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The Wallabies - sprinters not stayers

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Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
Two months ago, before the start of the Bledisloe series, I posted an article titled “Wallabies: the right conditioning for the 3Ns?” in the Forum section of this site. I started off by pointing out:

“A characteristic of the Deans era Wallabies is their seeming inability to sustain their performance over the full 80 minutes of a game. This raises the question of whether their training methods are appropriate for the intense physical demands of modern international rugby. In short, is there enough emphasis on strength training?”

In that article I argued that the best way to assess the Wallabies’ performance was in Tests against the All Blacks. This was because “distance travelled is not really a relevant factor and both nations always endeavour to select their strongest team, so these matches provide an ideal environment to search for consistent patterns evident over a number of matches.”

We have since played another three Bledisloe matches.

On July 2008, in Deans’s first match against his home country, the Wallabies won the second half 17-7 and also won the match. From then on it has been an unbroken succession of losses in both the second half and the overall match. Here is the record of second half scores:

2 August 08 0-18
13 September 08 14-25
1 November 08 14-19
18 July 09 3-12
22 August 09 6-16
19 September 09 6-33
31 October 09 3-19
31 July 10 14-17
7 August 10 0-3
11 September 10 8-17

So that’s our sorry record. Ten straight games; ten losing second halves; ten matches lost.

In the second half we have scored on average 7 points; the All Blacks score 17.9.

The reason is glaringly obvious – the physical conditioning of the Wallabies is inappropriate. Forget about half time scores; no one cares which horse is first past the post the first time around in the Melbourne Cup. And to pursue the horse racing analogy further, a horse won’t “get two miles” if it’s been trained to run a mile.

Rugby is a physically draining game played over eighty minutes. It is also not really an aerobic sport but rather an anaerobic sport where there is a huge premium on strength and power.

On June 28 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article titled, “Don’t despair – fitter Wallabies might rise from last in Tri Nations rankings”. The author, Spiro Zavas, wrote:

“It is an open secret that many Waratahs and Brumbies players shirked their full training obligations in the Super 14. An unfortunate feature of the Wallabies, this season and last season, has been the way they have faded in the second half of Test matches. A fitter Wallabies team might convert those half-time leads to full-time victories.”

To address this problem “the Wallabies conditioning coach will monitor the entire squad with GPS tracking devices that will record the intensity of their training.” In other words the focus was on getting the players more aerobically fit.

It would appear that the traditional Australian approach of placing less emphasis on strength and physicality than any of the other major rugby countries has become more pronounced in the Deans era. Rather than pursuing maximum strength the Wallabies’ weights sessions have reportedly seen a heavy focus on bar-speed routines using loads as little as 30% of 1RM.

At what point will Robbie Deans and his strength and conditioning coach Peter Harding face up to the fact that the current approach is not working and requires fundamental revision?
 
H

Hartman

Guest
5 September 09 is omitted - that was the win over my Boks in Brisbane in the 3Ns. But I completely agree with you.
 

barbarian

Phil Kearns (64)
Staff member
Surely an increased focus on strength would impact negatively on fitness though. I wouldn't have thought being able to bench more would help you play the full 80. In fact I would think exactly the opposite.
 

The_Brown_Hornet

Nick Farr-Jones (63)
Surely it's about balance. I bow to Bruce's greater knowledge in these areas, but rugby is one of the few sports that combines anaerobic conditioning and cardio-vascular fitness (ice hockey would be another I guess). On that basis, you need the explosive power to do the set pieces, clean out, tackling and mauling, but aerobic capacity to get around the paddock, phase after phase.

So how to get that balance right? There would also be specificity of training depending on position too?
 
W

WB3

Guest
“A characteristic of the Deans era Wallabies is their seeming inability to sustain their performance over the full 80 minutes of a game. This raises the question of whether their training methods are appropriate for the intense physical demands of modern international rugby. In short, is there enough emphasis on strength training?”


It would appear that the traditional Australian approach of placing less emphasis on strength and physicality than any of the other major rugby countries has become more pronounced in the Deans era. Rather than pursuing maximum strength the Wallabies’ weights sessions have reportedly seen a heavy focus on bar-speed routines using loads as little as 30% of 1RM.

At what point will Robbie Deans and his strength and conditioning coach Peter Harding face up to the fact that the current approach is not working and requires fundamental revision?


