Con­tact train­ing should be­come a thing of the past to pro­tect play­ers

With play­ing sched­ules get­ting harder to manage, rugby must find ways to re­duce threat of in­juries

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Rugby Union - Daniel Schofield Deputy Rugby Union Correspond­ent

In the 2003/04 sea­son when he was cut­ting his teeth as a coach in New Zealand, Chris Boyd was in­vited to ob­serve a train­ing ses­sion at Le­ices­ter. What he wit­nessed will stay with him for a long time.

“It was a con­tact ses­sion which ended in a punch-up and five guys be­ing stitched up af­ter­wards,” said Boyd, now the Northamp­ton di­rec­tor of rugby. “I said to the trainer, ‘What on earth has hap­pened there?’ and he said, ‘This is just a nor­mal Tues­day’.”

It is safe to say that the sights and sounds of a typ­i­cal Premier­ship train­ing ses­sion have changed since then. With so many short turn­arounds, many clubs are for­go­ing full con­tact train­ing in place of walk-throughs. As in many other ar­eas of life, the ques­tion is whether the tem­po­rary dis­rup­tion cre­ated by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic will be­come the new nor­mal.

If rugby’s au­thor­i­ties were se­ri­ous about player wel­fare they would cut the num­ber of games. But in a time of fi­nan­cial cri­sis, not one stake­holder can bring them­selves to re­duce their share of the pie. So if you can­not re­duce the play­ers’ match-load, the next best thing is to re­duce the train­ing load.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with The Daily Tele­graph, for­mer Eng­land cap­tain Dy­lan Hart­ley de­tailed the dev­as­tat­ing col­lec­tive toll that in­juries have had on his body. He has to de­scend the stairs side­ways, he can­not play “heads, shoul­ders, knees and toes” with his daugh­ter and, most wor­ry­ingly given his his­tory of con­cus­sions, he mud­dles his words oc­ca­sion­ally.

No shrink­ing vi­o­let in any sense, Hart­ley be­lieves end­ing con­tact train­ing is a prac­ti­cal step to ex­tend­ing ca­reers. “You’re still re­cov­er­ing from a game so full con­tact train­ing doesn’t need to ex­ist,” Hart­ley told the Guardian. “But most coaches seem to love it. I’m just telling it how I ex­pe­ri­enced it.”

This week I put Hart­ley’s sug­ges­tion to sev­eral Premier­ship coaches. While none pro­fessed to “lov­ing it”, most see con­tact as a nec­es­sary evil. At Northamp­ton, Hart­ley’s for­mer club, the amount of full con­tact train­ing ranges from 90 sec­onds to three min­utes a week. Boyd knows at other clubs it is “re­lent­less” but can­not en­vis­age a sce­nario in which it is elim­i­nated.

“In that red-zone train­ing it is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to repli­cate that with­out full con­tact,” Boyd said. “You can limit the space, which means the chance of the ve­loc­ity comes down. Un­less ev­ery­one is on the same page around the level of phys­i­cal­ity, it is re­ally dif­fi­cult.

“Like all sports around the world, play­ers are get­ting big­ger, faster, stronger and more pow­er­ful. There­fore the col­li­sions and im­pacts are get­ting big­ger. You can’t not try to pre­pare them for that. That’s the re­ally dif­fi­cult thing in get­ting the bal­ance right be­tween what you need in prepa­ra­tion and keep­ing them fresh.”

That ar­gu­ment is sup­ported by Bris­tol di­rec­tor of rugby Pat Lam. “If you want to be a boxer you can’t just go out and say I am go­ing to box with­out do­ing any train­ing,” Lam said. “You have to do your spar­ring.” The dif­fer­ence in Lam’s anal­ogy is that box­ers tend to have sev­eral weeks, if not months, be­tween bouts.

A bet­ter com­par­i­son can be drawn with the NFL, which came to an agree­ment in 2011 to limit teams to 14 con­tact ses­sions – or padded prac­tices – over a 16-week sea­son, 11 of which must be held in the first 11 weeks. In Canada they have elim­i­nated padded prac­tice al­to­gether.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple is at Sale, where di­rec­tor of rugby Steve Di­a­mond claims they con­sis­tently have the fewest in­juries in the league be­cause they do less train­ing than their ri­vals. “I hon­estly can’t re­mem­ber the last in­jury we got in train­ing,” he said.

This week, in prepa­ra­tion for their trip to Le­ices­ter on Satur­day, the squad will do two 45-minute ses­sions with an ex­tra 40-minute ses­sion for the for­wards. “It’s been the case for the last 10 years – that the teams that look af­ter the play­ers best in their daily train­ing regimes get the most out of them,” Di­a­mond said.

It is im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify some of Di­a­mond’s claims, but the di­rec­tion of travel in which rugby needs to head is clear. If it will not re­duce the num­ber of games clut­ter­ing the cal­en­dar then lim­it­ing, if not elim­i­nat­ing, con­tact train­ing is the next best step.

Bat­tle scarred: Dy­lan Hart­ley says ca­reers would be longer with­out con­tact train­ing

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