When clubs get back to training, they have to work hard on conditioning, cohesion and dealing from rugby's grind again
The challenges of rugby’s return to training explained
While those in the UK and Ireland wait for clarity on when players should return to training at their club, in Italy one side is back at it.
“Our Covid-19 crisis board, composed of our club’s and other external doctors, arranged a full and detailed protocol in order to respect the national and regional laws over this Phase Two in Italy and sport’s return to action at an individual stage,” explains a representative from Zebre.
“Before starting any kind of activity, a serological test was done to understand if someone had the Covid-19 antibodies. In case someone was found positive, the club would start deeper analysis. As no one was found positive, (on Wednesday) every player got back to action on the pitch for his individual return to fitness – but not to rugby.
“We’re waiting, as soccer is, for a full protocol for the return to contact training in the coming days/weeks and also for the Italian Rugby Union’s return to rugby guidelines.”
Related: World Rugby’s Covid-19 return to play guidelines
In Australia and New Zealand, they too are back into the grind. With fitness testing being conducted, it made global news that All Blacks star Beauden Barrett was busting records at the Bronco test. Yet elsewhere in Europe, there is rising consternation over rumoured schedules – with everyone waiting for a decree from governing bodies. We all need to know if the season can be completed at all.
The Professional Game Board in England has stated more time is needed “to ensure that players, staff and officials can return to a safe training environment, and that is not expected to be in place for a minimum of two weeks”. So training in small groups is not likely to resume until June at the earliest.
A report in the Telegraph describes the completion of a full English Premiership’s season as a ‘long shot’, while there are differing theories around the length of time clubs would be allowed to train together before full action does resume.
But how difficult is it to get back into the swing of things anyway?
“I would not say there is consensus on exactly what needs to happen following the lockdowns that have occurred in most countries,” explains All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill of best practice for returning to training.
“However, there is consensus that we must progress things based on a return to play window and what players have been able to do while at home and what sort of condition they come back in… A little bit of reverse engineering is likely to be required.
“Here in New Zealand we have come out of lockdown and will look to play in three-and-a-half weeks. Our isolation has been about seven weeks but all players stayed on programmes with the anticipation we would be playing again.
“It is reasonably difficult to get back into things from a structure and progression perspective, but also with ‘rules’ to return to play around hygiene, cleanliness, contact tracing and the fact that many teams have probably lost staff or resources due to the pandemic. However, there is huge excitement to get back playing rugby so probably a little bit of pulling back will be required by staff as players’ energy and enthusiasm is peaking!”
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Gill, alongside many others from the academic arm of the game, also contributed to a paper entitled Returning to play after prolonged training restrictions in collision sports that landed this month.
Among those names on the paper is Stephen Mellalieu, Professor in Sport Psychology and Associate Dean for Research at Cardiff Met, who also helps out the Ospreys. He has done research alongside the RFU and RPA too.
“A key period of reconditioning is needed – physical, tactical, technical, and mental before the players go back to full games,” says Mellalieu of the big takeaways. “Player have been able to undertake a degree of conditioning and you will have see Barrett smashing the Bronco test. So boys have been out to train, do a lot of running work and lifting work as well. But as you know, the biggest in the gym isn’t necessarily the best rugby player and they may be physically conditioned, but they need to be contact conditioned, to be prepared to play.
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“The only evidence we have (from a collision sport) about breaks in seasons is the NFL lockdown back in 2011. And there was a sharp spike in injuries when the NFL boys returned to competition and to training. So contact doesn’t just allow you to make better hits, contact obviously protects you from injury. So the concern is that if players have to do an accelerated return to rugby programme, they may be at greater risk of injury when they do start playing, essentially.”
When you look at the academic literature, according to Mellalieu, there is a fair amount written on the effects of isolation and confinement, from a psychological perspective. He describes this global situation as a “trauma” and points out that: “We’re all people first; athletes or workers second.” Take the rugby out, there is clearly potential for distress in relation to this trauma.
If someone is unable to do their job, he says, it potentially impacts their sense of identity, for example. There are lots of challenges with training at home too. The broad approach is assessing how to deal with players after such a seismic change. But as well as that, any return to training ahead of the season resuming will be unlike any pre-season the athletes have experienced before.
For a start there is the standard anxieties of a pre-season – impressing as you head towards the last year of a contract, hitting targets, returning from injury and more – but also the added layer of unease generated by having concerns over the health implications of joining back up. After all, any player may have a pregnant partner or also care for an elderly relative. Then there is the ticking clock, should we set a date for competition resuming.
Addressing this, Mellalieu says that players will recognise the financial imperative to get rugby back up and running. But it will be a strange experience at first. And tough.
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He asks: “Is it realistic to be able to expect players to peak within a four- to five-week reconditioning phase? It’s very difficult to do, and then you’ve got a lot of contextual factors.
