Performance programs in rugby should center on the game’s physiological, psychological, and logistical demands.
While a periodized training plan might look perfect, rugby is far from perfect regarding movement. Set plays happen at high speed, and defensive players must decide how to best tackle the oncoming attackers. Predictable drills certainly have a part to play in practice, but it’s important to progress toward more random drills.
During agility training, I advocate using medicine balls as a constant stimulus. Coaches often believe athletes need to understand exactly what’s going on. Naturally they need a basic understanding, but when focusing on agility, keep an unpredictable element up your sleeve to further challenge your players’ biomotor capacities.
Rugby has the advantage of a clear and definite schedule that allows training sessions to be designed around the annual fixture list. Rugby is also a sport in which the likelihood of players being in optimal condition all season is extremely unlikely. This makes the role of support staff all the more interesting.
In this article, I’ll describe numerous contributing factors that influence the outcome of individual games and overall seasons.
Video 1. This clip shows James Haskell’s recent performance against Australia. It provides a good example of rugby’s chaotic nature and the need for reactive strength.
Rugby is a contact sport played over two 40-minute halves where high levels of force are both generated and absorbed upon impact. Teams are made of fifteen members, and players are divided into forwards and backs.
The stereotype, with limited truth, is that forwards tend to be immobile and thrive on physicality. Their primary role is to secure possession of the ball. That’s not to say, however, that attack is strictly off limits.
In a game analysis conducted by the International Rugby Board, forwards completed an average 42% of passes at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. This shows that forwards are integral to an effective attack.
Conversely, if athletes have speed, power, and skill, they are often placed as backs. As rugby becomes increasingly dynamic, however, every player will need to be comfortable with the ball in hand and with making active defensive tackles.
Factors That Influence Performance and Game Outcomes
A Northern Hemisphere season begins in September and will continue until the end of May. On the professional level, this is eight months of competition, not including international duties. Almost every year, international rugby will add an additional two months to the playing calendar.
As a result, several team members will have sustained injuries preventing them from playing for their clubs. In a competition such as the Six Nations, which begins in mid-February and usually finishes in late March, a player carrying an injury adds the risk of missing the remainder of the season or, perhaps more noticeably, limiting their work capacity during pre-season.
Ball in Play
Rugby places unique and extreme physiological demands on the body. The average mass of England’s forwards, for example, at the 2015 Rugby World Cup was 108kg, and the average height was 6’1”. The backs had an average mass of 91kg.
An important element of needs analysis for the game is total time spent on the field. Ultimately, some players are unlikely to play for the whole 80 minutes. Considering the size of modern day rugby players, it’s remarkable they have the ability to perform for at least sixty minutes.
At the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the average number of close contact situations, in rugby terms rucks and mauls, was 162. The average ball-in-play time was 35 minutes 25 seconds, the lowest time was 29 minutes 34 seconds, and the highest time was 43 minutes 54 seconds. Although the amount of time seems relatively low, it’s a significant increase from the times recorded at the 1991 World Cup.
The importance of psychology’s role in rugby is growing. It’s always existed even though some traditional coaches try to avoid it.
It’s a team sport with cohesion at its core. When players are injured, they’re likely to be excluded from team training, or they may perceive themselves as being excluded. This offers a challenge for support staff because exclusion can hinder progress in the gym.
External stimuli in professional rugby, the crowd, is often a source of psychological fatigue. Making decisions under pressure during a game situation is essential as it’s often those decisions that determine the game’s outcome. It’s very important to incorporate skill-based drills into a conditioning program.
The impact of game logistics, particularly in Southern Hemisphere rugby, is overlooked; traveling does not promote optimal performance. I’ll refer to English Premiership rugby, purely because I know the distances.
When Exeter (South West) competes against Leicester (East Midlands), one of the teams must travel for at least four hours on a coach. I’m not suggesting that a four-hour journey will have disastrous effects, but it’s not ideal, and coaches should account for it. In any sport, logistics will affect recovery, performance, and overall preparation during the training week.
The final element of performance is team dynamics. It’s an area that I follow with interest because it’s incredibly important in a sport as physical as rugby. With the risk of sounding trite, each player has to understand they are part of a group. The last thing any coach wants to see is a rift among teammates.
Team dynamics should be at the top of the list before writing a program. Without a buy-in from every player, a program won’t be effective.
If possible, get the team in the gym at the same time. This will add a bit of competition while building team cohesion. It’s essential to keep competition in the weight room under control at all times, however, because players will inevitably want to push themselves toward excessive overload. The goal is preparation, not demolition.
Considerations for Training
Energy System Development
Energy system development is integral in rugby performance because all three energy systems are used (Bompa and Claro, 2009). In their simplest forms, ATP-PCr depletes within seconds, the glycolytic system degrades within 20-30 seconds, and the aerobic system supplies energy during periods of lower intensities (Morton and Close, 2016).
While an aerobic base is necessary for rugby players to maintain a homeostatic environment, the majority of play is anaerobic. There are numerous rest periods during a game, and a set of plays will usually last no longer than one minute, making the two anaerobic energy systems the key drivers.
Rugby is plagued with ineffective training protocols. The idea that “to be fit, you have to do an hour of vomit-inducing work,” still loiters at the amateur level. Occasionally, that method is beneficial but, as total volume, intensity, and external stressors increase, it should be kept to a minimum.Rugby is plagued with ineffective training protocols. Click To Tweet
Of course, a rugby coach could argue that athletes need to be overloaded, and they’d be correct. But running around the pitch, which is typically 340 meters in circumference, is training for the wrong event. Unless Forrest Gump is on the team, the chances of a player running around the pitch during a game are very slim.
