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
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