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Rugby Union is a high contact, dynamic sport in which athletes require a combination of strength, power, speed, agility, endurance and sport-specific attributes (1). Rugby Union is one of the most popular team sports and is played all over the world. It became a professional sport in 1995. With more money at stake in the modern game, at elite level, a great deal of research has been carried out investigating improving the fitness of players in order to gain an advantage over the opposition.
A game of rugby consists of two halves of 40 minutes, with a maximum of 10 minutes break at half time. Two teams contest play, each with 15 players on the field at once, except when a player is dismissed for misconduct. Rugby Union players have a wide range of physical characteristics, which directs them to certain positions.
There are, generally, two positions; forwards and backs. Forwards are typically heavier, taller and have a greater proportion of body fat than backs (8). The forwards demonstrate superior absolute aerobic and anaerobic power and muscular strength (8). The total work over the duration of the game is less in the backs compared with the forwards and forwards spend greater time in physical contact, while the backs spend more time in free running, allowing them to cover greater distances. (17) showed that the average distances covered by elite level English players was 5408m and 5812m for the tight and loose forwards, whilst the inside backs covered 6055m and the outside backs 6190m respectively.
The players are numbered in terms of position, i.e. forward and backs and this depends on the physical characteristics. This assignment will look at an ‘outside back’ or in layman’s terms a winger. Wingers require considerable speed to out-manoeuver their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
Physical Requirements of Elite Level Rugby Union Players
As outlined, rugby is generally split into two positional areas; forwards and backs and they differ significantly in terms of physical characteristics. (15) shows that, in terms of anthropometric characteristics, forwards are generally taller, possess greater body mass, and are more endomorphic and less ectomorphic than backs. The backs tend to perform better on physical performance measures than forwards, being more aerobically fit, faster and more agile whilst possessing a higher degree of muscular endurance.
With regard to positional physiological demand, there are greater demands placed upon different positions when compared to others. According to (8), the front row has the greatest strength and power demands as it is their job to gain possession and they are continuously in contact with the opposition and have limited chance to run with the ball. Therefore, they are usually less mobile. The locks are generally tall, with a large body mass and power, they are known as the second row. The loose forwards require strength and power as their purpose is to gain and retain possession of the ball. It is a prerequisite of the loose forwards to be powerful and mobile in open play, have excellent speed, acceleration and endurance (8). The halfbacks usually need an excellent level of endurance as they receive the ball from the forwards and control possession. Speed is also an important factor for the halfbacks as they need to out manoeuvre the opposition and accelerate away from the approaching defenders. Furthermore, midfield backs require strength, speed and power as they have a high frequency of contact with the opposition. Outside backs require considerable speed to out manoeuvre their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
As stated, physiological demands vary with positional demands. However, it would be safe to assume that all players need a significant degree of strength, power, speed and endurance to compete at the highest level. High levels of strength and power appear to be important for successful participation in elite levels of rugby league (2). According to (19) strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force and has been previously shown to be crucial in rugby. As outlined earlier, all positions require an excellent amount of strength, particularly in the scrums. Studies have shown that the forwards need greater strength than the backs, while backs require a greater degree of speed (8). (16) showed that heavy body contact could result from one on one tackling, scrums (scrimmaging), rucks and mauls, as well as attacking runs. Therefore, power can be considered essential for all positions within the game of rugby union. Power is the product of force and velocity. Moreover, if strength is force, power can therefore be described as the ability to produce force at a high velocity. Power is considered a significant component as it is as it is required in rugby by the forwards to push the opposition back and by the backs to accelerate from the opposition. According to (19) power is the most important characteristic to develop for most sports. In its simplest form power is work. In most cases the athlete that gets the work done first wins (19). In addition, acceleration and speed are essential requirements, as players are often required to accelerate to make a position nearby or sprint over an extended distance (8). From the evidence shown, strength, power and speed are the main components required by rugby union players and therefore, it is most suitable to have a high strength/power training programme to develop this.
In rugby union, players accelerate over short distances or accelerate and sprint to make position (9). This form of sprinting is not usually performed in a straight line and can include ball carriage, change of direction and the avoidance of a tackle. As stated, rugby union backs have superior sprinting ability compared to forwards (8). In an elite rugby union match, backs have a greater amount of space to run into and therefore achieve greater speeds when compared to forwards. (7) found that outside backs engaged in more sprints than front row forwards and spent significantly more time sprinting and that maximal sprint time was also significantly longer. Furthermore, backs also spend two to three times more time in high-intensity running than forwards and may be required to perform up to 20 sprints in one match (7). Therefore, the ability to perform repeated bouts of maximal sprints may be beneficial in performance enhancement of the backs and repeated sprint sessions should be implemented. In addition, it has been suggested by (9) that forwards perform 41% of sprints from a standing start, while backs performed more from a striding start. This is of paramount importance when incorporating speed into a training programme, as previous research has shown that sport specific speed is based upon the positional demands of the sport. Therefore, it may be more beneficial for forwards to emphasise speed work from a standing start, while backs should focus on ‘flying starts’. Sprinting should be a greater focus for backs as they spend more time sprinting than forwards.