I experienced this as a player and now realize how time was misused during our weekly training sessions. The coaches had us run around the pitch, do a few static stretches and then, after appropriately cooling us down during what was meant to be a warm-up, they proceeded to ask us to run into one another. That’s not the coaches’ fault. At amateur clubs, they usually coach voluntarily, and it’s unfair to expect them to be clued in on training methodology.
It also likely that junior rugby coaches played during a generation when continuous training was the norm.
As sports science information continues to become increasingly accessible, it would be beneficial to develop standards for all levels leading up to the professional level.
Physical Demands of Rugby
Video 2. This video clip depicts rugby’s physical demands. This phase of play occurred in the 70th minute of the game which makes the physicality all the more noticeable.
To build upon the video, it’s worth recognizing the conditions of the pitch surface. It’s often an uncontrollable and unavoidable factor in rugby, particularly for the visiting teams. And it would be unrealistic to assume the pitch won’t influence the overall performance. While players’ physical conditioning will cover every aspect of a game, a boggy pitch will, in most cases, slow them down and increase the onset of fatigue.A boggy rugby pitch will, in most cases, slow players down and increase the onset of fatigue. Click To Tweet
Rugby is predominantly a speed and power sport. To generate force, there must be a foundation of strength; strength is a prerequisite for speed and power generation (P = FV). Still, a physically competent player with foundational strength does not guarantee high performance. Regardless of how strong a player is, if they are unable to generate and apply force efficiently, they will not be very effective.
In my experience, the players who can apply large amounts of force will successfully evade or defeat defenders upon contact. This is not to say that size does not benefit a player. That would be naive. What’s important to remember is that size is not, and should not be viewed as, the determining factor.
I’ve heard stories of young players who are not selected for academies because of their size. If a player shows technical competence with “rugby intelligence,” they should be given every chance to progress. Far too often, size potentially excels or diminishes a young player’s career.
Strength and Conditioning
It might not sound glamorous, but strength and conditioning in rugby should focus on the fundamentals. As in most field sports, players are sprinting, jumping, cutting, and decelerating. Without these skills, chances of progressing as a player are small.
Unique to rugby is the need for players to be able to grapple effectively, which is why Mixed Martial Arts has gradually been introduced to training. To grapple and win, core strength and postural integrity are essential.To grapple and win, core strength and postural integrity are essential. Click To Tweet
By core strength, I refer to the ability to rotate, flex, and extend efficiently. In my eyes, core strength is an umbrella term that people often mistake for having visible abdominals. The core is more than just the abdominals. Barr and Lewindon (2014) refer to the core as the musculature of the hips, the three sections of the spine, the gluteals, and the trunk.
In rugby, the focal point of most strength programs is developing a strong posterior chain, where the large majority of force is generated. Most movements occur through the frontal plane, which lends itself to dominance in the anterior chain. That is by no means a negative, but it has to be balanced with posterior chain strength.
During the season, the number of gym sessions per week is almost always reduced purely because of the schedule. Unless there is a break in the fixture list, which is becoming increasingly rare, there will be a game every weekend. For this reason, making time for accessory work is redundant. In rugby, the saying “we are training movement” could not be more true.
As strength and conditioning become increasingly popular, there is a self-imposed pressure on some coaches to be innovative. The principle of specificity is exhausted to a point where sessions might look good, but they won’t give players the desired stimulus.
When looking at specificity, we typically look at energy system demand or timing. What often goes unnoticed is the biomechanical relativeness. Not many movements performed in the weight room are biomechanically specific to rugby but, as with most things, there are subtle adjustments that we can make.
Not many weight room movements are biomechanically specific to rugby until we make small adjustments.
Exercise variety has reached the max mark, and there are very few opportunities to develop a completely new training system. Strength and conditioning coaches provide the ingredients for high performance and then it’s then up to the technical coaches to make the athletes better players. A strength and conditioning program isn’t the sole factor in developing world class players.
I mentioned that not many exercises are biomechanically specific to rugby. If specificity is the goal, Olympic lifts cannot be overlooked. While there are some remarkably mobile rugby players, many players are not sufficiently mobile. Sometimes injury has reduced a player’s range of movement, and some of the players are just extraordinarily large humans.
To use Olympic lifts in a program, coaches can regress the complete movement to keep force generation and velocity high. That’s the goal, isn’t it? If we’re training power, producing high force and velocity is the way to do it.
If a 6’4”, 115 kg Second Row player is performing power cleans, for example, but not demonstrating movement proficiency, what would be the regression? Go back to hang cleans or move into clean high pulls.
There are also the proven movements of squats, deadlifts, pushing actions, and all of their respective variations. Squats can be changed to jump squats, ¼ squats, box squats, and front squats.
I’ve excluded overhead squats because they’re rather difficult. If the player is competent then, yes, consider including them. However, during the season, the time and effort required to display overhead competence are not an effective use of resources.
Deadlifts have several variations. Stiff leg deadlifts are popular for good reason. If eccentric strength is developed, connective tissue strength improves and, significantly, maximum force output should rise.
I added pushing movements as a general category because an endless number of strength exercises are available.
For performance, we need to move away from isolation exercises and focus on dynamic efforts.
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- IRB Rugby World Cup 2011: Statistical Review and Match Analysis.
- Bompa, T., and Claro, F. 2009. Periodization in Rugby. 1st ed. Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer.
- Morton, J., and Close, G. 2016. “The Bioenergetics of Sports Performance.” In Strength and Conditioning for Sports Performance, edited by Ian Jeffreys and Jeremy Moody. Routledge: Abingdon.
- Barr, A., and Lewindon, D. 2014. “Stabilising and Strengthening the Core.” In High-Performance Training for Sports, edited by David Joyce and Dan Lewindon. 1st ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics.