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Saturday, June 30, 2007

SA's B-Team: Rest or no rest? A science view

Today the All-Blacks take on the Wallabies in the third Tri-Nations test, but this week has been dominated by the build-up to the SA-Australia test next week, and the headlines have all been around the squad picked by Jake White. A veritable B-Team, which has caused an uproar in Aus and NZ, even threatening at one stage to derail the Tri-Nations altogether. But what do we at the Science of Sport make of this? Jake White has been harking in the media for the last week about how Professor Tim Noakes, sports scientist at the University of Cape Town has insisted that the players need to rest (I believe that this strategy is his "insurance policy", creating a fall guy in case it doesn't work, but that's another story altogether). So sports science has been thrust into the limelight this week, so we have to respond to this one and lay down our views.

Firstly, let us nail our colours to the mast - the players do play too much rugby. A typical season would begin in January for the Super 14 and then continue, uninterrupted, until November. That gives the players one month of recovery, but they obviously have to start preparing and training ahead of the season, so they have a real problem. In running, for example, a typical year would consist of perhaps 9 months of training and competition, one month of COMPLETE rest and two months of down-time training. The same goes for cycling, and probably should for rugby. Australia, New Zealand and England have complete rest for at least two months of the year, because their domestic competitions are not quite as long as ours in SA, so there is a key difference here. It has been noted before (by keo.co.za) that the All-blacks play as many games as we do, and this is true. However, they get to rest for at least one month, and this makes all the difference.

So the problem of playing too much rugby is very real. However, the story does not quite end there. As you will all know, New Zealand made the decision to rest some of their key players at the start of this year's Super 14. They sent these players on a 'reconditioning' camp during this time. Now, I met the team doctor from the Crusaders, who had a number of players at this camp, and he said to me that the players were absolutely loving the break. For the first time in perhaps six years, they were in what we would call an 'anabolic' state. This means that they are able to gain muscle and keep their training level high. Normally, what happens during a season, is that they lose weight progressively between January and November, because the constant high intensity work prevents them from doing the necessary training to build muscle, and also the workload is so high that they can't maintain body weight (for various reasons I won't go into here). The best they can do is hope to start the next season at the same point as the previous one - they can never get stronger or bigger than this. So the point is that the New Zealand rugby players were able to gain weight for the first time in many years.

Why am I making this point? Because in training theory, the time to do this is at the beginning of the season, not the middle. And so if the motivation for pulling the players out of the Tri-Nations is to "recondition" them, then the timing is wrong. So while I agree in principle that players need rest, I don't believe now is the time for it to happen - I think that the two weeks between the NZ and the upcoming Australia game would have been sufficient to recover for the next two games, and then a 7 week period would begin where they could rest and do some fitness work to be in peak condition for the tournament. If we were serious about this rest period, these players would not have played any of the test matches this year - they would have been rested against England and Samoa, and not played the home tests against NZ and Aus either. But to interrupt a competitive season to miss two games having played for 4 months up to this point, when there are 7 weeks of rest coming anyway, is a weird decision. And my speculation (and this is all it is), is that there is more going on than just rest - it's a psychological 'mind-game' of keeping cards close to the chest - nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Of course, I am approaching this as a running and cycling coach and scientist, and there may of course be factors in rugby that dictate that rest is important. The physical demand of contact situations is a one such factor, with contact being perhaps the key ingredient that can lead to burnout and injury. However, that too would not be too difficult to control, it can be controlled in training sessions, or the key players could be sent on at half-time. I just think that there is too much to lose from handing NZ in particular easier games than might otherwise be the case.

Jake White has lamented in the media (as Jake seems to do more and more these days) that his players were fatigued during the final 15 minutes of the test against NZ last week, and they were. They could hardly chase down kicks by the end of the game. But here again, the rest period is not going to improve that situation. The reason for this also comes from the theory of training athletes in what is called a periodized plan - you cannot reach match intensity and fitness through endurance and weight training. Even doing high intensity training sessions to simulate match intensity does not work, because of the lack of contact. And so you probably saw how the All-Blacks were just slightly off the pace when they returned to the Super 14 earlier this year? That happens because you just cannot 'teach' your body what the demands of a match situation will be like without playing matches. And so if Jake thinks that resting the players will improve their ability to play passion-driven rugby for 80 minutes, then that too, I believe, will be incorrect.

So what should have happened? I think that we should have pulled those players for the second half of the Super 14, rested them for at least two out of the three tests against England and Samoa, and then let them hit the last 3 months of the season hungry and strong for some intense competition. Once the competition period starts, you can't pull guys out and say let's try that phase of the periodized plan again. But resting for months and then building into competitive rugby would fit more with a classic periodization plan. I just think that there is too much to be lost from resting players now, when there is a long rest period coming up just after these games anyway.

Time will tell of course, so we'll see what develops over the next few weeks. But I don't think that this will make a noticeable difference, and the risk is that it disrupts what was building towards a very big challenge for the World Cup.

Oh, one last thing, NZ will beat Australia by 15 points today, we'll beat Australia by 5 next week (much to their embarrassment) but then NZ will put 15 on us the week after. Those are my predictions. We'll see how they go!!!