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"Basic strength training the key to success for Sydney University rugby"

Building bigger and stronger rugby players - the Sydney University experiment

by Bruce Ross, CEO, MyoQuip Pty Ltd (June 2006)

It is widely acknowledged that the average bodyweight of rugby players has increased considerably over recent years. Less recognised is the extent to which modern defensive alignments and strategies have transformed rugby matches into contests of attrition where bigger and stronger teams tend to wear down their smaller and physically weaker opponents over the course of a game. Perhaps the most notable change has been the increased importance of physical dominance in the backline.

Responding to this, Sydney University's rugby club has been able to demonstrate that with the right combination of coach and infrastructure, it is possible to fast track the physical development of players outside a professional playing environment. In fact within a couple of seasons these players are able to achieve a body mass comparable to that of seasoned professionals together with a solid foundation of basic strength.

In late May, Sydney University announced its team for the first round of the Tooheys New Cup, the premier competition in Sydney club rugby. All of the fifteen players are past or current students who had been developed through the Club's Colts and lower grade teams. None of them are paid to play for the Club, although the eleven who are still students receive modest scholarship assistance. Only three of the players are on professional contracts.

It is instructive to compare their bodyweight and age profiles with those of squads from four major rugby countries:

Team Average Weight (kg) Average Age
Wallabies - 2006 Squad 102.6 26.1
All Blacks - 2006 Squad 102.9 25.5
Springboks - 2006 Squad 102.2 26.8
England - 2006 6 Nations Squad 101.2 27.2
Sydney University - 2006 Tooheys New Cup Team 100.5 22.5

Comparative Bodyweight and Age Profiles

It can be seen that the part-time, unpaid Sydney University players, though three to five years younger, weigh only a couple of kilograms less than the world's best players. This is quite extraordinary as normally a much greater weight disparity would be expected.

For the past three years Sydney University Football Club has been operating an Elite Development Squad (EDS) program for its top grade and colts players. Utilising one of the best equipped gymnasiums in Australian rugby, players train for eleven months of the year and undertake four weights sessions per week off-season and a lesser number while playing.

The program's strength and conditioning components have been devised and administered by Martin Harland, a sports scientist who has previously worked with professional rugby league, Australian football and basketball teams. His programs for rugby players place a high degree of emphasis on basic strength development and rugby-specific fitness. A distinguishing feature of his approach is a concentration on heavy lower body work through exercises such as squats, deadlifts and cleans. In addition, both backs and forwards make intensive use of the MyoQuip ScrumTruk, a rugby-specific apparatus that targets the large mass leg extensor muscles, specifically the gluteal and quadriceps groups. Hypertrophy or increased muscle mass is a natural and not unintended by-product of such training.

Exposing backline players to basic strength training

Another distinctive feature of Martin Harland's rugby training regimen is his requirement that backs undertake the same rigorous basic strength routines as forwards. Many strength and conditioning coaches reserve the heavy "grunt" work for forwards, or even restrict it to the tight five.

Exposing backs to very serious weight training has produced a quite extraordinary outcome at Sydney University, as evidenced by the following table comparing body weights of forwards and backs for the Wallabies, the four Australian Super 14 franchises and Sydney University:

Squad/Team (2006) Av Weight (kg) - Forwards Av Weight (kg) - Backs Difference
Wallabies - Squad 111.1 91.8 19.3
ACT Brumbies - Squad 110.3 90.9 19.4
NSW Waratahs - Squad 110.8 92.8 18.0
Queensland Reds - Squad 109.7 92.4 17.3
Western Force - Squad 109.1 92.9 16.2
Sydney University - Team 105.3 95.1 10.2

Comparative Bodyweight of Forwards and Backs

Not surprisingly, the University's young forwards are outweighed by each of the five professional squads. However, in the backs the situation is reversed. The University players outweigh the national and provincial squads by between 2.2 and 4.2 kg per man.

If we look at the column showing the difference in bodyweight between backs and forwards it can be seen that for Sydney University it averages 10.2 kg, against 16.2 to 19.4 kg for Australia's professional squads, a very substantial difference.

The Sydney University experiment seems to be providing clear evidence that the bodyweight of rugby backs can be dramatically increased through serious weight training, but the question arises as to whether this has benefits in terms of playing performance.

One answer is that the other strength-oriented football code, American football, has traditionally used training methods similar to those of Martin Harland. All players, whether linemen or running backs, are required to do heavy gym work. Surely no one would seriously suggest that their quick players have inferior dynamic abilities to rugby players.

Another justification for building heavier backs with superior leg drive lies in the already mentioned importance of physical dominance in the rugby backline. With the modern emphasis on structure and coordination in defensive alignments, bigger and stronger backs are better able to continually repel opposition attacks and also over the course of a game are likely to create physical and mental fatigue in their counterparts.

Having achieved a strong foundation of basic strength and greater body mass, Martin Harland is then able to focus on speed and explosiveness in his players. It is clear that the Sydney University approach yields results on the playing field. 2005 was the Club's most successful year, winning the Sydney Club Championship, the First Grade Premiership and four lower grade Premierships.

Even more importantly, players who graduate from such a program are much better equipped to withstand the rigours of modern rugby.

This article also appears on the MyoQuip Blog website where these comments have been posted:

Bonesmasher Rugby Gear commented:

"Hi Bruce"

"I suppose that Rugby is similar to American Football. There has been a very clear trend over the years to biggger, stronger and faster rugby players. Athough this has often been achieved through steriods. I dont hope that this trend will increase because otherwise you will see more and more young players using steriods to traying to "compete" with the big boys."

Anonymous commented:

"Hi, is there any chance to get more info about the program that this university is running? Thanks in advance"

Bruce Ross commented:

"Thanks for the comment, Bonesmasher. One of the good things about what is being done at Sydney University is that it demonstrates that very significant gains in size and strength can be achieved through the application of activity-specific apparatus and exercises and, in particular, programs based on sound biomechanical principles. That being so, there should be less temptation to resort to unethical and dangerous practices. "

"I think that your comparison of rugby to American football is very apt. The American code systematically develops players with high body mass and strength without sacrificing mobility or athleticism. Rugby in the professional era is trending in the same direction. "

"Thus far, Gustavo, my two sites are the only real source of information on the innovative sporting development programs at Sydney University. If ever you are in Sydney, I suggest you call out to the University and talk to Martin Harland and the Director of Rugby, Damien Hill."

"Martin is also working with elite athletes in other sports such as rowers, women basketballers, and soccer players. Fortunately, he makes extensive use of MyoQuip machines in these programs also. "

Additional comments are welcomed. For inclusion please email to Bruce Ross.

(This article may be reproduced so long as full acknowledgement of sources is provided.)

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The ScrumTruk strength-increasing machine is used for development of the pushing muscles employed in the rugby scrum. Note that the body position is virtually identical to that adopted in both the scrum itself and when using the 8-man scrum machine. The player has intuitively adopted a natural exercising position with straight line loading on the lumbar region.