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Saturday 18 August 2018

We need a return to winning ways

Thirty nine hours, forty-seven minutes and twenty three seconds. That's what was on Donncha O'Callaghan's stopwatch by the time we walked through the entrance to the Crowne Plaza in Queenstown. He'd started it at the Horse and Jockey pub when Denis Leamy collected him, 18,000km and eleven time zones away.

It had been the longest trip I'd ever taken in my life, never having been to New Zealand before. The journey started in Dublin, continued to London, then onto Dubai and Sydney before finally touching down at Queenstown airport with the magnificent backdrop of the Southern Alps surrounding it. The sting was taken out of the journey somewhat by flying business class, and it certainly was a nice experience to turn left instead of right when boarding the plane. We flew with Emirates on the London-Dubai-Sydney leg of the trip on the world's largest passenger airliner, the massive Airbus A380.

On Dr. Eanna Falvey's advice, we set our watches to New Zealand time (eleven hours ahead) and attempted not to sleep on the eight-hour leg from Heathrow to Dubai. I didn't really adhere to this rule, and fell asleep for a couple of hours. Upon arrival in Dubai and having a three hour layover, most of us took advantage of the business lounge's hot showers, and had some breakfast.

On the fourteen-hour leg the doc walked around with melatonin and sleepers for those who needed them, and I managed to get an eight hour sleep in. Still, by the time we got to Queenstown most of the boys were hanging!

We weren't allowed to crash straight away though. First there was the traditional Maori welcome, to which we responded with the sonorous tones of Christy Moore's "Ride On". As usual, everywhere you go you'll find Irish people and Queenstown was no exception, the place was packed with Irish shirts and people waving tricolors which was great to see.

After a quick stop at the hotel to drop our luggage off, we went to the Queenstown Events Centre, our training base for the following week. Thirty minutes on a spin bike later, having worked up a good sweat, we went into the pool for a stretch and a few of the more childlike of us (that is, the entire squad) had a go on the waterslides.

Finally, back to the hotel and I found myself crashing into a dreamless sleep at around 8pm.

The following morning was a training day. The trainers were pretty keen on keeping things light as they were worried about people being tight after the long journey, so we were only allowed to go at 60% for the session.

This generally goes out the window as the session goes on as it's difficult to get timings right as one man's 60% can be another's 70% and today proved no exception.

It was good to get the legs stretched though, and everyone was glad to be out in the sun. It was pretty chilly out still, about 10 degrees, as it's still only the beginning of spring in New Zealand.

After the session a few hardy souls braved the freezing 10 degree waters of Lake Wakatipu, something I had zero interest in. Thankfully the hotel is right across from the dock they dived from so there wasn't too much of a teeth-chattering walk!

Saturday was a down day and we finally got the chance to explore our surrounding environs. Queenstown is a superb place to be if you enjoy the outdoors, with white water rafting, bungy jumping (they invented it here) skiing, snowboarding and jetboating all on offer. We elected to go powerboating with Shotover Jet, followed by a quick ten minute helicopter ride over to the Skyline complex high above Queenstown.

The jetboat ride was edge of your pants stuff, with the driver constantly threatening to dash us against the sides of the gorge we went hurtling down. During the ride he helpfully informed us that he had previously done $75,000 worth of damage to the boat, thankfully that had been during his training period.

At the Skyline complex some of the boys did the bungy jump, I contented myself with the safer option of the luge. This basically is a throwback to the carts you used to make as a kid, chuck yourself in and gravity does the rest.

Sunday was another training day. We had a pitch session in the morning followed by a whole body weights session in the afternoon.

The day proved surprisingly warm when the sun came out and I found myself regretting the thermal top I put on. We went through some new patterns and lineouts, and did our defensive drills under the watchful eye of Les Kiss.

Despite the jet-lag, the weights have been going surprisingly well, our strength scores are well up there - Irish fitness coach Phil Morrow's conditioning plan looks like it's paying dividends.

I have to give credit to our conditioners, they really worked us hard during the pre-season (90 minute fitness sessions anyone?), but it's been worth it.

They can walk the walk as well. Phil Morrow is in outstanding shape for a man of his advanced age and another one of the conditioning coaches, Paudie Roche, competes in weightlifting in his spare time and is probably pound for pound one of the strongest guys I've met. His stats - 100kg clean and jerk, 170kg squat - aren't that impressive until you consider that Paudie is 4'11 and 62kg in weight. To put that in perspective, I'd have to clean 210kg and squat 325kg to keep up! During the Six Nations Fez (Stephen Ferris) was benching with 60kg dumbells and asked Paudie to hand one up to him. Paudie duly passed up his own bodyweight to Fez without batting an eyelid...

Monday was another down day before we start the preparation for Sunday's Test with the USA on Tuesday. There were a number of options on offer once again - golf, more bungy jumping, hunting, and a helicopter trip to Milford Sound. The helicopter trip proved the most popular, although a fair few wannabe Darwin Award nominees went for the bungy.

I decided to go on the helicopter trip with Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Donncha O'Callaghan and Geordan Murphy. I quickly discovered that Donners wasn't the happiest of flyers, and especially detested the pilot's funny gag of rocking the helicopter from side to side while making a tight turn. The views were magnificent though, and what would have been a four hour trip by road was reduced to thirty minutes by travelling as the crow flies.

During the flight you could really appreciate how much of the local scenery had been shaped by glacier: drumlins dot the landscape and we passed by more than one hanging valley. We arrived at Milford Sound and found it really lived up to Rudyard Kipling's description of it as the "Eighth Wonder Of The World", truly jaw-dropping.

Tuesday we started preparation in earnest for the game on Sunday. First up was units meetings at 8:45 for forwards and backs, followed by the quick drive to training. Training went really well, everyone's looking forward to the game on Sunday. I think there's a communal feeling that we let ourselves down during the Summer Series, and there's a real eagerness to get back to winning ways.

We're not kidding ourselves that the USA will be a pushover, the days of waiting until the 60th minute and then cutting loose are gone. Any team that will be at the World Cup will be well prepared, and we expect them to be especially motivated by the day that's in it.

I'm looking forward to playing in my first ever World Cup, and hopefully I'll get the nod when the team is announced later this week. We travel down (or is it up?) to New Plymouth on Thursday and I think it's fair to say that we'll be sad to leave Queenstown. The town has really welcomed us with open arms,the people are warm and friendly, the scenery is fantastic, and we'll be leaving with fond memories.

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