Former Connacht Coach Recalls Challenging Lockdown

By Oisin Gaffey

'Relentless - The Connacht Way' is a watershed documentary, produced by Red Bull Media House, that follows the Connacht Rugby team throughout their mixed 2021/2022 season through the lens of three senior team players; Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell and Niall Murray.

The documentary follows a similar approach to TV Shows such as the All or Nothing series, as well as the Drive To Survive franchise. The decision to produce this documentary is seen as a step in the right direction for rugby, with fans desperate to see what it's like to play at the highest level.

The show will be broadcast on RTE1 on Thursday 3rd November at 10:15pm, but we were lucky enough to have been given a preview of the documentary before it airs next week.

Here are some important take-aways.

'Relentless - The Connacht Way' 

The hour-long documentary sheds light on the inner workings of Connacht Rugby, with the camera team benefitting from unfiltered access to the players and coaches. The three players granted camera access into their personal lives, with interviews conducted in family homes and around dinner tables, adding a more personal aspect to the players that is often overlooked.

By following three players at very different stages in their career, the documentary follows their various journeys and highlights the intense nature of elite-level rugby.

Tom Farrell's story was focused on overcoming a cycle of serious injuries and followed his road from the sidelines to the starting lineup over the course of the year. The documentary had exclusive access to Farrell's recovery process, with the young centre showing his vulnerability at times.

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2 April 2022; Tom Farrell of Connacht is tackled during the United Rugby Championship match between Benetton and Connacht at Stadio di Monigo in Treviso, Italy. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

Niall Murray's story throughout the film was about pushing to consistently feature in Connacht's starting lineup, and his route to success. The filming documented the young second-row's highs and lows, from scoring his first Connacht try to missing out on playing Champions Cup rugby.

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Arguably Connacht's most influential player, Bundee Aki, was also a prominent figure in the documentary. A leader on and off the pitch, the experienced international centre is crucial to this Connacht side, with his aspect of the documentary focusing on the relentless attitude required to consistently perform at the highest level, given his appearances for Ireland and the British and Irish Lions.

Despite following three very different players, the documentary does not feel disjointed, instead it ties together perfectly the three players' personal journeys, and how they impact the team.

Former Connacht Head of Athletic Performance 

Promoting the documentary on Wednesday, former Head of Athletic Performance David Howarth offered valuable insight into the personal relationships between players and coaches in the Connacht system. Howarth worked in this role for 5 years, before stepping down in the summer, and provided a fascinating account of what it takes to play for Connacht. He sets a high standard for the squad, constantly referring to a phrase he used throughout the season:

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A win is just on the weekend, but we constantly want to get better

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Howarth took up the position at Connacht over 5 years ago after he left his role as head of athletic performance for NBA team Oklahoma City Thunder, where he worked with superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, managing their performance.

9 October 2021; Connacht head of strength & conditioning David Howarth before the United Rugby Championship match between Connacht and Dragons at The Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Howarth understands what it takes to motivate elite level athletes to consistently perform at the highest level. Through his years of experience, he understands that what might work for one athlete will not necessarily work for somebody else. This idea was highlighted throughout the documentary, with each player requiring a different form of motivation due to their differing circumstances. When asked about his approach to this situation, Howarth said:

It's all about building up that rapport, finding out what motivates them and channeling that.

He recognises that an experienced player like Bundee Aki can handle more criticism, as he understands their personal relationship and knows it will serve as motivation rather than resentment.

How Did Various Lockdowns Affect The Connacht Squad?

However, Howarth highlights the difficulties the lockdowns created for the squad, specifically with the rapport with injured players. A player facing a long period on the sidelines may already be feeling low, but throw in a pandemic that prevents you from leaving your house, and that makes it even worse. With regards to managing the personal relationships within the squad, Howarth notes, "Covid and lockdowns made it so much more difficult."

With filming for the documentary commencing in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Howarth described the challenges and opportunities that arose from such an unusual experience.

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READ HERE: Remembering Paul O'Connell's Legendary Performance On 'Question Of Sport'

The Australian described taking a proactive response to the pandemic, seeing it as an opportunity to grow and improve, rather than to relax. Operating in unfamiliar territory, Howarth and the rest of the Connacht coaching staff used the time off to challenge themselves and the squad by organising specific training programmes to be carried out virtually, from home.

The pandemic put rugby teams in an awkward position, however. Howarth notes that his Connacht squad used their time away from rugby to develop, saying,

Ironically, after lockdown when you weren't allowed out or to go long distances, we found that players' fitness levels had actually improved. Lean muscle mass went up.

Overall, this documentary offers a new perspective on the world of professional rugby, one that has not been explored before. The trailer that has been released has received a good reception from fans, who are excited to see what life is like away from the pitch.

Connacht's former head of athletic performance, who features in the documentary, gave us great insight into the inner workings of Connacht Rugby and how they strive to improve.

'Relentless - The Connacht Way' Airs on Thursday 3rd November at 10:15pm on RTE1.

SEE ALSO: Baloucoune And Conor Murray Start In A Classy Ireland Side To Face South Africa

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