In his first year studying economics and sociology in UL, JJ found it hard to cope with the workload of both college and rugby, and unable to manage his time, he failed the year and had to drop out. He felt even though the lecturers gave him as much support and help as they could, he wasn’t able to give as much of his time as he wanted to the course.
JJ had to start over and he enrolled in a business course through flexible learning. “Better communication” was the key to solve JJ’s problems with time management. He found himself requesting his match schedule earlier and on providing this to the lecturers, an agreement was reached to suit JJ while ensuring he didn’t fall behind.
JJ might only spend every third Saturday on campus studying, but the rest of his time is spent in the UL Arena, training. Almost every day of the week involves sessions with Munster from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. If a game takes place on a Saturday, recovery work is done over the weekend. Monday is a hectic day.
“Straight away on Monday you’re doing weights in the morning then straight out onto the field, talking to the coaches, planning for the week ahead,” he says. Video analysis is done to identify weaknesses and strengths of each player and where they can improve. The squad is picked on a Tuesday. Wednesday is dominated by “weights, recovery and physio”.
On top of that, more video analysis takes place to, “identify what player to tackle, where to tackle him and what moves to make”. According to JJ, Wednesday is a “down day”. Thursday’s schedule sees JJ heading down to Cork for a squad session. On top of all this work, JJ’s role as an outhalf sees him partake in kicking sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “If a match was in Thomond I’d go from 9am till 11am for a kicking session on a Friday.”
The rest of Friday involves reviewing his own notes and taking a break before heading into a clash on Saturday. And the whole cycle begins again!
JJ also stresses the importance of his food intake when it comes to being successful in rugby. While many students throw together whatever they can to call a meal, meticulous planning goes into all of what JJ consumes. Despite the fact many of his friends might be enjoying a social life, his routine is different.
“Diet is not an easy fix. It is a lifestyle change, you have to teach yourself to like stuff,” he says. The biggest change for the player was to actually learn about the food he is taking in. And for the Munster man, it is not a case of eating whatever, whenever; it is a case of planning ahead and being prepared, which of course involves, “a massive shop on a Sunday”.
He warns about checking labels carefully as they are not always what they seem to be. “A yogurt, for example, could say it’s low fat but could have a lot of saturated fat. You need to be careful of little things like that,” he explains. And since JJ takes part in so much physical work, having booster snacks which are “full of protein” is essential to keep him going.
His main goal is to, “get six protein hits in during the day and balance the carbs level around that”. He credits nutritionist Catherine Norton, a researcher in UL, with teaching him.
Playing at the top level in rugby week in, week out, must be not only physically draining, but also mentally exhausting. Maintaining a good performance and carrying on momentum from week to week is not something that can be practiced on the training pitch.
“Maybe it’s more of an Irish thing but it comes from yourself. It comes from your belief and your drive to focus on your standards. In Munster we have a standard expected of us, and we expect from ourselves. You can’t drop off that.”
JJ refers to the “never-beaten mentality” in Munster as what drives him during difficult games and training sessions. The history of the club and the legends it has produced is what inspires him to be at his best in those tough situations.
“You get that belief that you can win the game no matter what, even us younger lads. It’s a case of a never-say-die attitude, you just keep going to the bitter end.”
Achieving his degree is top of the list of priorities for JJ. Achieving a decent grade so as when his rugby career begins to wind down, he can return to his degree and further his education with a Masters degree if it is still an area he is interested in.
“I was thinking of doing a masters straight after, but hopefully I’ll be playing for another 12 years, which is a long time. I could return to it in 12 years’ time and decide I want to pursue a totally different path, but I am stuck with a masters in business.”
Also on top of JJ’s bucket list includes learning a language and playing the guitar. “I’d never stop bettering myself. It helps me take my mind away from rugby, which ultimately helps me improve on the pitch.”
Ask a student how they relax away from studies and a variety of answers are likely to emerge – clubs, pubs, exercise . . . the majority may reply with sport. Ask a student who’s also a professional rugby player how he relaxes, and he too says that the answer is clear – sport.
“I’ve an addictive personality so I took up golf and got a bit obsessed with it for some time, while I should have been studying probably.”
As a fourth year student, finding every minute he can to hit the books is vital for him, despite how difficult the task might be. As students, one of the main focuses in our college years is to hit the books and get the grades, despite our best efforts to put it off. For a student whose life is dominated by rugby, studies is a welcome respite. Achieving grades becomes twice as difficult and obtaining a degree in four years is a miraculous achievement.
For JJ, it is part of the parcel of everyday life. His work rate and positive mentality proves his dedication not only as a Munster rugby player, but as a UL student also.