New Zealand's top rugby players have been given the green light to return to the training field and prepare for Super Rugby Aotearoa. But will they be physically ready after two months in lockdown? We asked All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill for his assessment.
NZH: What sort of shape will our top players be in?
NG: It's something the clubs and players have been putting a lot of energy into. There are a number of professional players who flat together and prior to lockdown a lot of players purchased, borrowed or acquired some equipment from their club so most of them had gear at home. The players have been training really hard and looking for other ways to stay fit when there's only one or two of them working together.
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NZH: Are you confident the players would have been motivated to train hard in the absence of any on-field action?
NG: The difficult thing has been because there's so much unknown about when the game was going to restart, there's been a balancing act of staying ready to go versus taking a step back and having a bit of a breather. There'll be some incredibly fit rugby players coming out of this and likewise there might be a couple who have let their guard down a little bit, so there'll be a bit of a mixed bag. From what I'm hearing around the clubs, everyone is fairly happy with where everyone is at.
NZH: How long will the players need before they can play a high-intensity rugby game?
NG: There's a little bit of common sense that comes into play. If we reflect on what we've done in the past when we've been getting Super Rugby players ready for contact and games, generally they have a couple of weeks off over Christmas and then come in and within three or four weeks they're playing pre-season games. It's a little bit like coming in for pre-season and getting ready for the start of the competition. The only difference is we've had seven weeks where we haven't had any rugby-specific tasks; change of direction, stepping, evasion, tackling and even things like jumping and landing for lineouts and receiving high-ball catches. All the little intricacies of the game are what we haven't been able to do. We've been working together really closely with the clubs to make sure we nail it.
NZH: How much more likely is injury from not having done those rugby-specific things for a while?
NG: There's always risk in everything we do. Everything we ask a player to do and be able to do very well is about an intensity factor. It's one thing being able to evade someone but being able to aggressively evade them for 80 minutes is the key. What the players have been doing in isolation is doing everything we can to close the gap. For example, getting familiar with the ground is something we've been doing over the last couple of weeks. Rather than just running up and down a field, they've been getting up and down off the ground, rolling and tumbling and bouncing their chests. If players are sharing flats, they've been doing some passive, low-intensity tackling. There's always risk but everything we put in place around them – just like the restrictions around Covid – is about mitigating that risk, while minimizing any disruption to the training and performance.
NZH: Could some players have actually benefitted from time away from the rugby field?
NG: Absolutely. There's always a silver lining and this is a break the players would never, ever have had. There are going to be a lot of players who just want to get out and play rugby. Rugby has shut down around the world and we could one of the first countries to get it back going and hopefully there is a lot of it played. So yes, this would have benefitted a lot of players and there's a lot of energy being built up to be able to put out on the park which is exciting.
NZH: New Zealand derbies are famously brutal in their physicality. Will that be a factor with every game being a derby?
NG: It's something everyone has talked about and it's been considered. It's nice obviously that there are two byes within the ten weeks so that'll help spread that intensity and load. Every team and every player is coming in from exactly the same place. There might be some risk and the intensity is going to be there, but it's going to be bloody good to watch and for the players to be part of. I think it's tremendously exciting. The derbies are the best games to watch anyway, so bring it on!