Six Nations 2015: Survival of the fittest

Size is the bottom line in rugby and the key to optimising physical power is getting access to players when they are young, writes Gavin Cummiskey

 

“Two hours each morning, two hours each evening, ‘three on, one off, double splits’. The gym was the one place I had control. I didn’t have to speak, I didn’t have to listen. I just had to push or pull. It was so much simpler, so much more satisfying than life outside. I regulated everything, from the number of exercises I performed each workout to the amount of weight I used for each exercise; from the number of reps per set to the number of sets per body part. It beat the street. It beat my girlfriend. It beat my family. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to care. I didn’t have to feel. I simply had to lift.”– Muscle - Confessions of an unlikely body builder, by Samuel Wilson Fussell Maybe it’s as simple as knowing when to avoid a fight with someone or something you can’t beat.

Like, say, the Springboks rolling maul.

On the eve of the November internationals, Paul O’Connell was asked about the enforcer role so lionised by South Africans. The Bakkies-Botha-now-Eben-Etzebeth man monster who seeks confrontation in order to let the opposition know that rugby, at its base level, is Darwinism in motion.

“It’s a physical contact game and you can’t let teams maul you,” said Ireland’s captain.

Smartness “There is no doubt having big athletic men helps you be successful in rugby. A big part of Joe [

Schmidt]’s work with Jason Cowman is trying to bring on that part of the Irish squad’s profile. We have some great athletes but we could be bigger as well, we could be more physical. If we can add that to the smartness we show, the good kicking game we showed in the past with our provinces and with Ireland, we have the potential to be an excellent rugby team.”

Survival of the fittest can also pertain to survival of the most cunning.

Sure enough, when Victor Matfield cranked the feared lineout maul into gear, Ireland disappeared.

A battle cannot exist without two armies. Nor can a maul come into being without resistant force. The Irish forwards fanned out as Jack McGrath was chosen to sprint around and grab the man in possession, Marcell Coetzee, prompting the flanker to fling the ball at scrumhalf Francois Hougaard. Devin Toner got hold of Hougaard, then Peter O’Mahony and O’Connell did some enforcing of their own as the heavies had to retreat before dealing with such guerrilla tactics.

Romain Poite awarded Ireland the scrum, ignoring Matfield’s glare.

England performed a similar trick on South Africa a week later. They evolved. The Boks understand natural selection. They will not forget.

And anyway, this is rugby so size will always matter.

Take Cian Healy, who in 2005 entered the Leinster academy as a 98 kilogram teenager.

Now he’s a 117-kilogram propping machine. The science of strength and conditioning has evolved massively in the intervening period, with Leinster’s main problem being access to their feeder schools.

 

Head of fitness

“Cian should have been coming in at 105, 106 kilos and then you are putting on five, six kilos over two or three years,” said Dan Tobin, who became Leinster’s head of fitness when Cowman took the Ireland equivalent just before Schmidt became coach.

 

“It has been a real education for us since we started doing DXA [dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry] scans which gives us a lean mass figure, fat mass figure and total mass.

“Last year was first time with did it with our academy players. It is quite expensive – €60-70 a scan – but we needed to get this to the academy level as it is their biggest growth period. Going off body weight, you don’t know if it is fat or lean mass they are putting on.”

Subsequent results show that a player at any stage of his career can be transformed into a more efficient athlete.

“Last season Shane Jennings put on five kilos of lean mass in pre-season,” Tobin explained. “That’s a 33-year-old guy putting on lean mass towards the tail end of his career because his habits are spot on.

“What you want to get is that Shane Jennings profile – what he eats throughout a day – and implant it in an 18-year-old.”

Ideally the provincial strength and conditioning department would be permitted greater access to the schools system. Were that to happen, Tobin has no doubt they could grow a sporting academy comparable to the greatest in world sport.

“Between the ages of 18 to our retiring 35-year-olds we are happy with our structures, but to make things better we have to dig deeper.”

To quote Blackrock head coach Peter Smyth, an “S and C revolution has taken place” these past 10 years.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Tobin continued. “Some schools are very good, some are open, some of them are a closed door, not qualified and you really don’t know what’s going on there.”

 

Needs of the school

“Over the last two years we have targeted the 10-12 schools where we get 90 per cent of our players. Half of them engage and want to be part of the process. The other half are not really concerned with what our needs are, they are only concerned with the needs of the school.

 

“Yes, it is going to benefit us but it is also going to benefit them. It’s so when [players] come into Leinster at 18 years old the best way of doing things is not completely different.

“In an ideal world, the schools system is our academy. Okay, we have an academy from 18 to 22, but if it was a soccer set-up here we would have an unbelievable academy, which is the schools system. We just don’t have the influence that we would like over it.”

Lines of communication exist with the top three schools – Blackrock, St Michael’s and Clongowes – as former players go back in to coach/advise but there’s concern elsewhere.

“We could potentially lose a few players from poor programming at a young age. He might not hit his potential in terms of what he can physically do but there might also be harm done in the meantime so he misses six to nine months as he has to get surgery. I’m not saying [schools] are causing players to get surgery but an ACL or a shoulder injury might be prevented by good programming.

“You get five or six guys a year in the academy who need to have major surgery, who lose six months of development and for some that’s made the difference between putting their hand up and not.

“It’s a slower job of trying to influence people, build relationships, which we are doing.”

Leinster are already learning from soccer clubs in England that recruit pre-teens. Phil Greenwood, the sub academy strength and conditioning coach, previously worked with Blackburn Rovers, while Jerry Flannery, the Munster scrum coach, spent time with Arsenal.

“If you look at the international players produced by Leinster, it’s phenomenal,” said Tobin. “It’s not because Leinster is unbelievable, it’s because the pool of players we have in the schools system is so good.

“It is just about maximising that. One thing we would be trying to get in place would be an incentive scheme for schools to have a buy-in with us. So, in the Premier League you get graded. If your academy is the top grade you get more finance so there are incentives there.”

 

More aligned

Instead of finance, Leinster would offer free technical coaching and conditioning programmes “so it is a little bit more aligned to the professional set-up”.

 

Tobin – who worked with the Dublin footballers before joining the Leinster academy in 2006 – has seen the revolution, the evolution, from Munster breakthrough to Leinster dominance to the current reaction of enormous French and English opponents.

“There are physical advantages to being leaner,” he continued. “We are fitter than most teams. More explosive. Yeah, we are smaller but we can be smarter than them. That’s the way we always have to be. You lose collisions because you are not mentally in the right place.

 

Our advantage

“We have beaten Clermont more times than we have not and they are a physically bigger side, but we tackle really hard against them. We know we are fitter than those teams. For a four-minute passage of play we know we can manage that better than most teams. That’s our game. That’s our advantage.”

 

The problem is the others are also evolving. Victor Costello knows all about what’s coming next. One of the rare naturally huge specimens produced by Ireland, Costello may be 10 years out of the game but he remembers the elitism of the enemy.

“You think the Australians and South Africans look at us and go ‘Ah, fair play to Ireland getting up to third in the world. They deserve it.’

“No. They will be coming for us any way they can.”

Survival of the fittest it is then.

Pick up your free Six Nations 2015 magazine with Wednesday’s Irish Times

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