The fact that the Wallabies are fading late suggests to me not that they don't do enough strength training but that they are doing the wrong type - they should be focusing on anaerobic conditioning and aerobic conditioning together, as a higher aerobic base allows for repeated maximal efforts with less rest.
Maximum strength work is not necessarily the key to Wallaby success, rather, a combination of aerobic fitness and anaerobic training, with some max effort work being used necessarily for the maintenance of strength (as it is very hard to increase strength during a strenuous season). I think the Wallabies could benefit from numerous types of strength training, with bar speed working being beneficial in its own right (for conditioning). There is no link between max effort strength training and aerobic capacity that I am aware of - and it is aerobic capacity/their conditioning to deal with lactic acid etc that is slowing the Wobs down late. Max effort training involves large weights, low reps and long rest periods - there is no translation to late-game fitness that I can see coming from that.

2 protocols/types of training that I think would be worth seeing for anyone interested include:
Escalating Density Training (EDT) - where athletes try to perform increased work in the same time period. Google it for more detail, but the idea is essentially to perform exercises involving opposing muscle groups (eg bench press and chinups) where each supersetted exercise forms the rest period for the other and trying to increase the number of repetitions performed in a given time period each workout - also requires aerobic fitness and the training loads and work periods can be modified to work either more solely on muscular endurance or strength.

Strongman training: Use of exercises such as sled drags, tire flipping, sledgehammer work, sandbag work etc could benefit the Wallabies hugely as it almost always involves full body movement, a combination of maximal effort and endurance (meaning that the lactic acid system will likely be worked) and the fact that the weights are irregular in shape/move unpredictably mean this would be easily applicable to rugby and very successful.

Also, it is worth noting that the Wallabies undoubtably periodise their training. If they have experts who say that the training they do in-season will be best for their conditioning then they are probably right. More likely what is at fault is the off-season commitment/training that forms the basis of their strength for the next year's competition. I cannot see the Wallabies actually IMPROVING their max strength during the season given the strenuousness of it - their fatigue would preclude it. However, their conditioning could be improved in this time.

On a side note, I reckon the Wobs should send a contingent to see Joe Defranco in the offseason. He is a phenomenal strength and conditioning coach who has been responsible for training many of the NFL's best young players. Check out his youtube channel.
 

TheRiddler

Dave Cowper (27)
Is it also worth looking to the AFL to see how they condition their guys? I appreciate that its different body shapes and makeups in a lot of cases but I'm constantly amazed at how those guys just keep on running and running.
 

Scarfman

Knitter of the Scarf
The proof is in the pudding, and surely the pudding has been eaten. We're tiring badly and we need to have a look at changing things.

Strongman training: Use of exercises such as sled drags, tire flipping, sledgehammer work, sandbag work etc could benefit the Wallabies hugely as it almost always involves full body movement, a combination of maximal effort and endurance (meaning that the lactic acid system will likely be worked) and the fact that the weights are irregular in shape/move unpredictably mean this would be easily applicable to rugby and very successful.

That sounds like the go.
 

Henry

Bill Watson (15)
Are they really tiring significantly in the latter stages of the game? Surely at least 50% of the problem is mental.
 

cyclopath

Stirling Mortlock (74)
Staff member
Is it also worth looking to the AFL to see how they condition their guys? I appreciate that its different body shapes and makeups in a lot of cases but I'm constantly amazed at how those guys just keep on running and running.

But AFL is a far more aerobic sport - they run sometimes over 20km in a match - Rugby would not even come close. I wouldn't think there is much crossover.
Bruce?
 

cyclopath

Stirling Mortlock (74)
Staff member
The proof is in the pudding, and surely the pudding has been eaten. We're tiring badly and we need to have a look at changing things.



That sounds like the go.

It is also interesting to look at the body shapes of Wallaby players (excluding some outliers like Ma'afu!!) vs All Blacks. It might be just my (mis)perception, but the ABs look less "buffed" in a gym way than many of the Wallabies, but clearly lack for nothing in the grunt department. George Smith never looked "fit" in a stereotypical way, but was bloody strong and had a great motor.
Fascinating thread, Bruce.
 

DPK

Peter Sullivan (51)
George Smith never looked "fit" in a stereotypical way, but was bloody strong and had a great motor.

Smith must the strongest thighs and back. The way he would latch onto the ball and then, despite fierce disagreement form the opposition, refuse to let go was an amazing thing- Pocock is similar, but his arms are just so bloody huge sometimes he seems to just drag the breakdown with him as he's pilfering.
 

Groucho

Greg Davis (50)
Two months ago, before the start of the Bledisloe series, I posted an article titled “Wallabies: the right conditioning for the 3Ns?” in the Forum section of this site. I started off by pointing out:

“A characteristic of the Deans era Wallabies is their seeming inability to sustain their performance over the full 80 minutes of a game. This raises the question of whether their training methods are appropriate for the intense physical demands of modern international rugby. In short, is there enough emphasis on strength training?”

