Gadgets and gimmicks have their place in pre-season but dogs of war aren’t just made from Bronco tests
“All your ducks are swans in pre-season.” That’s the nugget I got from a rugby coach with 25 years’ experience in the game as I left for Grenoble in 2011. It was something I didn’t understand at the time. I get it now.
As a player my mindset going into 15 pre-seasons as a professional was always the same: survival! I loved playing rugby, and I trained to play whereas I had teammates who I felt played to train. Maybe my memories of pre-season are made worse by being a regular member of what was called “Fat Club.” Or as the French called it “Bad Boys”. That was the group who came back from holidays and missed their body fat targets. Extra-fasted conditioning at 6.30am and no butter on the spuds for a few weeks usually got me back on target, and back into general circulation.
Some of the darkest days were miles removed from actual matches. Running up and down Killiney Hill three days a week with Michael Cheika screaming in your ear. The HQ of the British Army, Aldershot Garrison, under Steve Diamond at Sale where sleep deprivation and dorm raids were some of the methods used to try and make us tougher mentally. Or the weeks spent at the Olympic Training Centre in Spala in Poland, famous for its cryotherapy chambers, hard bunk beds and the blandest food in the world.
Every so often a new fad would appear – the must-do exercise or training method. There was a time when a clip of a few All Blacks passing a rugby ball kneeling on a Swiss ball went viral and suddenly you could hardly go to the toilet without trying to use a Swiss Ball. Ice baths are still used but a study a few years ago that questioned their value for recovery certainly caught many players’ attention.
Very few lads enjoyed the ice baths but everyone did them. I had a potential conflict point, coaching at the Dragons, when one of the S&C interns alerted us that Gavin Henson hadn’t shown up for his post-training ice bath. A quick phone call to Gavin cleared up the issue. The chlorine that we added to our ice baths peeled away his fake tan so he elected to get one installed in his own house and he assured us he was following the same protocols, albeit in a tan-friendly way.
The current trend is a combination of wrestling and MMA to build contact robustness, but also learn how to dominate collisions in a more effective way.
Coaching in my opinion is a combination of art and science. It’s important to remember that fitness and a Bronco test – an aerobic endurance hell – can be improved but it’s harder to measure and coach decision-making, skills, game sense, mental strength or resilience. Because what we are seeing is predominantly tests of measurement of athleticism in pre-season it’s important we don’t let our eyes deceive us and remember that, come the business end of the season, we’ll need dogs of war and Bronco test or max bench press are less relevant.
As a coach I find pre-season the most mentally challenging time of the year, even if it comes without match-day pressure. You’re trying to get the balance right between rugby and conditioning, but also making sure your assistant coaches have the time they need to get their areas of responsibility in order within the strict time limits and at the correct intensity levels set by the Head of Performance or Head of Medical.
While you can train harder and longer in pre-season everything is measured and each activity-load, or charge, is closely monitored. Sports science has provided us with lots of cool gadgets and tools to help measure load, and the GPS units you see between the shoulder blades of a player’s jersey is just one of them. It’s important to coordinate the staff and be as accurate as possible in their timing and session plans not to overextend the players – too much done in one session can impact what the coach who follows you will be allowed to do on any given day. That can cause tensions within the group on top of fatigue.
The French pre-seasons were incredibly short compared to the PRO14 teams. Our average pre-season in France was five weeks, though with better alignment now between the FFR and the LNR the French internationals are getting a longer preparation time. We had no French internationals so that wasn’t a problem for us! But what was a big concern was how to get the 15 odd new players we recruited, on average, each year up to speed, not just in fitness but the details of how we wanted to play. It was like cramming for an exam and teaching others at the same time.
Lineout calls at the best of times can be a struggle for some forwards but imagine a calling system that was in French but some of your players couldn’t speak it having only arrived from the Pacific Islands or South Africa. We were lucky in that our lineout caller was former Connacht second row Andrew Farley, who was fluent in French. But he had a neutral accent and minded the newcomers by translating things slowly into English for them.
It was a bit more complicated when we signed the current Georgian and Toulon starting tight-head Beka Gigashvili from a local Federale 1 side. We quickly found out he spoke neither French nor English and we had no other Georgian speakers in the club. He was positioned at the very front of the lineout which limited the options he was involved in, and we worked out a code of hand-signals, nods and winks until he got a few words of English – he hung around with the Pacific Islanders so English came to him before French did.
The Dragons experience was very different from Grenoble in that I came in as Head Coach whereas in Grenoble I was promoted from within, so I knew the players, staff and the environment really well. Your key focus for each pre-season will depend on where you are starting from. At the Dragons we were operating on the smallest budget in the League. So we needed to work out how to increase our revenue.
The funding model in Wales was based around how many players you had in Wales international camps and for how many days. The only way we could get money from the WRU was through increasing our international player group from two (Cory Hill and Hallam Amos) to a larger percentage. It was a chicken and egg scenario in that you need money for good players but good players get you money.
So Warren Gatland was able to tell me that for the previous three years the Dragons players had the lowest high speed running and average weekly load of all four regions, and were bottom by a significant amount.
This was an issue for us being fit enough to win, but also if he called a Dragon player into international camp they really struggled with the training intensity. Effectively it was a negative for a player to be at the Dragons if they wanted to become Welsh internationals. If allowed to continue it would affect our chances of winning matches as well as our ability to retain or recruit international calibre players.
So, increasing fitness levels became the overriding focus of my two pre-seasons there. We decided to be aggressive with the increase in training load – given we were starting with such a low base a gradual increase would take too long. A spike in training load increases the risk of soft tissue injury but with good rehab and management the bodies adapt. We didn’t predict that nearly the whole squad would break – we had to bring in a load of academy players, and amateur players, to be able to field a team. It was a nightmare.
I often ponder whether it was the right decision to be so aggressive but the Dragons now are training at an intensity that compares well with the other three regions. They had eight players in the Wales squad this summer, which will bring the money in to pay the wages and keep the show on the road.
Over here though the four Irish provincial head coaches wouldn’t have been thinking about revenue streams when they sat down to plan their pre-seasons, but they all have different priorities, concerns and must-fixes. They are hoping the swans outnumber the ducks. It’s time to win matches.