Rugby coach and PhD heads to Ireland

MMU’s Shane Heffernan has been selected to represent Ireland at the universities rugby league Four Nations tournament this week in Edinburgh.

Shane is MMU’s very own Mr Rugby, boasting a playing career and coaching roles all whilst researching for his PhD.

Working alongside MMU’s Dr Alun Williams, Shane is studying the molecular genetic characteristics of elite rugby athletes.

Shane, who turns 30 this week, isn’t short of international experience having represented the Irish colleges rugby union team and playing for the senior Irish rugby league team last year for their European rugby tour to Serbia and Malta.

Due to his commitment to his research at MMU, Shane was unable to attends the trials in Ireland but expressed his desire to be involved to coach Carl de Chenu and was picked.

Ireland face possibly their toughest battle first when they face defending champions England on Monday 13th, before going on to play Wales and hosts Scotland as the tournament concludes on Saturday 18th.

County Kerry-born Shane joined MMU in 2008 and has gone on to complete his undergraduate degree, masters and is now at the forefront of cutting-edge sports genomic research.

Having retired from rugby union on his move to Manchester, Shane helped out with the rugby union team offering tips and hints, but his retirement didn’t last long as he joined the team and played up front for a number of years.

Playing for MMUC inspired Shane to continue his rugby union career by joining Macclesfield RUFC and playing national one rugby the following season.

Shane’s coaching expertise didn’t go unutilised for long as he became forwards coach and later head coach for Cheshire’s rugby union side.

Recently the Manchester and Cheshire rugby union sides teamed up to create a cross-campus sevens side, which Shane says presented its own challenges.

“The sevens was a big challenge, when I was asked to select our players who were best suited to sevens, it was less about training, it was more about playing together,” he said.

“For the Sandbach sevens we turned up for the games and it was actually on the morning of the event that we spoke as a coaching team about what sevens specific tactics we needed to employ.”

Shane says the active nature of university sport keeps him on his toes and sustains his love for rugby in all its forms.

“I could never get sick of something I’m as passionate about as rugby,” he said.

“Rugby in my life is very diverse – playing is very different to coaching, and my coaching role is progressing every year as we get new students, creating its own challenges.”

“The fact that I’m able to do it as a professional research career is the greatest thing that could have happened.”

The research team of the RugbyGene project is currently conducting genetics research which has seen them take biological samples from 700 elite professional rugby players including over 50% internationals and 30 British and Irish Lions.

“The fundamental purpose of our research is to understand athletes at the molecular level,” Shane explained.

“At the very tip of human performance are elite athletes, we want to know what it is that makes these individuals more physically and biologically capable of achieving the feats that they do.

“Coaches say ‘you play wing because you’re fast or back row because you’re big’, one of our goals is trying to put science behind this educated guess work that goes on.

“We’re doing the initial science, and in the future some smart guy or girl will be able to come up with a some really great ways to use it.”

Shane will continue to balance his playing, coaching and researching roles at MMU for the next three months as he continues pursuing his fascination in molecular physiology.

Thanks to Shane from everyone at MMU Sport and good luck with Ireland this week!

To keep up with Shane and Dr Williams’ work follow them on twitter at @RugbyGeneStudy

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