drawings of muscles and exercise apparatus

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Building bigger and stronger rugby players - the Sydney University experiment

It is widely acknowledged that the average bodyweight of rugby players has increased considerably over recent years. Less recognised is the extent to which modern defensive alignments and strategies have transformed rugby matches into contests of attrition where bigger and stronger teams tend to wear down their smaller and physically weaker opponents over the course of a game. Perhaps the most notable change has been the increased importance of physical dominance in the backline.

Responding to this, Sydney University's rugby club has been able to demonstrate that with the right combination of coach and infrastructure, it is possible to fast track the physical development of players outside a professional playing environment. In fact within a couple of seasons these players are able to achieve a body mass comparable to that of seasoned professionals together with a solid foundation of basic strength.

In late May, Sydney University announced its team for the first round of the Tooheys New Cup, the premier competition in Sydney club rugby. All of the fifteen players are past or current students who had been developed through the Club's Colts and lower grade teams. None of them are paid to play for the Club, although the eleven who are still students receive modest scholarship assistance. Only three of the players are on professional contracts.

It is instructive to compare their bodyweight and age profiles with those of squads from four major rugby countries:

TeamAverage Weight (kg)Average Age
Wallabies - 2006 Squad102.626.1
All Blacks - 2006 Squad102.925.5
Springboks - 2006 Squad102.226.8
England - 2006 6 Nations Squad101.227.2
Sydney University - 2006 Tooheys New Cup Team100.522.5

Comparative Bodyweight and Age Profiles

It can be seen that the part-time, unpaid Sydney University players, though three to five years younger, weigh only a couple of kilograms less than the world's best players. This is quite extraordinary as normally a much greater weight disparity would be expected.

For the past three years Sydney University Football Club has been operating an Elite Development Squad (EDS) program for its top grade and colts players. Utilising one of the best equipped gymnasiums in Australian rugby, players train for eleven months of the year and undertake four weights sessions per week off-season and a lesser number while playing.

The program's strength and conditioning components have been devised and administered by Martin Harland, a sports scientist who has previously worked with professional rugby league, Australian football and basketball teams. His programs for rugby players place a high degree of emphasis on basic strength development and rugby-specific fitness. A distinguishing feature of his approach is a concentration on heavy lower body work through exercises such as squats, deadlifts and cleans. In addition, both backs and forwards make intensive use of the MyoQuip ScrumTruk, a rugby-specific apparatus that targets the large mass leg extensor muscles, specifically the gluteal and quadriceps groups. Hypertrophy or increased muscle mass is a natural and not unintended by-product of such training.

Exposing backline players to basic strength training

Another distinctive feature of Martin Harland's rugby training regimen is his requirement that backs undertake the same rigorous basic strength routines as forwards. Many strength and conditioning coaches reserve the heavy "grunt" work for forwards, or even restrict it to the tight five.

Exposing backs to very serious weight training has produced a quite extraordinary outcome at Sydney University, as evidenced by the following table comparing body weights of forwards and backs for the Wallabies, the four Australian Super 14 franchises and Sydney University:

Squad/Team (2006) Av Weight (kg) - ForwardsAv Weight (kg) - BacksDifference
Wallabies - Squad111.191.819.3
ACT Brumbies - Squad110.390.919.4
NSW Waratahs - Squad110.892.818.0
Queensland Reds - Squad109.792.417.3
Western Force - Squad109.192.916.2
Sydney University - Team105.395.110.2

Comparative Bodyweight of Forwards and Backs

Not surprisingly, the University's young forwards are outweighed by each of the five professional squads. However, in the backs the situation is reversed. The University players outweigh the national and provincial squads by between 2.2 and 4.2 kg per man.

If we look at the column showing the difference in bodyweight between backs and forwards it can be seen that for Sydney University it averages 10.2 kg, against 16.2 to 19.4 kg for Australia's professional squads, a very substantial difference.

The Sydney University experiment seems to be providing clear evidence that the bodyweight of rugby backs can be dramatically increased through serious weight training, but the question arises as to whether this has benefits in terms of playing performance.

One answer is that the other strength-oriented football code, American football, has traditionally used training methods similar to those of Martin Harland. All players, whether linemen or running backs, are required to do heavy gym work. Surely no one would seriously suggest that their quick players have inferior dynamic abilities to rugby players.

Another justification for building heavier backs with superior leg drive lies in the already mentioned importance of physical dominance in the rugby backline. With the modern emphasis on structure and coordination in defensive alignments, bigger and stronger backs are better able to continually repel opposition attacks and also over the course of a game are likely to create physical and mental fatigue in their counterparts.

Having achieved a strong foundation of basic strength and greater body mass, Martin Harland is then able to focus on speed and explosiveness in his players. It is clear that the Sydney University approach yields results on the playing field. 2005 was the Club's most successful year, winning the Sydney Club Championship, the First Grade Premiership and four lower grade Premierships.

