He’s one of the province’s most recognised and decorated rugby players, but former Ulster captain Andy Ward is quickly forging himself a reputation in GAA circles with his role as Antrim’s strength and conditioning coach this season. Ciaran Woods caught up with the New Zealand native to find out how he is adapting to his new position, and to gain an outsider’s insight on the game…
AS AN UP and coming young New Zealand rugby player, Andy Ward made the move to Ballynahinch in 1994 to play rugby for the local club. His playing career saw him win the European Cup with Ulster and go on to captain the side for four years winning the Celtic Cup in 2004.
He became an Irish International in 1997 winning 28 caps and touring in Australia, South Africa, Argentina and the USA, and was a forward in the 1999 Rugby World Cup squad.
We’re talking about an individual who has never been afraid of a challenge, of pushing the boundaries and opening his mind to new ideas. There’s also no doubt that he’s pretty damn good at what he does, but how did the former rugby international find himself as part of the Antrim football back room team this year?
“We had classes and things going on in my gym, and we would have actively encouraged the GAA players to come down and do their pre-season with me. Liatroim and Castlewellan in Down are two of the teams I had worked with. I got talking to the guys and said to them ‘Listen, if you wanted then I could come out and take a few on-field sessions, give you a different voice and different perspective.’
“I think people appreciate that you’ve come from a professional background, with Ulster and Ireland, and they found that could be beneficial to them as a team. You know how small this country is, so word gets out, and I suppose it went from there.
“Liam [Bradley] and Tony [McCollum] said that they wanted to come and have a chat with me, throw a few things to you across the table and see what you think. It really was that simple. They ran me through their opinions on things, where they were at and where they wanted to be, their goals and aims, and it just snowballed from there.
“Strength and conditioning covers a whole lot of areas and aspects of play. You’re spending probably more time with the guys than even the manager is, so you get to know how guys think, their mindset and psyche. You have to understand their thinking before you can understand how they want to train, how hard they want to train.”
Clearly Ward is bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the Antrim training ground, and although he is the first to admit that his knowledge of the ins and outs of the game is in its infancy, already he is having a valuable input into how the Saffrons go about their business.
“Liam and the guys are always talking to each other, I’m in the middle and saying how I see it from a different perspective. For me, coming from a rugby background, spatial awareness is the key ingredient. It’s about having time on the ball, and creating the space in which to make things happen. The two games aren’t that dissimilar.
“In Gaelic football, guys have a tendency I feel to run up the channels. Instead of running to the space and receiving the ball out there, they have a tendency to try to win the ball, then try to take the ball to the space. All they’re doing is attracting the opposition player to come with them, making it much more difficult. So forget the ball, get to the space, and receive the ball in space when you can get momentum. Let the ball do the work.”
Despite being an adoptive Irish man for almost two decades, his New Zealand accent remains as strong as ever. Surely there were communication difficulties with the Antrim squad then. Was a translator required for Ward to help him overcome the language barriers?
“Tony Scullion is the only one I have a problem with actually! I’ve been here about 18 years, and when I first came over, I found myself asking everyone to repeat themselves because I struggled to understand. It was like going back 18 years whenever Tony turned up. He’s a good lad though, a little rocket and we have great craic. Luckily there are no speech bubbles or subtitles required.”
Gaelic football has faced serious criticism in recent years for the negative approach teams are taking to the game, where the defensive mindset is paramount and restricting the opposition seems more important than scoring yourself. However, Ward has a very different attitude about how the game should be played.
“It’s all about scoring. At the end of the day you’ve got to go forwards… you can’t sit back and wait for it. A game of football can get away from you in the space of just three or four minutes. It has happened Antrim a few games this year where they have come out of the blocks exceptionally slow, and spending the rest of the 70 minutes trying to get the game back, and they can’t because teams do their defensive thing.
“My attitude is play fast. Get back, but when you get the ball, break fast. Get back down there and put the other team under pressure, because from what I can see of it, that’s when teams are most vulnerable.”
Too often in the past, players have fallen into the trap of thinking that strength and conditioning was all about bulk, often sacrificing their speed and stamina in order to make themselves bigger, and ending up top heavy. Ward of course believes that conditioning programmes are a key component of any player’s training regime and personal development, but only if it’s done in the right way.
“There’s a perception, a wrong one, that when you get bigger you automatically get slower. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s all about how you marry it all together, improving your strength and keeping your speed. That extra size is going to help you absorb the contact situation and to help you break free from that. But at the same time you’ve got to have that acceleration and explosive power to take you away from that. It’s about the perfect balance.
“I think the best comparison is with Aussie Rules. All of those guys are around six feet tall, in and around 100 kilos. That’s a big guy, a big guy with pace. That’s the sort of specimen we’re after for Gaelic football I believe. There’s no point going to the gym and putting an extra three or four stone on, if you can’t carry it around the pitch for 70 minutes.
“Putting on a bit of weight is as much a psychological thing, that you feel bigger and stronger. You know you’ve done the hard yards, and you feel twice the size. That’s the difference.
“Now that I understand the game, and what is expected of players over the course of a match, I can go back and develop gym programmes which lend themselves to what is happening in the game. It all has to be about being more explosive, more dynamic, and ultimately stronger.”
Antrim experimented widely during the McKenna Cup, and enjoyed a very positive start to their league programme with three consecutive wins. Their promotion hopes were dashed by the three defeats which followed, before finishing on a high with a comprehensive win over Cavan to complete their league programme.
