Hartpury supporters might be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing going on right now, as we await clarity on the plans for the 2020-21 season.
However, the players are all in training – either individually or in small groups – as we discovered when we spoke with Hartpury’s Head of Strength & Conditioning, Lee Douglas.
Lee is a Hartpury graduate (2005), whose career in Strength and Conditioning has taken him full circle in a 14-year journey via Worcester Warriors, Edinburgh, Bristol Rugby, England Women’s 7s and Canada Men’s 7s, before returning to join the club in 2019.
Ironically, the lock down and the subsequent early end to the 2019-20 campaign came just as a number of players were on the verge of returning from injury.
“I think it was probably quite frustrating for the players who were coming out of rehab,” said Douglas. “Obviously they would be looking forward to getting back and playing and suddenly the games weren’t there any more.”
“Back at that stage (mid-March), the gyms were still open, so it was reasonably easy to issue each player with a weights programme and some running to do, but we then had a period of limbo where we really didn’t know what was happening. The uncertainty of not knowing when we might need to play again made things a bit tricky.”
“Obviously the players get into a rhythm of playing and training and when that gets interrupted – although the rest is often quite welcome – there is still a worry about how it’s going to go when you get back into matches. In many ways it became much easier when the season was officially ended, because then you could sit back and think about what you were dealing with.”
Hartpury’s last game was the home defeat to Ampthill on a very wet night at the end of February. With no date yet in sight for the start of next season, it will be have been at least 7-8 months by the time that the players get back into action – compared to the usual four months which, including pre-season, probably only encompasses around six weeks without any sort of rugby and rugby contact.
However, that may have positives for some, according to Douglas.
“I think for some of our older players this will be a blessing in disguise,” he said.
“It’s a period of rest that some guys will have never had in their entire playing careers. The constant routine of physical contact and stress on the body has just gone. I think it’s reasonable to think that there are one or two players whose careers may be extended as a result of the break that they have had.”
“The flip side of that, of course, is that if the older guys are around for longer, it does mean that some of our younger players might have to wait a little bit longer for their chance.”
Going into lock-down presented a number of issues for the players, cut off from the resources available at Hartpury.
“A lot of the players don’t even have access to weights,” said Douglas, “so for many it was really a case of going back to basics with some floor work and plenty of running. Things can get a bit elaborate and complicated in a full-time rugby environment, so this has probably been quite a useful ‘re-set’ for some of the players.”
“Right now we’re working with all of the squad members in one way or another, but there’s a lot of inconsistency in terms of the type of equipment that they’ve got access to. Some players have got a full gym in the garage, whereas others have got nothing.”
“Therefore the main objective for me right now is around running volume. It’s been a question of thinking about how much meterage we typically do in a week, how much high-speed running we’re usually doing, and building our aerobic base to be able tolerate that. That means that when we come back into a full-time group environment, we can go straight into rugby training.”
“The other thing we need to think about is change of direction movements. When you run – particularly on your own – you tend to just run in a straight line, but in a game of rugby there are constant changes of direction. If we can train for that now, it means that when we come back in we won’t have a load of players with groin problems or lower back issues.”
“If we can get most of the groundwork out of the way now, when we come back in we can focus on skills, tactical and technical stuff…”
“Contact will be a big issue. We can use relatively light weights to build musculature around the neck and shoulders so that should help. I suppose, though, the big silver lining is that we’ve had a lot more time than we normally have to work on our running this year – normally it just gets slotted in alongside all the other training we have to do.”
Inevitably technology plays a part. When the players are training normally on-campus, there is a myriad of tools that coaches can use to analyse just about anything. Luckily, even with the players at a distance, there is still help.
“Fortunately, we’ve just implemented a new software system,” Douglas said. “We can plan and monitor all of our training using that. We can input everything that relates to a particular player or group of players and what they should be doing on a daily basis.”
“It’s come at a really opportune time. We initially got it for environmental reasons – to save us using loads of paper – but it’s really been a huge benefit in the current circumstances.”
“I can load everything we need centrally and then the players simply access the information via their phones. It tells them what they’ve got to do with a video of how it should be done. They can then use their devices to upload their own performance data to report back.”
“We can have a dialogue with the players and they can send me their questions and videos of themselves completing the tasks. We can then track and analyse their own data for review. It’s been fantastic – doing all of that through emails and texts would have been a nightmare.”
“It means that we can give players plenty of feedback and the feeling that they are actually accomplishing something. We’d prefer to be coaching out on the pitch, but this is a very close second.”
With Hartpury having made 12 new signings since the end of last season, Douglas is having to interact with a number of players he has yet to actually meet.
“That is quite difficult – I’m bad with names at the best of times,” he said. “At the moment they just know me by my nickname – they probably think I’m six foot six, when I’m really five foot four!”
“Being more serious, it’s easier to plan and cater for a payer when you know them individually. Right now, though, we’re all in the same boat – we just want to be able to get in and train together.
The good news is that we are hoping to get the players back onto the campus in the not too distant future. This may make things seem a little more ‘normal’ as we build towards some sort of new season, hopefully still within the current calendar year.
“We’ve so far been able to put a lot of the players into small groups close to their homes,” said Douglas, “which means that they can get together in a local park or wherever it may be. It all helps to give each player a little bit of extra support and focus in meeting the short-term physical goals that we are setting.”
“Of course, it just reminds all of us that we what we really want to is to be back at training at Hartpury. We’re rugby players and that’s what we do.”
“There’s something about all being in a group – particularly in pre-season when everybody is putting in the hard yards together – that is truly unique, and we all miss it.
“Even when we get back, however, everything depends on when we get that start date for the new season – as soon as we know that then the programme is likely to change rapidly.”
We’ll keep you updated with more news regarding a return to group training when we have it.