In 2000, Dr. Liam Hennessy assumed the role of Director of Fitness at the IRFU with the remit to create structures and embed methodologies to help Irish Rugby compete in the professional era. While working directly with senior players, Dr. Hennessy also needed to ensure that those emerging from the youth grades were equipped to deal with the growing demands of professional sport. However, in recruiting his team, Dr. Hennessy found it difficult to procure individuals of the necessary academic and practical coaching experience for the standards he sought to impose.

Setanta College was borne out of Dr. Hennessy’s efforts to drive the standards in Irish rugby to new heights. He devised a series of training modules comprising the latest thinking in performance science and strength and conditioning and trained up his own staff – many of whom have since taken up roles in the NFL, the Premier League and a host of other global sporting organisations. However, Hennessy saw further opportunity and founded Setanta College in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Through a partnership with Limerick Insititute of Technology, Hennessy’s modules have since been accredited to Certificate, Degree and Masters levels for full-time and part-time (online) study.

“If you go to college for four years and study all the scientific stuff, it doesn’t mean that you can apply it practically in the field,” Liam Looney, CEO of Setanta College, tells us on his visit to Rugby Players Ireland’s offices in Clonskeagh. “Liam (Hennessy) was alive to this and when rugby became professional he put the systems and structures into the game in Ireland that still exist today – player protocols, rest periods. Liam is well renowned throughout the world and his content is highly acclaimed. Given his relationship with the game in addition to the quality of material that he was producing, it wasn’t long before World Rugby got involved and began to distribute his modules to the far-reaching corners of the globe.”

With the genesis of a very profitable business in place, Hennessy sought out the advice of Looney who has since overseen the growth of the college. “We are on a journey. At the minute we do two things with our content – firstly, we licence it with universities like Limerick Institute of Technology, while we have similar relationships in the UK and Norway. But to promote further growth, we knew we had to distribute our material online. Although this had been happening through World Rugby who have over 40,000 people enrolled in the programme, we had to increase our own online presence. The potential was vast. Now our stuff is pumped out into an U12’s team in Zimbabwe or out to a coach in Paraguay. They are often just regular people coaching at Garryowen, Belvedere College or Stella Bosch who want to improve their level in coaching ability.”

With a keen understanding of the demands of professional sport, Setanta College has been particularly useful for sportspeople who find it difficult to accommodate their study while playing. The likes of Ulster’s Louis Ludik and Roger Wilson, Charlie Hodgson and Chris Ashton of England, the recently retired BJ Botha and a number of players at Connacht have all availed of their services. Beyond the rugby world, other notable students have included former Manchester United footballer, Michael Clegg. Having explored various educational opportunities, Clegg met the Head of Fitness at Arsenal, Des Ryan. Ryan had worked previously under Hennessy at the IRFU and recommended his modules to Clegg. Clegg later became the Strength and Conditioning coach at Sunderland.

“The term ‘strength and conditioning’ is something of an obsolete term though,” Looney remarks. “It goes beyond the guys who want to look good in front of the mirror. There is nutrition, functional movement, resistance training, sports technology. We run a programme for the fire service who come in for screenings and advise them on fitness techniques so that they don’t blow a muscle while performing their duties. Our graduates are being placed into Georgia Rugby, they are in South America, we have a person working in a hospital in Florida. We have professional players, we have teachers, physicians. Its application is very broad. If you do an S&C course might you go on to coach the Leinster U20’s? Yes, you might. But you might also set up your own gym, work on the wellness programme in Google or work in sports technology as an analyst.”

Given a tight connection with the rugby community that stretches back to when Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell first emerged on the scene, Setanta College’s link with the game would seem to make sense. Yet while Looney feels that plenty has been done, he also believes that there is more to do for the game in Ireland. As an accomplished athlete in his own right, Looney was invited to the States on a scholarship and benefitted from an education through sport. He is therefore well placed to provide an opinion on the benefits of such an education.

“From Rugby Players Ireland’s perspective, the concern surrounds the welfare of players when they finish their career so education fits in as a key criterion for the vision of their organisation. To that end, we all fall in collectively. Anthony Foley was a neighbour of mine, Keith Wood lives down the street, while Phil Danaher is one of our executive directors. I know the kind of bubble that professional players live in and the difficulties that they face when they leave the game. We need to make people aware that their career is going to end at some stage and that they need to be prepared for that reality, be they an academy or senior player. With our help, there are numerous opportunities.”
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