By Louise Ramsay
First the England players underwent ‘horrible’ training sessions under the tutelage of forwards coach Graham Rowntree in a bid to get them “as fit as they have ever been”, then things intensified at their training camp in Denver, where head coach Stuart Lancaster took things up a notch by introducing contact sessions.
The aim of the rigorous training is to enable the England rugby team to hit a target of around 40 minutes’ ball-in-play time - and beat New Zealand at their own game. As Rowntree told the Daily Telegraph: “We aspire to be a high ball-in-play side. There are teams around the world [notably New Zealand] who are leading those stats at the moment, how they are running in the game and keeping the ball alive, and we want to be the team leading it.”
Pool A rivals Wales are also hoping to hone their talents, with rigorous training sessions rolled out in searing heat and state-of-the-art facilities at their Qatar training camp.
Fitness is important in any sport, but given the numerous demands of the game, rugby players have to excel as all-round athletes. Not only do they require endurance, strength and speed, they also need to be able to handle constant collisions from repeatedly running into each other at high speed. So how is this achieved?
“In my view, one of the most important elements of rugby fitness, especially at the top level, is mental clarity and toughness,” Andrew Challis, worldwide brand manager at Gilbert Rugby, says.
“Of course, it’s difficult to achieve both these elements if the level of physical conditioning is not high enough and fatigue takes over. Pushing yourself in training into a place of physicality you’ve never experienced before might not be pleasant, but when you return from that dark place into the light the learning experience is invaluable.”
According to Challis, these are best developed by training at an intensity far higher than one usually expects to ensure a skill that can be performed in practice can be repeated with precision during matches.
“Rugby fitness has lots of elements in common with other sports, but few have the player-on-player physicality rugby exhibits,” he says. “Body hardness, developed by consistent contact/collision training is important, but it’s not just about the biggest
player dominating. With the right attitude and skill, any player can gain an advantage over another.
“Without doubt, the fitness regime the England squad are undergoing will benefit them in the Rugby World Cup. World Cup rugby is a series of matches, played abnormally close together, with each being a knockout match. One slip up and you’re out.
“The correct training holds the key. To my mind, the great 400m hurdler Edwin Moses summed it up when he said he competes for only 15 minutes a season, whereas he trains for months. Training is vitally important, the performance can look after itself.
“With the correct preparation, England have as good a chance as the other favoured nations. I don’t believe they have a home advantage, the other teams will be too prepared for that, but I fully expect England to fight it out to the end stages of the tournament and that’s when they will find out if their training has fully prepared them.”
Gilbert produces a number of rugby training aids, including agility poles and step training hurdles, but Challis is clear about what the most important piece of kit in terms of rugby fitness is: “It sounds simple, but the best aid for training is a Gilbert Rugby ball. Whatever level you’re at, it’s essential.
“The Gilbert range has a ball specifically designed to suit the age and ability of all players, encouraging coaches to have a ball per player and maximising the contact time between the player and the ball, which is the key to player development.”
Nutrition is also an important aspect of any rugby training regime. Kinetica Sports Nutrition sponsors Bath Rugby, so is well placed to comment on optimum training support.
“Nutrition plays a significant role in terms of strength and condition in preparation for performance and also for the match itself,” Paul Donegan, business manager at Kinetica Sports UK & Ireland, says. “As part of the strength and conditioning programme in the build-up phase to a key tournament, regular consumption of protein plays a key role in allowing players to recover from heavy sessions and maintaining muscle mass essential for rugby.
“Ideally, a player will be assigned a specific nutritional programme based around protein, carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals, which is dictated by weight, BMI and muscle mass. Key Kinetica products for this part of the programme include Whey Protein and Oat Gain, which is made with protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats designed to support lean muscle development. Essential 4, a vitamin and mineral tablet, also helps to promote athlete well-being and general health.
“For match day, maximising performance and recovery are key objectives. The focus is on ensuring players are mentally focused, therefore caffeine, fast digesting carbohydrates and amino acids are integral to nutritional programmes. These are taken prior to games or at half-time. Convenience is important, so easy-to-consume ready-to-drink proteins are ideal for post-match recovery.”