Periodised strength training as defined by (10) is varying the training programme at regular time intervals in an attempt to bring about optimal gains in strength, power, motor performance, and/or muscle hypertrophy.
According to the NSCA Position stand, resistance programs for athletic performance should be periodised in order to optimise the adaptations over long-term training and also help reduce the potential of the athlete entering the overtraining phase. It is well accepted that in order to maximize the benefits of resistance training, periodisation is superior to other training methods for the development of strength and power sports (10). It is shown that in order to have the maximal benefits of resistance training, periodisation is better that non-periodisation for the development of strength and power sports. In addition other studies such as (18) and (20) showed that utilising periodised training methods have also demonstrated superior results when compared to lower volume protocols. Furthermore (13) showed that short and long term adaptations in strength, power and muscle endurance are greater with a periodised multiple set training program.
To develop power, it is suggested that the following cycle may be beneficial.
Strength Endurance-Strength-Power and Speed.
The Strength endurance phase is where the sport specific fitness is developed. The primary goal of this stage is to increase lean body mass and endurance base. This phase focuses on high volume exercise, at a relatively reduced intensity as not to induce overtraining.
Hypertrophy is the term we use to define muscle enlargement or muscle growth and is critical in collision sports where high contact occurs. This enlargement is valuable to athletes involved in sports that require strength and power, such as rugby union (3).
As discussed, strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force (19). Strength development should be a critical component for any athlete committed to improving performance and, therefore, it is important to develop an excellent strength base before speed and power training commences. (4) suggested that maximal strength is achieved by 3-5 sets, 1-5 repetitions at 90-100% of 1RM with rests between 2-5 minutes. In addition, (5) suggests that maximal strength can be converted to power in a relatively short time.
Therefore, upon conclusion of the strength phase, training shifts to a power phase in order to prepare the athlete for competition as the strength base is already established. As previously stated, power is essential in rugby as it is essential to drive opponents back. Power development comprises producing a large force at a high rate of speed, and can be divided into two areas of movement. Firstly, speed strength is where importance is on speed of movement against a relatively small resistance. A key example of this is in plyometric training i.e. bounding or counter movement jumps (CMJ). Secondly, Olympic lifts such as the power clean are also primary exercises used in power development. The power clean is a dynamic lift designed to increase power production (11). This is typically a fundamental exercise in high performance strength and conditioning environment such as elite rugby. (12) states that Olympic lifts are the most commonly recommended exercises in power and speed programs. Furthermore, athletes trained in Olympic style lifting techniques have an extremely high capacity to develop power, which is necessary for success in sport. The power phase is, thus, designed to optimise the gains in strength the athlete has made during the maximal strength phase.
The importance of strength and power in high intensity collision sports such as rugby union is paramount for athletes performing at the elite level. Therefore, resistance training plays a fundamental role in athletic development and is necessary for the demands of the game. From the literature presented, elite rugby players encompass various exceptional fitness requirements. However it is evident that strength, speed and power are the main components in the game of rugby and a periodised training programme designed to enhance these components, significantly, will enable the athletes to have a greater chance of success in the major competitions. It is also essential that the training stimulus is positional specific and should be varied throughout the periodised programme to consistently improve adaptation and to induce significant gains in the physiological components that are required by elite rugby union players.
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David Meechan MRes PSG ASCC is currently a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute and was previously a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Scottish Institute of Sport. He holds a Masters of Research in Exercise Science & is an accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach with the UKSCA and ASCA Pro structure. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to get better at a particular skill or movement, it makes 100% sense that you would to perform that skill over and over until you become better. You may begin slowly and even walk through a particular pattern over and over again, but if you are persistent and continue to work through things, you will get better.
This is a simplistic view point of motor learning but also how an athlete learns a particular skill, weather it be a an exercise (strength, speed, power, mobility, etc) or life skill (staying positive, not showing bad body language, being a great teammate, encouraging, etc.). The key to how much an athlete progresses in these tasks is how often the skill or behavior is repeated. These reps must be done on a daily basis if the skill or behavior is to be improved. These skills and behaviors need to be performed with focus, intensity and a great amount of effort if they are to be displayed all the time (HABIT).
I like to think and talk in principles and often find that those who understand principles are able to apply these principles to anything. This principle is very simple but often forgot when looking to improve athletes and ultimately people. If you want to get stronger in a particular movement, then it makes sense to perform that movement daily. Notice I didn’t say to load it daily, but you can perform the movement everyday, sometimes even multiple times a day depending upon what you do.
If you want to improve somebody’s deep squat pattern, then perform it daily; choose exercises designed to improve the mobility in the hips and ankles and demand excellence when performing these movements. If you want your teams to have great energy and enthusiasm when they train and to always work hard no matter what is asked of them then that needs to be demanded on a daily basis. It all comes down to reps and you as the coach must figure out how to implement and program “reps” into your program and culture.