“So if you’ve been a professional for ten years, you’ll have had nine or ten pre-seasons, you know how to handle your body, you’re probably very experienced at coming back into rugby and delivering very quickly, very successfully.
“With your less experienced player, the rookie who has just come out of the academy, you’re finding your way in the group and it may take a lot longer to hit your straps. So there’s this desire to get everyone together and get games played but then I think there will be real challenges around actually getting good performances out of teams.
“Because it’s one thing wanting to get people fit to be able to play, but actually then to perform is a real challenge. Obviously that’s where the pressure will come on the coaching staff, within that condensed time, to be able to deliver a programme that not only shows players are medically fit to play but also perform to their best.”
Which is one side, but just as Gill said there will be an element of needing to hold some players back, Mellalieu knows there will be players who are straining to get back to some semblance of ‘normality’ or at least have some hard work to look forward to. And there’s another element.
He clarifies: “I’ve been involved in some research work with the PRL and the RPA and the RFU around the psychological load of the season. And towards February, March the grind kicks in and we get an increased perception of load and symptoms we’ll see of a kind of burnout and overtraining and things like that. Mentally the boys feel tired.
“We’ve almost chopped that bit off. Just as we were getting to the grind point, post-Christmas and Europe, everyone suddenly called off the day-to-day of having to go into the training ground. They’ve been told to train at home.
“So as much as there are anxieties about when will we start back, the financial, the contractual, there probably has been a little bit of a recovery, regeneration for the players. Now, it’s not fully been time away from the game where you’ve been able to go and spend two weeks and lay on the beach and forget about the sport. Because everyone’s been in a training limbo. You’ve been expected to train just in case you come back early.
“There’s not full recovery, like a proper off-season. But I definitely think a lot of the boys have just said, ‘I’ve got time in my family that I wouldn’t have had before. I’m loving seeing the kids, spending time with them, getting stuff done in the garden or all those jobs you have to cram into typical off-season.’ So I think there are a lot of positives in that sense.”
As teams first come back in and maintain distancing measures, Mellalieu hopes innovations come to the fore. Digital interaction with online demonstrations could come in handy, as will visualisation and plenty of team discussion as contact comes back in and teams have to work on cohesion in a short space of time.
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Up in Edinburgh, head of S&C Nick Lumley has looked to other sports like weightlifting and boxing, where prolonged time off between intense competition phases is more of the norm. But preparing an ambitious group of players to re-enter a season after enforced time on the sidelines is such a new challenge. Exciting, sure, but it is still terrain with no footprints on it.
Lumley explains: “The challenge is the end point is the same as ever (putting players into competition in optimum shape), but what we don’t know is the starting point, because we don’t know the effect this time off has had on them.
“They’ll have maintained (some) level of health and fitness, but we don’t really know fully how they’re going to come back. And so some guys naturally will do lots of training because they enjoy it and it’s good for their head and it’s good for their bodies, and it’s what they enjoy doing.
“Some of them will have done loads of running, for instance, some of them have their own gyms so will have done loads and loads of weights. Some guys will have been doing circuits in the front room with a couple of dumb-bells because that’s what they’ve got. But from all these different starting points we’ve got to get them all to the same finishing point.
“A big thing over the course of preseason, S&C wise, is that we need to build training load. Guys who do longer pre-seasons have fewer injuries. That doesn’t mean that if you have a long pre-season you won’t get injured, it just means you’re less likely to. That’s a very consistent trend that we’ve observed. This will be my fourth pre-season at Edinburgh and every single year we observe that the guys that get through pre-season, have fewer injuries in the season.
“We’ve got very good rugby coaches who prepare the team very well, we’re well drilled and well organised and they do a really good job. They bring all the components together on the field on a Friday night, but as part of that is the training week that goes into that. We work hard during the week.
“So it’s not just preparing guys to get through 80 minutes – it’s preparing guys to get to 80 minutes, have a day off and then train again on Monday or on Sunday. Two days later you’re back on the training field, repairing and reviewing and preparing for the next game, and then going again the day after. If you’re a forward it works out as 15 to 18km (run) a week, plus a lot of contacts and collissions. In the backs that’s in the early 20s.
“It’s doing that week after week and preparing properly for every game. And so you need to be very tolerant for training, because anyone can get through that one week, you can get through it and get through an 80-minute game and you can do that once. But to do that six weeks on the bounce you have to have a load of resilience, which is what top players do.
“But as rugby has evolved and science has taken over and the understanding of human performance has improved, a big component of fitness now is training tolerance and building a sort of a chronic training load into the guys. When you do that, that’s the bit that gets fewer injuries.”
Another byproduct of a truncated pre-season, if we endeavour to complete this season, is that we may see coaches’ schemes get stripped back. The clock is definitely ticking for any S&C department – and regardless of Bronco scores, rugby is a multi-faceted sport.
For those who under-performed before Covid-19 hit, concluding the season after this break may represent a clean slate. But regardless, hard work will lie ahead.
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