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Functional Strength Training For the Sport of Rugby
It’s almost the end of the annual Tri Nations series and the Springboks (South Africa) are on course to win the series. The Tri Nations sees the world’s rugby heavyweights clash in a series of test matches. In the past decade, Rugby Union was dominated by three southern hemisphere heavyweights – Australia (Wallabbies), South Africa (Springboks) and New Zealand (All Blacks), until England’s deserved victory in 2003. to Jonny Wilkinson. This year’s Tri Nations saw New Zealand retain the Bledisloe cup (the coveted cup between Australia and New Zealand), but the series victory itself is likely to be in the hands of the Springboks.
Rugby Union is a full contact physical game. In most cases, pads are not used at all, and only in recent years have we seen the use of mouthguards. Head pads are becoming increasingly popular as rugby players have a reputation for owning a pair of “cauliflower ears” (a term used to describe repaired ears after surgeons have done some work on them). The fact that players tend to decorate their shoes with metal studs also adds to the character of the game. If you try to lunge at the player from behind while chasing, it often tends to put the player at risk of a tooth hitting metal.
The game is about possession and territory. The ball must never be lost to the opposing team and you work hard to gain territory as you advance. The strategies used are very similar to fighting moves. The advances are physical and brutal. They involve using brute force to break through the enemy team’s defenses without grounding them. “Grounding” is dealt with and often involves being thrown to the floor. It is no surprise that most levels of rugby require the presence of medics.
Physical warfare as the nature of the game means that players must prepare to fight and become warriors. This is part and parcel of what made Jonah Lomu and David Campese such testing machines in the past. England players vividly remember the time Jonah tore through defenses before scoring five tries against them in the 1995 World Cup. While Campo (David Campese) probably spends most of his time in his rugby shop at the Rocks in Sydney dreaming of the days when he burst through the All Black defence.
Just as strength training was essential for gladiators in the days of ancient Rome, strength training is critical in this full contact physical sport. A look at the South African team in the 2009 Tri Nations reveals how a strong team can fight their way to victory. The Springbok forwards were unstoppable. There the defense is impenetrable. There they attack — in tsunami waves.
Traditional strength training in rugby revolved around keeping players’ legs strong and strong. This meant hours of training on squat and hack squat machines. The aim was to build leg strength for the players as this would be key when plowing forward on the pitch; especially in the scrum and mauls. However, the world of strength training itself has changed dramatically, and functional strength training is now critical to mastering the game. A look at Jerry Collins’ arms makes it very clear that he doesn’t necessarily squat in the gym!
Functional strength training is what separates the average rugby player from the warrior.
Functional strength training addresses every single movement used in the game of rugby and strength training for it. For example, players there need to build strength to deal with scrums (various positions), mauls, charging, tackling, passing, lineouts and explosive bursts of energy. Functional strength training includes every aspect of the game and breaks it down into manageable units; eg line out — Players need to build strong shoulders/delts as well as strong quads and hamstrings to pull off this move. This movement can be strengthened with exercises such as Barbell Thrusters. Dealing opponents involves the use of triceps, shoulders, chest and back muscles. These individual muscle groups need to be strengthened.
Traditional rugby training routines have involved focusing only on the legs and other non-targeted routines that have seriously shortchanged players who are essentially going to war. Military personnel are becoming aware of these changes and train there soldiers in preparation for different combat situations, eg strength training for urban combat is different from jungle combat. You can no longer just be physically fit, but one must be functionally strong and fit. For example, urban combat requires soldiers to be able to lift rubble and chunks of concrete, climb stairs with heavy equipment on their backs, pull themselves up walls, etc.
Functional strength training for Rugby includes targeted strategic attacks on muscle groups and provides a decisive action plan to strengthen the functional elements of the game.
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