Regular Pundit Arena columnist Max Lahiff takes us through the ups and downs of a typical Monday in the life of a professional rugby player.
What Monday morning really comes down to is the review meetings. Rugby, or any team sport in fact, is funny because unlike any other profession your work is entirely transparent, and it’s rather galling sometimes when you assemble to be made accountable for the shortcomings and merits of the team’s performance.
Sometimes it can be very individual. Your decisions and general play scrutinised in front of your peers – it at times is quite sobering. Ultimately the meeting’s outcome is to endeavour to right our wrongs and celebrate our victories when they happen, in the game and not just the result. I think without some kind of failure it is difficult to grow and gather perspective on what made you successful in the first place.
The first meetings of the day are unit-based, so forwards and backs split to their various coaches. Reasons for this are obvious. I, being a prop, do not need to know what Tom Homer is doing in kick counter. As the age old saying goes, I don’t play the piano, I just push it.
The split meetings in summary basically analyse the various specific roles of the player group in question. God only knows what the backs talk about – probably kick tennis they’ll be playing whilst we try to harvest each other’s souls in live mauls and scrums. I jest (kind of).
We set down to review the set-piece from the game. This is ultimately my number one priority as a prop. It’s probably the most technical area on the field, and psychologically very influential. The scrums are analysed to the nth degree. The big keys are set up process, to the bind and height, followed by the lean and the grips, and how that affects the quality of the engage. After that, the “sink” of weight and the studs in the deck. It’s very much a repetitive skill, but it’s completely reliant upon all eight, but more significantly the tight five.
Scrums are completely at the mercy of the referee ultimately, which can lead to massive discrepancies in scrum quality game-to-game. Pair that with the agenda and quality of the opposition you are playing, and it can make them frustrating things to be a part of. At maul and scrum time in particular, the affect of dominance in these areas transcends the set-piece and can leak into the rest of the game. It is perhaps the most personal and primitive part of rugby. A group of eight large men on high protein diets seek to push another group of eight equally large gentlemen over to gain dominance, score a try or get the ball back. Prop and hooker in particular allow you to get very intimate with your opposite number.
Lineouts are also laid out bare, as we swallow the black and white stats of the game. With the set-piece, it only takes one or two aspects for them to go quite disastrously wrong. The sign of a quality side is to have the ability to rectify that during the game, and not at these review meetings when the match’s result has already been decided.
The coaches then take their respective roles and articulate what was done well and badly in their various elements. Tabs (Tabai Matson) and Todd Blackadder will usually headline this, as Boothy (Toby Booth) and Darren Edwards have said their part during the split meetings. The player poll for the Man of The Match award are revealed to jeering and congratulating. A fair bit of spirited abuse and banter is forthcoming in any rugby club, and here it’s no different.
Players caught on film in compromising positions or doing stupid celebrations are brought to light much to the players’ delight whilst clips of great passages of play from individuals are also exhibited. I think these traditions are good because players who end up top of the Man of The Match board over the season gain a reward, a unique coin in this case with which some kind of reward or boon can be obtained in exchange once you have collected enough of them.
It’s important for an organisation that strives for the best to give recognition to individuals of great work where it’s due as examples for what their peers should work towards; it’s basic psychology.
The review of the game ensues, with generally positive and negative play at crucial points in the game being brought to light. Solutions and strategy as to how to keep achieving the positive and eliminate the negative are discussed. At this point some of the players will generally drop in and share what experience they have in particular facets of the game and impart their knowledge upon the squad, so it’s very much a player-led environment in that respect.
For example, Guy Mercer will head our defensive play and Fordy (George Ford) our general attacking strategy. This is a very important part of achieving progress in a playing group as ultimately coaches aren’t playing, they don’t have that pure empathy that we have for the team and how it’s performing. Obviously they know what goes wrong and how to fix it, how to motivate us and how to make us successful, but when it comes down to it, they can’t enact it. We are the players and the game day accountability is ours.
With the meetings concluded we march off to the gymnasium. It’d be fair for me to say I love trying to lift big tin. This is a domain I’ve always enjoyed and take pride in. Generally on a Monday we do legs. My program is pretty quick as we don’t dwell on legs too much in mid-season. We need to run and, from my own standpoint, scrum. It is difficult to make any significant gains if you’re playing week in, week out due to the nature of sport. If you put it in perspective, rugby is incredibly taxing. It’s literally running combined with fighting for 80 minutes (okay, 60-ish for the fat lads) with a huge variety of athletes of different weights doing this for 30 odd games a season. There aren’t many sports that are conducted in such a way.
