A core of 40-plus players – expected to be the main feeder group Welsh national squad selection plans ahead of the coming Autumn international Series at the Millennium Stadium, next year’s RBS Six Nations and the 2011 Rugby World Cup – have been put through a rigorous fitness and screening programme by Head strength and conditioning coach Adam Beard.
Head coach Warren Gatland will be buoyed by the news that his squad is fitter, faster and stronger than it was at a similar point of testing during the 2010 Six Nations, but the fact that some of his senior star names are recording new personal bests and younger players are also pushing hard will have exceeded his expectations.
The national squad testing programme produces an array of results giving players individual pathways to achieving optimal levels of physical performance ultimately assisting to make them better rugby players.
And National Squad Physical Performance Manager Craig White (who oversees the National Squads backroom staff that includes strength & conditioning, sports science, medical, physiotherapy and nutrition) is in no doubt about the main contributing factors to his squad’s impressive set of results.
“Some of our key players have been allowed an 8-week pre season development window, which is important for us looking forward to the year ahead,” said White.
“This is the longest pre season some players have had since before the last world cup as normally due to summer tours often players only train for 4-6 weeks (excluding a month off post tour) in pre season.
“Not only is a longer pre season beneficial for improved and sustained physical development, but also to reduce the chances of soft tissue (strains, sprains, tears, etc) injury from occurring.
“A long slow progressive pre season is advisable to allow the body time for adaptation. Physical gains made too quickly in pre season will undoubtedly lead to a higher risk of injury. In this context I like to use the phrase ‘soon ripe-soon rotten’.”
White believes the plaudits for the squad’s improvements must go to each of the four Regions who have cooperated with the National Squad Management and worked tirelessly to develop each player through pre season.
And he is pleased with the healthy relationship at the moment between the National Squad and the regions, saying this relationship will be a key factor in the success of the National Squad this season and in the build up the Rugby World Cup.
However, the professionalism and commitment of the players also continues to impress White and he points out the experience of the NZ tour has, retrospectively, made the squad realise there is still much work to do.
Additionally, some of the senior players who stayed at home have used the time wisely, trained especially hard and are now firing on all cylinders according to White’s colleague Beard.
“Shane Williams especially has used his pre season wisely to fully rehabilitate his shoulder and continue to fine-tune his speed – impressively, Shane is still testing as our fastest player over 10metres,” said Beard.
“Ten metres is all he needs to make his break and that shows why he was the IRB World Player of the year in 2008 and why he is still one of our biggest threats when he is fully fit.
“Our tests have also shown that James Hook has had an excellent rehabilitation program at the Ospreys and is back from injury with excellent fitness scores after his lay-off.
“James has shown identical scores to his personal bests for speed which I am sure will be good news for the Welsh fans in the Autumn and beyond.
“Jamie Roberts has also made significant gains in speed during his injury layoff and a combined program with the Cardiff Blues conditioning staff has really shown how both of the regional and national set ups can work together for the good of the player and Welsh rugby.
“Jonathan Thomas has also proven he is over his groin problem with some excellent strength and power scores in pre season.
“Gethin Jenkins too is rid of his calf problems and deserves special mention for his dedication to preseason and achievements in all the testing.
“While Alun Wyn Jones has made excellent gains right across the board with his fitness results and his professionalism has been second to none.’’
Some of the younger players also continue to impress. The fitness department have made special mention of Leigh Halfpenny who continues to improve in all areas and Dan Biggar, with both praised for taking extremely diligent approaches in pre-season.
“The youngsters are really pressurising the senior players, which is good to see,” said Beard.
“But some of the gains that have been made by the old heads are impressive as well.
“Stephen Jones has worked incredibly hard in all areas and to be recording significant personal bests at this stage in his career is pretty special.
“Lee Byrne has also been training hard and is fitter and faster after not being able to complete a preseason through injury last summer.”
There have also been impressive improvements in body composition across the squad.
White said: “With the international game becoming faster and players covering more distance it is imperative that no players are carrying excess weight in the form of body fat.
“Our nutritionist John Williams continues to work tirelessly in this area with all players and is doing a great job.
“The most impressive gains in this area have been made by Adam Jones. He has learnt from the NZ Tour and is now at the same physical level as he was before the 2009 Lions Tour.
“The positive news though is that Adam realises he has much more work to do in this area and is working diligently to take his performances to a new level”
Overall Gatland and his staff are pretty happy with the squads development so far since they face the All Blacks on home territory in the summer.
However, the attention will now be solely on performances in the Heineken Cup and the Autumn Campaign.
“Can players turn physical improvements into winning performances? Watch this space!” added White.
Tickets to see Wales take on Australia, South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand this Autumn at the Millennium Stadium are available now from…Web: www.wru.co.uk/tickets Tel: 08442 777888 and to Personal callers: Cardiff Arms Store, 8 Westgate Street, Cardiff.
Saturday fixtures against the Wallabies, on 6th November, the Springboks, on 13th November and the All Blacks, on 27th November are priced at £40, £60, £65 and £70, with the Friday night clash with Rugby World Cup Pool D opponents Fiji priced at just £20 and £25 with a children and concessions available for just £10.
Official hospitality packages can be purchased from just £99 per person for Wales v Fiji at the official Millennium Stadium website: www.millenniumstadium.com.
Prices start at £169 for games against Australia and South Africa and from £179 for New Zealand – packages include a ticket located in the best seats of the house, a complimentary match programme and a guest speaker from the world of rugby.