28 January 2015


Daniel Gallan

In our latest interview, we chat to Stephan du Toit, head of strength and conditioning for the Stormers and Western Province rugby teams. Du Toit has been working with some of the best players in the game for over 11 years and so when he tells us how his holistic approach to conditioning is one to follow, we take him very seriously.

 Duane Vermeulen in action against the Chiefs last season. Vermeulen's all action, physical game embodies the demands of the modern rugby player.

Duane Vermeulen in action against the Chiefs last season. Vermeulen's all action, physical game embodies the demands of the modern rugby player.

Rugby players are as close to apex athletes as you can get. Fast, strong, explosive, powerful; these are the basic requirements every players needs to possess. Gone are the days when a front rower can merely prop up a scrum and not do any running. Modern day fullbacks and wingers are just as physical as flanks were in the early days of professionalism.

As a result of the ever changing game, the men and women who finely tune these athletic machines have become as important as the coaches who mastermind their teams’ tactics. Some might argue that those responsible for the players’ fitness are even more important. After all, you can’t build a house with broken bricks.

Alistair Coetzee, head coach of the Stormers, has recently said that come the start of the season, he doesn’t want his players to be merely medically fit. He wants them to be “really game fit, mentally fit - the whole package.” The man in charge of all that is Stephan du Toit, the head of strength and conditioning for the Western Cape franchise.

Du Toit has been with the men in blue and white hoops for 11 years and has adopted a holistic approach to the way he goes about his job of ensuring that all his players are fighting fit. We sat down with du Toit to ask him how the preseason is going, what his biggest challenges are when starting a new season, and what he would change in world rugby.

CONQA: What are the biggest challenges when starting a new season?

Stephan du Toit: The biggest challenge is that the season is still so far away and the players want to play. They have to be in the right mind-set. We do a bit of goal setting in terms of conditioning standards, running standards, strength standards. Some players are returning from medical assessments. Maybe some of them had surgery so they’ll be going through rehab and training so we plan for those guys. But ultimately we try and keep the preseason fitness regime as fun as possible.

CONQA: How do you make fitness fun?

SdT: Cape Town is beautiful and we try and utilise that. We go for runs up and down the stairs by Clifton beach. We play conditioning games at the beach and on the field. We sometimes teach the guys the techniques we want them to use when they get up off the ground but mimic that on a surfboard. It’s all goal orientated but we try keep it fun.

CONQA: A lot has been made of the Stormers lack of attacking flair despite a rock solid defence. Alistair Coetzee has stated that he would like to change that. In what ways does a change in tactics from the coaching staff influence the way you do your job?

SdT: The head coach and the head trainer need to be really close. As the trainer, you need to be in the coach’s head. I need to have a really good understanding of how the team wants to play. We’re at the point where we’ve changed a lot of our stuff in the way we’re conditioning the players because we want to play a different style of rugby. Robbie Fleck (backline coach) and I have sat down and established what outcomes we want to see in our GPS data that we’ve collected in training sessions. But it comes down to contracting the right players. I can’t turn a donkey in to a race horse but I can make that race horse the best horse he can be. I try not to focus on coaching in the gym. I think many trainers get bored and want to impress the players by bringing the rugby inside the gym but it’s the coaches who will coach them on the field. We just need to make sure that the coaches have the best physical athletes to work with.

CONQA: When a player changes positions, such as from wing to centre, or a player’s role changes, such as a flank becoming a fetcher, does the way you condition him change as well?

SdT: Players change positions and roles so often that we can’t keep up. A guy like Schalk Burger can play anywhere in the loose forwards. Some 13s can play wing, some 12s can play 10. It’s more of a coaching thing than a physical thing because it’s down to the mind-set of the player.

CONQA: How do you help injured players, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well?

SdT: First off, when a player is injured, he won’t just be sitting around doing nothing. He might have a hamstring injury but he’ll still be doing upper body work or work in the pool. As a trainer, you’re probably the guy the players see the most per day. I’ve got an excellent relationship with all my players. They’ll phone me at 11 at night or at 6 in the morning about things that don’t necessarily have to do with rugby. We’ll go in to personal things. With injuries you have to be very clear with your feedback because false hope can be more damaging and you can lose the trust of the player. Rather give the player the worst case scenario and work to make things better.

CONQA: Since the start of your career, what has changed the most in the way the game is played and how have those changes affected the way you condition the players?

SdT: It’s definitely become more physical.  Our game changed when Super Rugby went to a conference system four years ago. We now play each South African team home and away. That’s 8 incredibly physical matches where each guy is playing for a Springbok spot. The squads have also gotten bigger over the years and so rotation and when to rest players becomes important. This is challenging because you want your best players on the field and all the guys want to play. Technology has also been a game changer. There is so much data that you can’t thumb suck anymore.

CONQA: If you could change one thing about the game, what would it be?

SdT: Well, what the players want is be rotated more often and to have a cap on the number of games they play in the season so we don’t have a repeat of what happened to Jean de Villiers. There is simply too much rugby being played. I would also love to see technology have more of an impact in assisting us when we should rest players. Coaches want to know in an 80 minute game whether or not a player should play the whole game or if he should come off. What is his central nervous system telling us? What is his temperature telling us? In the 2009 Currie Cup semi-final at Newlands against the Bulls, two of our fittest players pulled up with cramp around the 60 minute mark. It surprised us because they had creamed every fitness test. The problem was it was the first time they’d played in a game like that and their muscles were tense and they couldn’t relax. What was missing was a proper analysis on their mental conditioning. Sport psychology is one of the most underrated jobs in sport. Henning Gericke is now working with us and he helps the players on the mental side of the game. But still, I’d love to see technology help with the things we still can’t measure. It’s like I always say; if you can measure it, you can improve it.

Stephan du Toit is the head of strength and conditioning for the Stormers Super Rugby franchise as well as Western Province rugby. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with an honours degree in biokinetics from Stellenbosch University. He has worked, and continues to work, with some of the most talented and physical rugby players in the game.