3 July 2017

Maintained Conditioning: How the Crusaders Keep Getting Fitter

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

The Crusaders are just four matches away from completing a remarkable unbeaten season in Super Rugby. Their success has been built on an innovative approach to maintaining and increasing fitness as the long gruelling season has progressed. CONQA speaks to Simon Thomas, head off strength and conditioning at the franchise.

Kieran Read, the Crusaders and All Blacks' captain, storms through for a try. Though he has missed much of the season through injury, his return will bolster the Christchurch franchise's chances of seeing out the competition unbeaten. 

Kieran Read, the Crusaders and All Blacks' captain, storms through for a try. Though he has missed much of the season through injury, his return will bolster the Christchurch franchise's chances of seeing out the competition unbeaten. 

When the Super Rugby season kicked off back in February, few outside of Christchurch gave the Crusaders much hope of mixing it up near the top of the table heading into the international break. Since losing to the Waratahs in the 2014 final, the seven-time champions could only manage back to back 7th place finishes.

But after 14 matches this year, the most successful team in the competition’s history remain unbeaten and with just three games to go before the knockout round, talk of a remarkable perfect season is gaining some traction.

What makes this run more praiseworthy is that the Crusaders are doing it without a host of star All Blacks. Kieron Read and Ryan Crotty have been plagued by injuries this season and outside of a powerful front row that boasts Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks, the men in red and black only have Sam Whitelock and Israel Dagg who one could confidently say is an All Black regular.

So how have they done it? Every new victory has prompted a new theory but one that has some considerable weight behind it that the Crusaders are the fittest team in Super Rugby. It is impossible to know this for sure without running each team through a series of fitness tests, but certain statistics can be telling.

In the final 20 minutes of each Super Rugby game, when bodies are fatigued and minds are clouded from an hour of intense physical battle, only the Lions have conceded less than the Crusaders’ five tries against (and that is in a conference that does not possess a single New Zealand team).

When it comes to tries scored in this period, the Lions are again ahead of the Crusaders with 20 tries to 17. As are the Hurricanes with 22 tries, but with Beauden Barrett, Ngani Laumape and Julian Savea lurking amongst the backline, it is no wonder the defending champions top this list.

The man largely responsible for the fitness of the Crusaders is Simon Thomas, head of strength and conditioning at the franchise, whose innovative approach has evolved over the past two years to ensure that the team improves their fitness as the season progresses. If anything, they will only reach their peak on the 5th August should they secure a spot in the final.

“When Super Rugby only had twelve teams and the season lasted eight weeks, we could maximise our physical gains at the start of the season and decrease our loads to focus on recovery through the season,” Thomas says. “Now, with the season lasting so long [seven months] a personal best during a test in January will count for very little come July. We’ve had to rethink how we pace our guys through the campaign to avoid deconditioning.”

The programme that Thomas has created emphasises in-season conditioning rather than a focus on preseason conditioning. With a meticulous examination of the fixture list, the Crusaders cycle through programmes based on the days between matches and whether or not the team is travelling. The opposition does not factor in the decision making process.

“Apart from the fact that we respect all the teams in the competition, where anyone can beat anyone else on their day, we instead focus on how much work we can get in before a game and how much time we have before the next one,” Thomas says. “Some of our most important and hectic training weeks have been in the build up to some of our strongest opponents.”

Thomas divides training weeks into two categories: long and short. In long weeks there is an emphasis on volume with high levels of cardio and speed work. In short weeks, strength and intensity become the areas of focus with the aim of spiking towards the end of the week.

“We’ll never have more than two low weeks in a row,” Thomas says. “We ensure that we are peaking at the right times and that is determined by the time we have between matches and can take place wherever we are.”

To illustrate this point, Thomas reveals that one of the most running heavy weeks occurred at altitude in Johannesburg in the lead up to a clash with the Bulls in Pretoria. “Even though after the game we had to fly back and take on the Hurricanes at home, we knew we had a window of opportunity to work on our running. The boys put in a great performance against the ‘Canes [winning 20-12] helped by our loading and being aware of the opportunity to up the volume when we could.”

This model flies in the face of traditional programmes that sought to emphasise preseason training in an effort to bulk players up as much as possible early on and then decrease loads as the season progressed. In fact, Thomas explains that under the old system, preseason training consisted of around 80% physical training and 20% rugby skill development. Once the season kicked off, the percentages would flip.

Now, preseason and in-season training is close to a 50-50 split with a programme that never loses its physicality while still maintaining skills development.  It’s a challenge to achieve this balance but when done correctly can result in an athlete that is able to increase his output as the season progresses.

“The key thing is to get the players involved in the decision making process,” Thomas says when I ask him if he has encountered any resistance from senior players who might have become accustomed to the old way of doing things.

As Thomas says, strength and conditioning coaches serve as the players’ “barbers or barmen”; the individual that they feel most comfortable around as they spend so much time with them.

“We include our player leadership group in all our strategies and have the entire programme stuck up on the players’ lounge. Every day they walk past it knowing full well which weeks they’ll be running and which weeks will be focussed on strength. They can commit to a big running week so long as they know that the following week is not going to be as intense. Things are flexible but the campaign is planned week by week”

Programmes are also individualised based on whether or not the player is selected for the upcoming match day. If a player is rested or is serving a suspension, Thomas and his team will load the player with high intensity training in order to do speed work or put some size on him.

This approach encounters a challenge when there is a late call up to the team as a result of another player being injured in training. “It has happened before,” Thomas admits. “A player underwent an incredibly tough week in training as we didn’t expect him to play on the Saturday but an injury meant he ran on. You learn a lot about a player and what they’re capable of during a week like that. In those situations we’re mindful not to hammer him again in training the following week.”

Thomas speaks proudly of his team’s achievements this season but goes out of his way to praise his rivals and the centralised system in New Zealand rugby that encourages communication between the different franchises. He singles out the Highlanders and the Hurricanes, the two previous winners of the competition, for the way they changed the game.

“Last year, at the start of the season, a lot of people looked at the Hurricanes and called them fat,” Thomas says with a chuckle. “But come the end of the season, it was very clear they were not only the most skillful with ball in hand but also the fittest in the competition and were deserving winners in the end.”

The Crusaders have one final match to play before the knockout round and that is a return fixture against the Hurricanes in Wellington once the British and Irish Lions have completed their tour of The Land of the Long White Cloud.

“Our unbeaten record so far will count for nothing if we don’t lift that trophy and beating the ‘Canes on their own patch will go a long way to achieving our goal,” Thomas concludes. “But we’re not there yet.”

If the Crusaders do manage to see out the season undefeated and clinch a historic eighth title it would be one of the truly great success stories in rugby history. Super Rugby, like most domestic competitions around the world in the professional era, is a gruelling slog that pushes athletes to their limit. Down in Christchurch, Thomas and his team have found a way to extend where that limit ends.

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