Scott Spedding says French fitness needs to improve and if they are to succeed at the World Cup, it maybe thanks to a British invention...
If France do surprise the world and win the Webb Ellis Cup in October they’ll have to give grudging thanks to a British invention. The ‘Wattbike’ has been their primary fitness machine during their first four weeks of preparation, Les Bleus investing in a dozen of them for their training at Marcoussis and latterly Tignes, in the Alps.
The static cycle was first developed in 2008 at the request of British cycling, who wanted an indoor training bike that, in the words of Wattbike’s website, could measure “your power output, your pedalling technique and heart rate”. The result is a machine used by, among others, Team Sky.
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre isn’t much interested in the technique bit, more the heart rate and particularly the power output. That’s why their 12 Wattbikes were transported from Paris to Tignes last week, and were seen on Tuesday at an altitude of 3,000 metres as part of the squad’s high-altitude training. The French players – like those of England, Scotland and Wales – are learning that being beasted at high altitude improves the delivery of oxygen to the muscles and that in theory leads to better athletic performance.
The more one pedals on the Wattbike the greater the resistance, and the French squad on Tuesday started with six and half seconds maximum sprint with 24 seconds of recovery, a sequence repeated over a total of 24 minutes. “What I’ve learned in the last few days,” gasped Wesley Fofana at the end of the session, “is that I’m not really cut out for cycling.”
Scott Spedding who, incidentally, went to the same South African school as the current leader of this year’s Tour de France, Chris Froome, says the Wattbike is just one part of a training programme that has pushed the French squad to its limits this month. “We started with 10 days at Marcoussis that was just fitness,” explains Spedding. “As well as the Wattbike there was a lot of cross-fit and gym workouts. Here at Tignes we’ve started to work on the rugby but it was made clear from the start that we would be working in three week blocks; the first block 70% fitness and 30% rugby and then vice-versa for the second block.”
Once the second block is over, France play England in two warm-up matches in August, an opportunity for the French to avenge in some small measure their record 55-35 defeat in last season’s Six Nations. “Against England the ball was in play for a crazy amount of time – something like 40 minutes [42, according to Saint-Andre] – and I think in the second half we weren’t as fit as England,” reflects Spedding. “And as we began to tire so we started to struggle to make good decisions. That’s one thing we’re working on because if we want to compete at top we have to get that right.”
The South African-born full-back concedes that in general in recent seasons France haven’t been as fit as their rivals, and that certainly seems to be the objective of Julien Deloire, the conditioning coach tasked with preparing the players for the World Cup. “My major objective consists of improving the players fitness capacity rather than their muscle volume,” he told Midi Olympique on Monday.
“I think fitness has been a problem with the French team for a number of seasons because we’ve never had the time to work together before Tests, just a week or so,” says Spedding. “At Test level that’s not long enough so this is the first time this coaching team have had the squad for such a long period and that means we have the time to work on an attractive game plan and on our fitness.”
The shared suffering has been good for the squad, says Spedding, forging strong bonds that he believes will be tough enough to stand the pressure of the impending World Cup. “It’s been a really hard three weeks, but we’re all going through the same thing and we’re encouraging one another and really knitting tighter together.”
There have also been the odd social outing to further forge friendships but in truth, says Spedding, “we’re pretty broken by the evening so we eat and then go to bed.”
Such has been his focus in recent weeks that Spedding has not even had the time to find a flat in Clermont, the club he’s recently joined from Bayonne . “Clermont have been really supportive and told me to concentrate on France for now so I haven’t done anything about moving in,” says the 29-year-old, who is relishing the prospect of playing for last season’s beaten Champions Cup and Top 14 finalists.
“It’s a massive motivation to join Clermont and try and help them win a title,” says Spedding. “And of course I want to win a title, too, because there are two things that mark a player’s career – caps and titles.”
Has he joined the right club, then? Clermont have famously triumphed just once in their 12 Top 14 final appearances, a fact Spedding acknowledges. “There’ll be a lot of pressure at Clermont this season because their supporters are demanding a trophy,” he says. “Personally I’ll be competing with Nick Abendanon [for the full-back’s jersey], who had a great season last season, so that just adds to the excitement.”
In the meantime, however, Spedding’s horizon stretches only as far as England and France’s opening match against Italy at Twickenham on September 19. “We’ve still got lot of work to do but I think with the World Cup still two months away we’re well-placed,” he says. “Everything that’s gone before counts for nothing. When we gathered three weeks ago we started from zero and we’ll be ready for our first game. The French know they have a point to prove and the French are never more dangerous when they have something to prove.”