Paul James has paid tribute to the work of the strength and conditioning team at the Ospreys for the support that enabled him to force his way back into the national set-up earlier this season.
The 27-year prop was a fixture in the Wales team during the autumn internationals, starting all four games during November, more than six years after his solitary previous appearance in a red shirt which came at the Racecourse, Wrexham, when Wales played Romania back in 2003.
The most capped Osprey of all time with 138 regional outings to his credit, the return to international duty was a welcome reward for a player who had worked closely with the coaching team at the Ospreys to force his way into the international reckoning. This season has seen the ever reliable James hit a rich vein of form, culminating in his two try man-of-the-match showing in the Christmas win over the Scarlets, but he says that his rise to prominence is no coincidence, it is down to the efforts of Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Mark Bennett and his Assistant Alex Lawson, who have worked with him to put together a conditioning programme that has allowed him to flourish. He said:
“I spoke to the coaches back in the summer about my ambitions for the next few years, one of which was that I wanted to get back into the Welsh squad. The feedback I got was that if I was going to achieve that, then I needed to get a bit more explosive and a bit faster around the field. I’ve worked hard with Benny and Alex on explosive power, and on my speed and fitness. Basically, it was about working hard in pre-season and in the early part of the season on areas of conditioning that would make a difference to me.
“I can definitely feel a big difference, I think they’ve really helped and guided me in the right direction. The difference can be measured, it’s not just about how I feel, it’s there in black and white in the records that the coaches keep. For example, take counter movement jumps. Last year I would have been jumping 22cm, this year I’m up to 28. I never thought that I’d ever get to that kind of score, but from the training that I’ve done with the conditioning coaches, that’s a guide to how far they’ve brought me on this season.
“It isn’t something that I can just do and then forget about it and let all the good work go to waste. They keep on pushing me, and it’s all part of my regular routine now. You go through different phases, the weights will change as the months go by, but you have to put your faith in the conditioning team. It’s been really good for me and the results, the way I am playing better than ever, speak for themselves.”
Mark Bennett arrived at the Ospreys ahead of the current season after spending five years as WRU National Fitness Coach. Renowned as one of the world’s leading sports conditioning experts, he was brought to the Ospreys to ensure that the region has the best physical development programme in world rugby. He immediately set about testing the whole squad, the results of which were then used to put together individual conditioning plans to address the shortcomings of each player. He says that it is this detailed approach that has paid dividends for a number of players, including James:
“When we did our pre-season fitness testing, the striking thing that I found with the Ospreys squad as a whole was that we had very good endurance levels in the squad, but top end speed and power wasn’t where it should have been. For us to get around the field, the players would be able to maintain around 94 or 95 per cent of their maximum velocity, or speed, for about 10 sprints. For a rugby player, that figure should really be down at about 90 per cent, so our endurance is too good for our speed, which was lagging behind somewhere. It was clear that what we needed to do, it was about going away and working on power and speed with the players.
“For Paul in particular, it was a phased process. We wanted him to lose a bit of body fat, so the first phase was about losing a bit of weight and then trying to regain that in muscle mass, and to improve his maximum strength levels. Once we’d done that, it was about improving his explosive strength, before the final phase, which was to improve his speed.
One of the problems that you can get with that approach is that it’s not a two or three week process. Each phase needs you to work in blocks of four to six weeks. That means that somebody like Paul needs twelve to sixteen weeks of hard work to be able to really show his improvements.
“It was the same for a lot of our players who played at the start of the season, they were fatigued a little maybe and had to play through it. It wasn’t until probably the first days of Europe this season that we actually reached the stage where we’d got past that and were starting to see some of the gains that players had made.”
The common perception seems to be that speed is one of those natural assets that sportsmen are either blessed with or they aren’t, and that it’s not something you can coach a player. That perception is something that Bennett disagrees with, as he explains:
“To an extent you can. It’s not pure, top end speed we’re talking about, where people are actually running 100 metres that kind of speed is very difficult to improve. You have to realise that rugby is a stop start game, so when we talk about speed, it’s about agility, explosiveness out of the blocks and getting your first five or ten metres done. That is actually relatively easy to improve in the gym, by doing lots of heavy lifts to start with and then trying to convert that strength into power by doing jumps with weights on your backs, doing plyometrics and bounding exercises. That type of work generally allows players to improve their acceleration very quickly. It also improves their stepping ability, their stopping ability and all those sorts of things that can gain you half a metre on the pitch.
“It’s a multi-year approach, and you have to keep on doing the same thing until the player stops improving. You repeat the cycle. If his legs got 30kg stronger last time, they may only get 15kg stronger next time, 10kg the next time. The slope of improvement is steep to start with and it will curve off. When you plateau and you aren’t getting any gains, then you’d look to move them onto something else. But, one of the problems of rugby that coaches are always facing is that you have so many injuries, so many problems that can prevent a player from training or playing, that you actually never, or very rarely, ever reach that plateau. All that happens is they slip back and have to start again. They may get to the same point quicker next time, but it’s rare that they’ll ever get to the plateau. What we need to do is constantly manage these players to ensure that we give them the best chance to get up that slope.”
James says the key has been that he has been able to buy into what the conditioning coaches have been doing with him, because the processes and the benefits were explained thoroughly to him, so he can see the reasoning behind the programme:
“They explain why you are doing something, what the benefits are, and when you can understand that then it makes sense. You can be doing stuff in the gym simply because you’ve got to, but not know what you are trying to achieve, but that’s not the case. The conditioning guys make sure we understand the benefits. I had a goal, which was to get back into the Wales side, Benny explained what we needed to do to reach my goal, and what each different part of the routine would bring to me, so it gives you the added incentive to push yourself."