In that article I argued that the best way to assess the Wallabies’ performance was in Tests against the All Blacks. This was because “distance travelled is not really a relevant factor and both nations always endeavour to select their strongest team, so these matches provide an ideal environment to search for consistent patterns evident over a number of matches.”

We have since played another three Bledisloe matches.

On July 2008, in Deans’s first match against his home country, the Wallabies won the second half 17-7 and also won the match. From then on it has been an unbroken succession of losses in both the second half and the overall match. Here is the record of second half scores:

2 August 08 0-18
13 September 08 14-25
1 November 08 14-19
18 July 09 3-12
22 August 09 6-16
19 September 09 6-33
31 October 09 3-19
31 July 10 14-17
7 August 10 0-3
11 September 10 8-17

So that’s our sorry record. Ten straight games; ten losing second halves; ten matches lost.

In the second half we have scored on average 7 points; the All Blacks score 17.9.

The reason is glaringly obvious – the physical conditioning of the Wallabies is inappropriate. Forget about half time scores; no one cares which horse is first past the post the first time around in the Melbourne Cup. And to pursue the horse racing analogy further, a horse won’t “get two miles” if it’s been trained to run a mile.

Rugby is a physically draining game played over eighty minutes. It is also not really an aerobic sport but rather an anaerobic sport where there is a huge premium on strength and power.

On June 28 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article titled, “Don’t despair – fitter Wallabies might rise from last in Tri Nations rankings”. The author, Spiro Zavas, wrote:

“It is an open secret that many Waratahs and Brumbies players shirked their full training obligations in the Super 14. An unfortunate feature of the Wallabies, this season and last season, has been the way they have faded in the second half of Test matches. A fitter Wallabies team might convert those half-time leads to full-time victories.”

To address this problem “the Wallabies conditioning coach will monitor the entire squad with GPS tracking devices that will record the intensity of their training.” In other words the focus was on getting the players more aerobically fit.

It would appear that the traditional Australian approach of placing less emphasis on strength and physicality than any of the other major rugby countries has become more pronounced in the Deans era. Rather than pursuing maximum strength the Wallabies’ weights sessions have reportedly seen a heavy focus on bar-speed routines using loads as little as 30% of 1RM.

At what point will Robbie Deans and his strength and conditioning coach Peter Harding face up to the fact that the current approach is not working and requires fundamental revision?

Bruce, I still think your theories about the relationship between strength work and endurance are controversial.
 

Hawko

Geoff Shaw (53)
Bruce, I still think your theories about the relationship between strength work and endurance are controversial.

Every time we lose the second half, particularly when it is the pigs who are tiring most, the theory is becoming less and less controversial. Add to that Bruce's connection to Sydney Uni, who seem to be very well conditioned vis-a-vis the other Shute teams and I think its time that more attention was paid to his theories and some deep investigation of overseas trends in similar sports be undertaken. We have got to start winning games after 80 minutes! Send the conditioning coach on a month's world tour to the best sports trainers and get the research right. Then change the program to suit.
 

Lindommer

Steve Williams (59)
Send the conditioning coach on a month's world tour to the best sports trainers and get the research right. Then change the program to suit.

The core strength and fitness for a rugby season is achieved in preseason sessions at the gym and on the training paddock. I'd suggest the Super strength and conditioning coaches have let their Wallabies down; THEY should be the ones sent on a month's world tour (about now) to see what's done elsewhere.
 

fatprop

Jason Little (69)
Staff member
Not my key area of expertise (exercise) but the Aus side is attempting to play a higher tempo "new style" game these days .

The terms to describe the team we are trying to emulate (the ABs) are "accurate" and "everyone knows their role" and "decision making".

Until some of that gets really embedded you can end up expending a lot energy ineffectively and look like the proverbial "chook with it's head cut off".

I don't see that high level of effectiveness yet from Aus so my guess is that we are expending more energy than the Kiwis just getting around
 

Bruce Ross

Ken Catchpole (46)
Thanks for the comments. Let's deal with a few issues:

Surely an increased focus on strength would impact negatively on fitness though. I wouldn't have thought being able to bench more would help you play the full 80. In fact I would think exactly the opposite.

Firstly, I find it hard to think of a major exercise which has less specificity for rugby than the bench press. On the more interesting issue of whether "an increased focus on strength would impact negatively on fitness", my thinking was fundamentally influenced five years ago by a post made by a South African mate of mine, Nick Tatalias, on the old IRB Forums site.

