The vital importance of pre-season training

THE LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN
IRC FRIDAYS

European club rugby reached a pinnacle with the high standard of play across the various tournaments last season. The respective champions will be out to raise the bar and retain their titles; runners-up and underdogs are already hard at work too, with their focus on bringing glory to their own respective clubs.

Pre-season training and preparation are integral parts of the professional seasonal strategy on the whole. Long gone are the days some of our older readers who played rugby at school or varsity may remember – you know, those days when a bunch of guys got together, ran around the pitch 10 times, did a few push-ups, nominated a coach, put the big guys in the scrum and the fast ones at the back – and then played their first games a week later!

Coaching techniques and technology improve year on year, and being involved with my son James (Jimbo as you will know), who plays for Cardiff, I thought I’d give you a look into what happens behind the scenes in the weeks leading to the new season, which is now.

From the perspective of individual players in a specific squad, there will be individual objectives. The new, young players coming in from academies are thrust onto a bigger stage. Their first aims will be to settle in among the senior players and then, of course, to show the skills for which they have been brought to the club. This is never an easy task for youngsters among the tough, older players who have already been through the mill and are not intent on giving their established positions up to the incoming ‘pretenders’.

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Next, we have the so-called marquee signings – top players signed from other clubs with the purpose of strengthening their new line-ups, but up against established others who are not exactly keen on relinquishing positions or status within the squad.

Also in the mix are those who have the bit between their teeth with something to prove, like Jimbo, who should’ve made the Wales squad to South Africa but somehow didn’t. He (they) will have specific improvement goals, like weight gain, specific muscle training or improving identified skills where necessary.

Jimbo has already reached his first goal of picking up 5kg in muscle, he weighs in around 110kg which is ideal for his height and what is envisaged for him in a formidable Cardiff back row alongside the likes of Taulupe Felatau and Josh Navidi next season.

On a fitness level, players are pushed to the limit during pre-season training, which includes a variety of exercises like long runs, sprint-ups with weights sleds, rugby sprint circuits, interval training, rugby tempo exercises and old favourites likes hill running.

In my own playing days, I easily handled the hills but I hated rowing. My recovery time after a rowing session was longer than most, because it worked on parts of my body that needed extra work. Same today – the most hated exercises are the ones a sportsman’s body needs the most. Some really suffer to the point of throwing up, which is often chuckled at by fellow-players, but all in the spirit of team work and striving to attain joint goals.

Regular gym training is obviously a part of the routine, and we have individual programmes scientifically developed for every single player, unlike, of course, in the old days when players would lift the same weights or do the same number of repetitions as a group, and so on.

Individual diets are also carefully worked out for every player and what they eat links to their individual exercises. All players have different needs, different lengths and weights and serve different purposes in the team. A prop won’t be on the same diet and gym regime as a winger.

There are a variety of dietary supplements available, some very good ones and once again added to the culinary needs of every individual. I was asked about steroid use and well, we know it happens, but we also know that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is banned and that testing can take place at any time, even during pre-season. In my view the authorities should be testing even more.

When you put 35 or 40 players together in a new squad, and considering all of the above plus personality clashes and the obvious forming of groups of friends withing the larger group, one can see why top managers are in such high demand. Team building, man management and mental preparation are just as high on the scale of importance as physicall fitness and ball skills.

At Cardiff, coach Dai Young now has the squad he wants, he has been at the club for a year-and-a-half and, for Dai, it’s a question of “Excuses No More”. He has the talent at his disposal and his task now is to mould them into a coherent unit.

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This, at some clubs, may require a weekend away for all and even one big night out for bonding. With their strict regimes the players very seldom get a chance for a few beers and a social evening helps for bonding. I recall, when I was playing for Newcastle, we’d be taken to exercise with the SAS Marines, running and training together and having fitness contests – great bonding took place and there was mutual respect.

In this pre-season period, a club may also decide on developing a new playing style, an aspect which may become more important in the seasons ahead as squads of more or less equal strengths try to outwit each other.

Soon we’ll see some friendly pre-season games in which new strategies and combinations will be tested, weaknesses will be identified and team spirit will be worked on more than ever. The mutual goals are all that matter and stray sheep have to be nudged back to the herd.

I’m looking forward already to Cardiff’s pre-season outing against Gloucester. In the early matches the clubs often play across borders, Welsh clubs playing English clubs and so on. I still think we need a new prop and a hooker at Cardiff, we’ll see what happens in the pre-season games.

As you can see, then, being a pro rugby player is most definitely not all about running onto fields to loud applause and handing out autographs to admirers. These guys put their bodies on the line, more than in any other sport, and with perhaps only six weeks off in a year there is a strong argument for them getting paid far too little, compared to sportsmen – and women from other sports.

Until next time! – IRC.

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