Even more importantly, players who graduate from such a program are much better equipped to withstand the rigours of modern rugby.


Friday, June 09, 2006

Essentials of the Argentinian 'Bajada' rugby scrum

Argentinian teams are renowned for the effectiveness of their scrummaging and the central importance of the scrum to their game. From an early age, Argentinian forwards are schooled in the 'Bajada' or 'Bajadita,' a radically different scrum method invented in the late 'Sixties by the legendary Francisco Ocampo.

The most obvious characteristic of the Bajada is that second-rowers bind with their external arms around the prop's hip rather than between their legs. But, as explained by Springbok coach Jake White (SARugby.com), one defining characteristic of the method is that "all the power is directed into the hooker. In other words, they scrum along an imaginary arrow drawn pointing inwards from either side of the No 8, which means all the power is directed towards the hooker."

The other defining characteristic is the "Empuje Coordinado" or "Coordinated Push." "The scrumhalf gives a three part call after the "engage". On "pressure" all members of the pack tighten their binds and fill their lungs with air. On the call "one" everyone sinks; the legs at this point should be at 90 degrees. On "two" the pack comes straight forward while violently expelling the air from their lungs. A key note is that nobody moves their feet until forward momentum is established. If the first drive is insufficient the scrumhalf begins the call again and the opposing pack is usually caught off guard and pushed back." Rugby Union from the Virtual Library of Sport

A more detailed explanation of the Bajada was recently published in the World Rugby Forum. It was written by Sergio Espector, a Level 3 coach with Club San Patricio in Buenos Aires. Sergio played for 27 years with the Club and has coached for nearly 20 years. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his notes which I have reformatted - hopefully without too much distortion of his meaning:

Empuje Coordinado is the resultant of a lot of little details in the way that the props place their feet, the locks bind,and the flankers and the number-eight bind and push too. The eight players push at the same time and in three movements, put all the power to the center of the front row. But the most important thing is that here in Argentina we believe that the scrum is not just another way to put the ball in play.

To have a successful scrum with all eight forwards pushing in a coordinated way, the players' obligations are:

  • to respect individual techniques;

  • to respect group techniques;

  • to not initiate individual confrontations;

  • to stay in place before the opponent and focus on the task to be carried out; and

  • to undertake physical training appropriate to the demands of their position.

  • Individual skills

  • Backs to be straight

  • Heads lifted up

  • Hips lower than shoulders

  • Knees flexed to 90 degrees

  • All eight forwards must bind strongly and there must be no space between players

  • Feet placement must not change when the scrum is formed

  • All players must be able to see the ball at every moment in the scrum

  • Feet placement must be shoulder width

  • Correct body position

    Front row

  • Props bind strongly on the hooker below the armpits, and the hooker binds on the props in the same way

  • Hooker's feet in line

  • Props' internal foot in line with the hooker's feet, and external foot a little bit backward

  • Hooker determines the right distance between packs

  • At referee's signal to engage crouch and drive forward

  • Never enter diagonally or across the opponent

  • Heads should be in contact with the chest of the opponent

  • The push must be FORWARD

  • Second row

  • They bind on the other second-rower around their back

  • They bind on the prop with their external arm around prop's hip and strongly pull together the front row

  • Before engagement must have the knee of their internal leg resting on the ground

  • Internal foot a little bit backward

  • The shorter second-rower binds under the taller one

  • Heads below props' and hooker's buttocks

  • Back Row

  • Flankers bind on the second-rower below the other second-rower's arm

  • Flankers' external hands on ground

  • Number-eight binds around the second-rowers' hips

  • All must have feet in line

  • Flankers put shoulders below prop's buttocks

  • Number-eight puts head between the second-rowers' buttocks

  • Pack Technique

  • After referee's command: "Engage"

  • First command by the scrum half: "Pressure" - on this command the eight players must grip strongly with their arms and fill up lungs with air

  • Second command by the scrum half: "One" - at this time all eight players must flex their knees to 90 degrees

  • Third command by the scrum half: "Two" - the scrum half puts the ball into the scrum, or his opponent puts the ball in, and the players must expel the air in their lungs while pushing violently FORWARD, never up or down, nor to the side

  • With this all the force is transmitted to the hooker

  • Players must never move their feet off the ground until they overcome their opponents and have positive inertia - it is very important that the hooker respects this even though he has the ball under his feet

  • It is not necessary to hook the ball, but in my club we use hooking when the ball is put in by us, and all players push when the ball is put by the opponents

  • We spend a lot of time in training, developing individual and group skills to be able to scrum the way we like, because we think scrum is a strength that not only produces benefits to our forwards' minds, but equally produces collateral damage in our opponents. This is because in the first place their front-rowers and second-rowers lose energy to contribute to open play, and in modern rugby if you don't have 15 players playing all the time you are lost, and in the second place their back-rowers lose speed in defense, because they are busy pushing.