We make our way upstairs as we are corralled by Allan Ryan (head of strength and conditioning) and his minions, to change into to suitable footwear and get on the dreaded Wattbikes for testing. The Wattbike is a hellish piece of equipment designed by Lucifer. Absolutely awful contraptions. But for this particular day our encounter with them is pleasantly brief. A six-second max sprint to see where the legs are in regards to the weekend. Most days I’m not too far off. However, the fatigue of a season will eventually show up in your scores. Normally rugby will take your soul if you don’t keep on top of recovery, nutrition and rest.
We collect our program for the gym and are then sent to our respective conditioner. Mine is Guy “The Iron Blanket” Lewis. An MMA fighter and the resident nutritionist at Bath Rugby. The Iron Blanket? What the hell kind of fighting name is that? Well he is a practitioner of freestyle wrestling, which he implements with surgical precision, suffocating his opponent in fatigue-inducing takedowns, hip tosses and guard passes to reach the fight-clinching submission. How good is that name? A great conditioner and a better bloke who designs my program and a South African who didn’t get the big boy genes but can submit you like a tax return, I suppose it all balances out.
The program starts with heavy dead lifts. I’ll work up to a near maximal weight up three sets of three reps. I’ve seen some truly scary gravity-defying feats in the box squat from big bad Beno Obano. The Nigerian nightmare and Bath academy player has put up a 300kg on the box squat. Naughty. But I digress. I’ll usually do some accessory work targeting the posterior chain, finished with band walks for gluteus medials. Real lactic acid inducers these. And that’s my session.
Through all this I’ll watch some undernourished academy players battling on some bizarre exercise as he is Guinea pigged. Or Guy Mercer’s painful, hernia-inducing facials and watch Matt Garvey in disgusted fascination attempt two chin ups. Each program, for the most part, is tailored to the athlete’s specific needs, whether that be a weakness that they are looking to work on, or perhaps an old or recurring injury which restricts them from being able to perform more traditional exercises.
After weights it’s lunch. Always an outstanding meal, however the northern lot have a sensitive pallet. If it ain’t deep fried or battered it may as well be cyanide, so you’ll hear Ross Batty lambasting anything considered slightly “exotic”. On this particular day it was pulled pork with apple sauce and roasted sweet potatoes with green vegetables. Fantastic stuff. Thirds and fourths for some of the larger gentleman. Gains and all that.
We then have a bit of time for extra treatment, recovery if necessary and strapping for this afternoon’s session. I myself get a my toe strapped and head on out to training. On a Monday the session starts with what we are targeting to improve on as a squad, whether it be attacking shape or defensive systems against various attacks, then coming together for the plays we will be using for the weekend coming up and conditioning games, which are lung-busting. Conditioning games revolve around a few different spin offs of rugby, all designed to tax your skills under duress. Once finished up players generally stay out and work on more personal skills that they need to enhance they’re game. This could be tackling to turnover work, or running lines in attack and building familiarity in player positions that require it.
We then head in for one final meal which was a half chicken and vegetables, shower up and head home. Usually there will be some pre-habilitation club to prevent injury for guys who have had injuries in the past or need to work on some area of their semi-broken anatomy set up by the physiotherapists and conditioners inserted here. Some lads will get extra treatment, others will have to do recovery. Ice baths. Ah, these are amusing at the best of times, I’ve seen grown men lie, steal and kill before entering the frigid depths of the icy steel tub at Farleigh.
Watching JJ get in the bath wrapped in a hoodie and a towel on his top half and laboriously lower himself down the ladder to sounds of what can only be cries of true discomfort, it’s really quite pathetic. Others go and analyse their performance from the weekend with a coach, trawling over their clips, seeking to tweak technical and decision-making deficiencies in their game and reinforce consciously what they did well.
You’ll also find some players talking to there respective coach to find out what they can do to make next weekend’s XV. Monday is very much a day of the psychological facets of the game rather than the physical. The looming Tuesday is very much its opposite.
Max Lahiff, Pundit Arena