As conditioning professionals, finding a method of galvanizing and strengthening fitness levels of modern day rugby players is no easy task.
Think about the complexity of the task at hand
This is a sport that requires you from the start to absorb the impact of 16 stone players running at full speed, then you make the tackle, get up, propel yourself into the path of another runner who, at the last minute, has changed direction with remarkable agility and balance. You make the tackle by mirroring his/her movements. You get up and react to a spilt ball by diving on it, gather it up in your arms and make a swift pass before being tackled by the opposition. The whistle blows. You are then involved in the scrum – a strenuous examination of your isometric strength levels in your entire body. The ball is kicked out requiring you to vertically jump to win a line-out.
That is some sequence of play, and the clock doesn’t even read three minutes yet! Let us also not forget that the 15 positions are each fulfilling distinct unit/individual responsibilities each requiring their own unique set of physical traits. What a melting pot!
Obviously just charging into your first match after a three month off-season would not be recommended. The risks of injury are huge. Even after a carefully periodised post and off season where muscle imbalances and injury prehabilitiation have been addressed, strength, power and speed are at their maximum and, most importantly, the athlete is back raring to go, the risk is still ever present. Indeed it is the contact element of the game that must be conditioned. The athlete’s ability to give and take must be gradually phased in during the pre-season phase, normally eight to 10 weeks in length. It is this aspect of rugby football that can be deemed the most physically demanding and where soft tissue injuries are, in my experience, most prevalent.
What are the demands of the game?
Eaves and Hughes (2003) in their study of rugby after the onset of post-professionalism reveal that post-professionalism (post 1995) the ball averages in play 32.1 % of the game (about 27 minutes). MacClean (1992) presents similar findings. However, the speed of the game has certainly picked up with more ‘phases’ and a “faster ruck dominated game” since 1995. It is not uncommon for matches to consist of multiple sequences of plays lasting between 30 seconds and three minutes!
The contribution of energy systems during a game of rugby is also mixed. Jumping in the line-out, repetitive bouts of tackling and other quick movements all require an immediate source of energy placing a demand for the ATP-CP system to kick in. Do we need an aerobic base for rugby considering the intermittent nature of the game? Well, I believe so considering how our ability to replenish ATP is limited by our aerobic capacity. This can be done in the off-season with weight circuit training and other methods. This, however, is far from the scope of this article.
The most dominant energy system used is anaerobic with the aerobic system providing a strong foundation of energy to keep the athlete going for the 80 minutes (See Duthie et al 2003).
Consider the positional requirements too. A “forward” may have to get up, run and provide a powerful drive into a ruck, get up, perform another, peel himself up off the floor only to have to make a tackle. A “back” on the other hand may receive the ball travelling at 100% be tackled, rest for 10 to 15 seconds, jog back to position and wait in anticipation to receive another pass. The energy demands of the two sets are quite different.
The problems facing the conditioning professional are therefore:
· How do we meet all the demands present within the game of rugby union in our training environment?
· How do we cater for the physiological needs of the positions within the training environment?
· How do we gradually increase the volume and intensity of training to meet the contact demands of rugby football i.e. the tackle, the ruck, the maul?
This article addresses such concerns and proposes a 10-week preseason model to get your athletes into the peak of match intensity fitness.
The 5 Steps to Rugby Match Fitness
Small-sided games expose the athletes to the demands and rigors of the modern game. They allow the ball to be used, skills to be expressed, techniques to be put under rigorous pressure and, most importantly, a level of match fitness to be obtained before launching into the competitive arena.
This article proposes a 5 step approach gradually phasing in the contact element, thereby raising the intensity in an incremental approach over the 10 weeks.
Each stage lasts two weeks culminating in full 15-a-side contact. This approach will provide you with the ability to:
- Incorporate the ball into the bulk of your training sessions providing an excellent form of stimulus to your athletes.
- Allow match intensity conditions be replicated in the training environment providing an excellent transfer onto the playing field.
- Work above and beyond match intensity levels by manipulating work:rest ratios and length of repetitions.
- Allow forwards to work in their positions whilst backs can work in theirs allowing positional demands to be met.
- Skill levels e.g. decision making, contact, passing can all be put under pressure in a match-based environment.
- Avoid unnecessary injuries.
- Provide the coach with the ability to communicate to players during rest periods allowing tactical development to occur.
- Provide the players with an enjoyable training environment – one that will stimulate full and enthusiastic participation. Ask any player what they love about rugby and it sure isn’t repeated 400m sprints.
Precede such drill with a thorough warm-up including jogging and some proprioceptive exercises and stretching.
It is also a good idea to make sure any speed work is done prior to undertaking such fitness-based work. Then, technical elements can be introduced including ball work, specific technique work etc whilst the players are still “fresh.” The tackle and any other intense modes of contact including the ruck and maul should be phased in in conjunction with the ‘5 Steps to Match Fitness’ Programme.
After completing this, the athletes should be “ready” to perform the following.
STEP 1 – NON CONTACT TIP – WEEKS 1 and 2 (Mon and Thurs)
The first step allows the ball to be used in an informal setting whereby players can ease themselves into the new rugby season looking forward to what challenges lie ahead. Now is the time for the athletes to familiarise themselves back with the ball after the off season.
Aims – reintroduce the players to the rugby ball / reintroduce the athletes to the basic movement patterns (e.g. turn, side-step, swerve, sprint, cruise, etc.) involved in rugby.
Played across the pitch, on half a pitch allowing a maximum of 7 a-side.
