Like other contact sports such as Australian football, National Football League in America and ice hockey, rugby has a high risk for sports injury due to the rigorous demands and risks involved.
Rugby players are required to exceed a fitness level that will not only keep them injury free but also enable them to perform at their best in tournaments like the World Cup.
Throughout a rugby season, whether it is the Super 15, Currie Cup or any other international tournament, rugby players have to ensure that they maintain an adequate fitness and strength level.
Cardiovascular fitness levels
What each rugby player does in regular training or pre-match training is based on individual capacity. Each player is different, with their own physique, roles in the team and levels of fitness.
Each player is therefore required to reach their personal best in the weights they lift, the training they do and the hours they put in.
Rugby players routinely need to undergo a bleep test (an interval-cardiovascular fitness assessment).
Each level in the bleep indicates their level of fitness. For example: a player with a level 13 is fitter than a player with a level of 11. Having said this, the cardiovascular fitness level required of rugby players is not as demanding as e.g. for soccer players.
This is because rugby players are more endomorphic and mesomorphic (somatotypes, classifying the body type of players) than soccer players, who tend to be more ectomorphic (not so heavily built).
Rugby players have more muscle mass, and it would be really challenging for them to achieve a fitness level of 13. Therefore, the required fitness level for the whole team would be a minimum of 10, but it depends on the position of the players in the team. For example, players such as JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana would definitely need to have a higher fitness level.
Performance and periodisation training
Throughout a rugby season or calendar year, sports players go through a periodisation programme.
A periodisation programme aims to show the minor objectives of a player’s training and optimisation routine over varied timelines. Mesocycles are classified as small milestones of the overall macrocycle, which is the total timeframe.
The figure below represents a general example of what a periodisation programme would look like for an elite rugby player.
According to Baker, it is important that players keep on training in the gym throughout the in-season on two days per week. The first gym session should be performed earlier in the week and the focus should be on heavy strength exercises, whereas the second session should be performed 48-72 hours after the first and should emphasise power training/plyometrics.
It is also imperative to vary the loads, sets and repetitions from week to week in order to acquire optimum performance levels and not increase the risk of injury.
Read: Common rugby injuries
How can rugby injuries be fixed and full recovery be achieved?
Rugby players spend many hours in the gym and/or field during the off-season and pre-season (+30 hours per week). When the in-season draws closer, training time is reduced and the rugby-specific training increases which still has a +30 hour-rule. Rugby injuries can happen in various scenarios:
- When a player is under-prepared or has not reached desired fitness levels
- When a player has over-trained, resulting in burnout or fatigue
- When a player incurs an unfortunate accident on the field during training or during a match (a knock to the face, collision, concussion etc.)
There is no generic timeline or methods in "fixing" any injury. It depends on a number of factors such as: age, gender, medical history, injury severity, anatomical location, symptoms, training status and sport played.
The rehabilitation professional (physiotherapist, biokineticist and physical therapist) would take a number of aspects (as mentioned above) into consideration before starting the rehabilitation process. If it is an acute injury, the recovery process is shorter, whereas if it is a chronic or recurring injury, the recovery process can take longer.
An example: achilles tendon ruptures can take up to 9 months to fully heal, whereas a grade 1 ankle sprain can take only two weeks if managed properly, coupled with the PRICE method (protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation).
What would the rehabilitation look like?
Just with any injury sustained, the rehabilitation process involves the three P’s: patience, perseverance and positivity. Many players succumb to an injury and lack the patience to see the rehabilitation process through. Rushing the rehabilitation time can do more harm than good. Rehabilitation is not easy and it requires hard work from both the player and professional.
It is also important for the player to remain positive throughout, whether it is a few weeks, months or a year. There is no worse feeling than having to go "back to square one".
What is the way forward with injury and performance in rugby?
Nowadays sport places high expectations and demands on players and administrators. Whether it is training and playing a sport for 11 months of the year or just training a number of hours per week, it takes a lot from players to abide by contracts, sponsorships and other deals.
A player can experience a great deal of pressure if they are not well-prepared for their match or season.
Technological interventions can be very helpful in detecting or even predicting an injury, thereby optimising the performance of players. The science of rugby has come a long way, with answers showcasing recommendations for players and coaches.
However, there is still a lot more work to be done in the injury prevention and performance optimisation areas of the sport – in order to provide more accurate and detailed prescriptions for players, especially regarding the improved management of players by coaches and medical professionals.
Baker D. The effects of an in-season of concurrent training on the maintenance of maximal strength and power in professional and college-aged rugby league football players. J. Strength Cond. Res, 2009; 15(2):172 – 177.