Nick suggested that when conditioning coaches observe some of their forwards standing with hands on knees trying to catch their breath, they conclude that the players need more aerobic type conditioning. He maintained that this "further exacerbates the problem. When in truth the issue is that greater levels of strength are needed, better anaerobic conditioning and lastly sprint endurance."

Tatalias's view was that the players are tired because they have to recruit a relatively high percentage of their muscular strength in each encounter. He contrasted a forward who can squat 120kg with another whose squat is 200kg. The first player may have to use all his strength to push the opposition while the other might be using only 60% of his strength.

"The player with strength reserve will be stronger at the end of the game and still have energy to exert on physically over powering the opposition as well as energy to marshal troops maintain discipline and minimise mental errors."

The crude analogy I have used since is that heavy strength training of the appropriate type is like equipping the player with a V8 motor.

Every time we lose the second half, particularly when it is the pigs who are tiring most, the theory is becoming less and less controversial. Add to that Bruce's connection to Sydney Uni, who seem to be very well conditioned vis-a-vis the other Shute teams and I think its time that more attention was paid to his theories and some deep investigation of overseas trends in similar sports be undertaken. We have got to start winning games after 80 minutes! Send the conditioning coach on a month's world tour to the best sports trainers and get the research right. Then change the program to suit.

Thanks, Hawko, but rather than send "the conditioning coach on a month's world tour to the best sports trainers" perhaps the conditioning coach should look in his own back yard. The work that Martin Harland and Tim Leahy have been doing at Sydney Uni in recent years is cutting edge.

The Uni players do virtually no conditioning work in or out of season. They train 11 months of the year with the focus on max strength and speed work. The conditioners pay little attention to players' body weight but closely monitor skinfolds. As a result the Uni First Grade team are lean but have an average bodyweight equal to or greater than that of the Wallabies. They are also noted for finishing over the top of their opponents in the last 20 minutes of the game.

There is no link between max effort strength training and aerobic capacity that I am aware of - and it is aerobic capacity/their conditioning to deal with lactic acid etc that is slowing the Wobs down late. Max effort training involves large weights, low reps and long rest periods - there is no translation to late-game fitness that I can see coming from that.

...

Strongman training: Use of exercises such as sled drags, tire flipping, sledgehammer work, sandbag work etc could benefit the Wallabies hugely as it almost always involves full body movement, a combination of maximal effort and endurance (meaning that the lactic acid system will likely be worked) and the fact that the weights are irregular in shape/move unpredictably mean this would be easily applicable to rugby and very successful.

... I cannot see the Wallabies actually IMPROVING their max strength during the season given the strenuousness of it - their fatigue would preclude it. However, their conditioning could be improved in this time.

From my comments above it should be obvious that I disagree with your first paragraph, WB3.

With regard to strongman training, this has been very extensively used in rugby by Ashley Jones, the legendary conditioner at the Crusaders where of course Robbie Deans gained his reputation. Strongman training is also being increasingly used at Sydney University.

As for your last paragraph, you are probably right in querying whether the Wallabies could actually increase "their max strength during the season given the strenuousness of it - their fatigue would preclude it." But in my opinion that would be a consequence of the sheer volume of training they are expected to get through, a similar situation to what I understand applies at the Australian Super franchises. But that doesn't have to be the case. In 2008 at Sydney Uni, Jerry Yanuyanutawa did a 300kg box squat two weeks before the Sydney Premiership Grand Final, then did 6 reps with 260kg in the week after the Grand Final. The next year Daniel Halangahu was back training at Uni in the lead up to the Grand Final and did a PB squat in the week before it.

Thank you, Scarfman, for drawing attention to the Richard Graham quote. It says it all. I might adopt it for my signature.
 

The_Brown_Hornet

Nick Farr-Jones (63)
Bruce, that is very useful stuff and a complete eye opener to me. Uni are a scary team because they just keep coming for the full 80 and frequently look fresh when the other teams are blowing hard.

Given that they are using state of the art methods (and probably have access to a very good sports science department), it would a good idea, I think, for Messrs Deans, Graham and Williams to go and have a chat to them.
 

Groucho

Greg Davis (50)
Every time we lose the second half, particularly when it is the pigs who are tiring most, the theory is becoming less and less controversial. Add to that Bruce's connection to Sydney Uni, who seem to be very well conditioned vis-a-vis the other Shute teams and I think its time that more attention was paid to his theories and some deep investigation of overseas trends in similar sports be undertaken. We have got to start winning games after 80 minutes! Send the conditioning coach on a month's world tour to the best sports trainers and get the research right. Then change the program to suit.

I definitely agree the player conditioning is wrong in some way, and Bruce's main point is well made.

Personally, my suspicions are drawn towards the S14 coaches.
 
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