Although they did not manage to bounce straight back to division two, Ward has seen plenty to convince him that Antrim are moving in the right direction, and that a very positive summer awaits.
“It’s about the top six inches, it’s all about the mindset. We’ve come from behind in two games to win, which I’m told they didn’t do in previous years. Once they went behind they became almost comfortable there and accepting of it. In the three games that they lost, they’ve had bad periods, where they’ve come out and just looked like rabbits in the headlights for too long.
“Everybody goes out to play the perfect game, but very rarely does that happen. Mistakes are made. For me, a sign of a good team is when they forget about those mistakes instantly and get back into the game right away. Antrim are in a place right now where it takes them five or six minutes to get over making a mistake, and by that stage the game can be gone.
“You can’t afford passengers. If one man makes a mistake, it’s up to everyone else to raise their game and compensate. It’s gotta come from within. If it goes wrong, then let it go. Don’t go around with your head down, just get back into it. But that’s something that takes time. It’s slowly but surely coming.”
Ward saw out his rugby career with the Shaws Bridge based Cooke in Junior One competition, where he also looks after the coaching of the senior side. A knee injury, sustained while on tour almost 18 months ago, brought the curtain down on what was an extended playing career, but the former international admits that it’s hard to shake that addiction to competition.
“I was very fortunate throughout my whole carer that I never had any serious injuries, just a few minor operations and the likes. Then a year past last November I was invited out to Bermuda to play in the Classic Lions selection. First game in a ten day tournament and I just completely blew my knee out, tore my ACL and medial ligaments, needed a total reconstruction and just though ‘Frig that, that will do me.’
“It had always been ‘one more year,’ and last year was the first that I can honestly say that I had no desire to go again. The mind wants to do everything, like when you’re 25 or 26, but the body is saying ‘Dude, you’re 40 now. Chill out and let it go!’”
As well as his role with Antrim, Ward’s day job is looking after the two gyms which he owns in Banbridge and Ballynahinch. It’s tough work, long hours and a schedule which often puts the squeeze on his free time, but it’s certainly a career from which he gains huge personal satisfaction.
“I have Andy Ward Fitness Studios in Banbridge, which is a purely classes only gym. It’s going since January, so we’re building that up to where we hope to have between 600 and 700 members, running 180 to 200 classes a month. Then I have Andy Ward Leisure in Ballynahinch, which is more of an out-and-out gym with cardio equipment, free weights and studios as well.
“I still coach the Cooke senior team, so that’s Tuesday and Thursday nights, and on a Saturday I’m with them as well. The other nights I’m in the gym, so it’s quite anti-social.
“There are a lot of stresses on when you’re trying to be three or four places at once, but at the same time it does lend itself to getting a few hours around lunchtime or afternoons for the family life.”
Rugby is often held up as having a level of discipline and respect for officials which the GAA can only dream of. One problem which Ward has quickly identified in Gaelic football is the lack of a defined tackle, which he believes fosters frustration in players and coaches alike, and something which he believes needs to be properly addressed before progress can be made.
“In rugby there is only one rule book, the same rule book from international down through provincial, club, and right down to mini rugby. But in GAA there seems to be about six or seven rule books, and no two of them are interpreted in the same way. As a coach you’re setting out how you want your team to play, how to tackle, but then you go out in a match and the referee interprets that you can’t do that.
“He doesn’t even say it, or explain why, he just signals and with one whistle throws your entire coaching manual out the window. As someone on the outside looking in, I think it’s something that really needs to be looked at.
“The governing body needs to look at it and really define what constitutes legal and illegal play, because it’s very loose. Maybe that’s why the majority of inter-county managers have very little hair left!”
Professionalism remains a dirty word in GAA circles. Even the notion of player grants was too much for some, who saw it as the GAA selling out on its amateur ethos. We are often quick to sing the praises of our players as ‘professional in all but payment,’ putting them on a par with their AFL or rugby counterparts in terms of fitness and application.
Ward believes that professionalism is something which should be encouraged, not feared, and he is certain that the GAA can learn from rugby’s mistakes by creating a paid environment which could see the GAA go from strength to strength.
“I’m all for players getting rewarded. Everyone goes to matches, pays their money at the turnstiles, and expects to see the top end of their sport being played. The top end of the sport should be compensated in some way for that.
“The reason patrons come, is because they want to see the game played how it should be played. In order for you to do that, you make sacrifices… family life, business life, work life. It all comes at a cost. These guys are training as professionals. The only difference is that they’re not getting paid.
“The problem is where you draw the line. Where the cut-off point is. Club players in rugby should not be paid. If you’re a full-time rugby player you should get paid, if not then you shouldn’t. It’s as simple as that. That’s where rugby went wrong, and that has brought us to the point where a lot of clubs are in a lot of financial trouble.
“If you’re worth paying, then you should be with your province in rugby. That’s where the payment should stop. So in the GAA, it should only be those inter-county players who get paid. There’s the incentive to make yourself a better player. They’ll always be affiliated to their club, you’re not taking them away from their club, they’re just representing their club at the highest level, with the club getting the kudos of having most county players.
“There could also be a compensation for clubs, which they could then invest into player development and bringing more young players through.
“You’re either in or out, club or county, and it means that those county players can represent their county, and improve their own game, without any conflict. At the minute, it’s a serious commitment, and I have the utmost respect for them and what they do.
“They put a lot of other sports to shame with their level of application and dedication, and long may that continue.”