrace the local culture, with this World Cup — despite its pressures — no different. Throughout their summer in camp, the players have taken part in Japanese cuisine nights.

“Food is more than just supporting the players’ training, it’s keeping them well and making them happy,” she continues. “Food and mood go hand-in-hand and we can all relate to the fact that when we get a good meal, it’s very satisfying.

“Gone are the days when it was all bland plain pasta and plain chicken. It’s neither necessary or productive to feed the players with the same food every day, so it is important to fit in with the local culture. 

There is no one recipe for success, but as in any high-performance environment, consistency across every element of preparation and performance is pivotal. The pre-match menu will not dramatically change regardless of where Ireland are in the world, nor will the timing — three-and-a-half hours before kick-off — of the meal.

“We need to make sure the composition of the diet is right to support the training that the players are doing,” Wood-Martin explains. “In rugby, we have a huge variance in the size of a player and their role in the team and that then can change their dietary requirements.

“We try to have a menu that suits everyone, so each player knows what’s right for them and what they need to choose. We keep a tally on their weight, they weigh in most days and I measure their hydration levels and that will be important when it comes to Japan.

“My job is to make sure the team are fed, nourished, fuelled and recovered between matches and sessions, giving them the absolute best chance of performance when they step on the pitch.

“The previous two campaigns have been invaluable for me because I know what works with this set of players. I know them pretty well. I know what makes them tick, really, and that’s very useful.”

In truth, the structured meals of the day are often the most straightforward part of Wood-Martin’s job as much of the work liaising with chefs has been done in the weeks and months in advance. The logistical challenges regularly occur when the team is on the move, between hotels, between sessions and between matches. 

To that end, and to maintain that important level of familiarity despite being thousands of miles from home, Wood-Martin has been working closely with two of the IRFU’s partners, Aldi and Lucozade, to send shipments of non-perishable foods and energy drinks out to the team hotels in Japan.  

Some of the Aldi shipment heading out to Japan. Source: Ruth Wood-Martin

These products — such as protein bars, crispbreads, peanut butter and almond butter — will often be in team rooms at each hotel and training facility, where players can stock up on snacks either before or after a session.

Through the support and assistance of Aldi, Wood-Martin has spent the last number of weeks packing up three large shipments, each containing 10 boxes of food, to drop at various locations throughout the pool stages.

“The planning of the meals is a big part of things but the detail and the volume of food is the really tricky part,” she says. “How much each player is going to eat at a certain time depends on so many things. I need to err on the side of caution because the worst thing is to run out of food. They’re not a fussy bunch of lads but they need plenty of good, quality food.

“It’s about being prepared for every eventuality that can happen. Trying to be as well prepared as I can and have a back up of stuff there that I can dive into. And if I don’t use some of the stuff, I’d prefer it that way as opposed to the other way.

“A few days out from a match, the last thing you want to do is to have something different that they’re not comfortable with, psychologically as much as anything. That it’s all familiar and that’s why I’m shipping out some very familiar foods that we would use on a regular basis.

As for matchday, Wood-Martin — who has built up over 20 years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics having previously worked with the Irish women’s hockey team among others — is always on the go.

Once the pre-match meal is over, she will then travel to the stadium to help set-up the changing room and ensure everything is in place for the players, from water, to snacks, to protein shakes.

During the first half, Wood-Martin would go back down to the changing room to prepare the recovery plans for both half-time and full-time, while keeping a close eye on each player like a worried parent to ensure they are all hydrated sufficiently.

She continues: “Any matchday is an important day from the point of view of eating. It’s one of the biggest things that can change the level of performance and it’s so important they do what’s familiar with them. 

“Hydration is also a big focus of my attention. I will always be looking out for players who might go into a cramp during the game, so you then can concentrate on them afterwards as they lose a lot of fuel during the match, due to exertion, heat and even humidity. 

“At full-time, players are rarely hungry after such an intense Test match but you need to start to look at what you can do to get fuel back in. The proteins, the carbs and it’s often in liquid form straight after a match.

Wood-Martin during Ireland’s tour of South Africa in 2016. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Generally speaking, with Sinéad, I will travel ahead to the next facility to prepare for the team’s arrival later that evening or the next morning. It’s hectic but everyone has their job and it’s very much a team effort because as when I go ahead, somebody else has to take on the responsibility.

“As a management team, we’ve worked together for quite a while now and everybody supports everybody very well. It’s definitely a team effort on and off the pitch.” 

Having worked with the Ireland team through three World Cup cycles, Wood-Martin has experienced the highs and lows of professional sport and learnt a lot along the way, helping the players deliver Grand Slam glory, Six Nations success and plenty more in between.

As the clock ticks towards the first warm-up game against Italy next weekend at the Aviva Stadium, all of the plans will begin to kick into action but the hard work does not stop there for Schmidt’s staff.

“If you get the players onto the pitch well hydrated, in good form, feeling well and fuelled well then I feel my job is done for that bit,” Wood-Martin adds.

“It doesn’t stop you from being concerned, though, and you just hope you’ve got it right because everyone takes a level of responsibility for the performance on the pitch.

“It’s over to the players when it comes to it but you can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for outcomes. When it’s good, you need to embrace that and celebrate that but equally, there are plenty of times when it’s not always good and that’s when the team effort from the background staff is really important.” 

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