A tackle is performed when a defender is touched anywhere between the head and the ankles. Once tackled, the attacker rolls the ball through his legs from the place of tackle. The tackler stays with the tackler whilst the defending team retreat seven metres. The tackler is not allowed to follow the ball until the scrum-half has touched the ball. A maximum of three seconds is allowed after the ball has been rolled through the legs before the defending team has to play the ball. Five tackles then a turnover of possession.
STEP 2 – ‘TIP AND WORK’ – WEEKS 3 and 4 (Mon and Thurs)
one to two weeks have passed, and now the players have become familiarised with the movement patterns involved and some basic speed and technical drills have become incorporated into the beginning of the session. Now is the time to raise the intensity with step 2. This involves mimicking the demands of the tackle with some non-contact lower/upper body anaerobic drills following the tackle made. Moreover, the work: rest intervals are such that match demands are also met.
Aims – to mimic the demands of the tackle in a match based environment / improve on the motion and endurance demands made in step 1.
Played on half a pitch allowing a maximum of 7-a-side
As above except the tackle is now made with a two-handed touch anywhere between the head and the ankles. Once tackled, an exercise is performed.
- If attacking – 1 x ‘up down’ (fall to the floor and spring back up without use of the arms) immediately after the tackle and the ball has been rolled.
- If defending – 5 x one of press-ups/ burpees/ squat-thrusts (the coach can make the call at points throughout the session).
Five tackles then a turnover of possession.
STEP 3 – ‘DRIFTING DEFENDERS!’ – Weeks 5 and 6 (Mon and Thurs)
The athletes now begin exposure to body contact in a ruck and maul based environment. However, the tackle still remains at a low-level of intensity. Now a match based awareness can be developed with the inclusion of rucks and mauls.
Aims – to bring into the match based environment ruck and maul conditioning exposing players to a new stimulus.
Played on a full pitch with two teams 12 versus 12 – one team of defenders, one team of attackers.
Defenders organised into two groups – five holding “hit shields,” five wearing full body armour protection to minimise injuries.
Attackers organised into one team of 10 with a degree of positional awareness (i.e. backs and forwards).
Two-handed touch is still used or once light contact has been made with either a suit or a bag. Tackled person falls to the ground and ensures technique in the fall (knees, hips, shoulders) whilst placing the ball at arms length to sustain the attack.
A mini-ruck is formed by committing one defender to the ruck allowing one attacker to drive over the defender off the ball. This must be adhered to. If the attacking side fails to commit one person to the ruck, then they lose possession.
Five tackles then turnover of possession.
After each repetition, a change over occurs with defenders becoming attackers and vice-versa.
There are no stoppages. If a knock-on occurs or a ball is spilt, a new ball is thrown into the drill and play is resumed
STEP 4 – ‘HEALTHY GRAB’ – Weeks 7 and 8 (Mon and Thurs)
Contact is taken up a further level from step 3 in weeks 7 and 8. This time the emphasis is on the tackle with a “healthy grab” now substituting the two handed touch.
Aim – to improve the athletes to meet the demands of tackling and other elements of contact within the game.
Played on a full pitch with 12 versus 12 again without stoppages. If a ball is lost forward, then a new ball is introduced into the drill.
One team attacks continuously whilst the other team defends wearing full body suit amour.
A “healthy grab” now substitutes the two handed tip. By this I mean being in the position to make the tackle then allowing the attacker to fall to the ground or stay on his feet on his terms. The impact of the tackle should be no more than 80%.
Once the tackle has been made, two players from each team then have the opportunity to either ruck or maul the ball depending on the scrum-half’s call. However, at least three players from each team must commit to the breakdown. Again failure to adhere to this will mean possession is lost by the attacking team or the defending team is penalised by 10m.
After each repetition, a change over occurs with defenders becoming attackers and vice-versa.
The rest periods are ideal for the coach to step in and advise on any technical issues that may be arising from the session.
STEP 5 – ‘FULL ON’ – Weeks 9 and 10 (Mon and Thurs)
Time to take a step closer to full-blown match intensity fitness. This time the emphasis shifts towards moving into a full tackle. It is strongly recommended that a thorough warm up is emphasised before participation in the drill is commenced.
Aims of this phase – To ready players for the rigors and demands of the full 15 a-side version of rugby football / improve decision making qualities under match situations / improve player skill level.
Players – 15 a-side, played on a full pitch. Defenders wearing full body armour.
Full Tackle is involved. Once the tackle has been made, a ruck is formed by committing any number of players to the ruck. Defenders are not allowed to touch the ball for the duration of the repetition. Complete one repetition, rest two minutes and swap.
The ‘5 Step Plan to Rugby Match Fitness’ will provide a working, challenging and rewarding environment to condition your athletes. Moreover, the athletes will find it enjoyable from the feedback I have experienced with youth and senior level players. Good Luck!
- Bompa, T (1999) Periodization 4th Edition, Human Kinetics
- Duthie, G et al (2003) ‘Applied Physiology and Game Analysis of Rugby Union in Sports Medicine Vol.33 (13)
- Eaves, S (2003) ‘Patterns of play of International Rugby Union Teams before and after the introduction of professional status’ in International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport Vol 1(2)
- MacClean, D.A (1992) ‘Time Motion Analysis in Rugby Union’ in Journal of Sports Sciences, No.10
John Lark M.A., B.A. (Hons), NSCA-CPT is owner of Fitness and Health Services, a training and health education provider to corporate bodies and sports clubs. John has worked with players and teams from rugby, football and golf and trains clients with a wide range of needs and abilities.