If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, then Ireland’s recent trip to Belfast should have helped mould them into a well-rounded squad.
While the Guinness Six Nations is Rugby’s Greatest Championship, it can also make a case for being Rugby’s Most Intense Championship – five high-level, energy-sapping Test matches played over the course of seven weeks.
It’s a glorious two months for rugby fans in Europe and around the world but, as the ultimate test for the players involved, ensuring some down time is factored in becomes pivotal.
That makes Ireland’s three-day mini-camp in Belfast last week – which included an open training session at Queen’s University, combined with plenty of off-the-field, squad-building social events – a tonic at just the right time.
The 2019 Guinness Six Nations has hardly been disastrous for Joe Schmidt’s men. They’ve won two games from three, sit just three points behind table-toppers Wales and are right in the Championship title hunt.
But by the incredibly lofty standards they set in an historic 2018 they have – by their own admission – not quite clicked in defeat to England, followed by hard-fought victories over Scotland and Italy.
So when towering lock James Ryan, who was rotated out of the matchday 23 for the trip to Rome in Round Three, talks up the impact of getting out of the rugby bubble for a few days: future opponents beware.
“We got a good bit of work done in Belfast, with one main training session,” said Ryan. “We’ve just enjoyed each other’s company
“We went out for a bite to eat together and did the Black Cab tour. It hasn’t been all work, we’ve got to enjoy each other’s company a bit.
“We had a few beers in Rome after the game as well. It’s important we can have a bit of craic and get away from the bubble.
“I think when we’re not performing at the level we know we’re capable of, maybe we can get a bit over anxious and start forcing things a bit. That’s why it’s important we just chill out as well.
“Get that balance between training – when we’re on, we’re really on – but when the work’s done we can put the feet up for a bit.”
All great sports teams, and rugby sides in particular, strike the balance between working and playing hard – with the bonds forged between teammates away from the pitch arguably just as important as the gains made on the training field.
With the Championship comprising of six incredibly talented teams, the margins in the cauldron of Test match rugby can be miniscule.
That extra one per cent needed to best your opponent could come from turning to the man next to you and digging just that little bit deeper.
That’s also where Ireland’s much-vaunted squad depth plays into their hands – with the pool of players Schmidt has developed during his tenure enabling him to manage his stars’ minutes.
Of the 13 players to have played all of the 240 potential minutes in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, just one is Irish – back-row star Peter O’Mahony.
An element of freshness heading into the final two rounds – against France on Sunday and then Wales the following weekend – can only be beneficial, even if the players would rather be in the thick of the action.
“I’m probably a bad watcher,” explained Ryan, after not playing against Italy. “You kind of hate being on the sidelines watching, you feel kind of helpless.
“When I’m out there I’m definitely not going to hold back or mind myself. I don’t think that would be the right approach.
“My body feels in a good place now though. A few of the lads were a bit banged up after the weekend, because it was a seriously combative game, they (the Italians) are big, physical men.
“The lads that weren’t involved are definitely fresher coming into Round Four.”
Having taken a step away during the rest week, the Irish squad are ready to get back to the serious business in the Aviva Stadium against Les Bleus on Sunday and with just the right balance, they look ready to thrive.