We took time out in Cape Town to catch up with Alex Lawson, Head of Strength & Conditioning, for an insight into the planning that went into the two- week trip to South Africa.
Taking a touring party to another continent for two weeks for a multi base, two game tour must take a considerable amount of planning. Could you give us a summary of the challenges that you have to take into account from an S&C point of view?
“Initially, it’s about trying to gather as much information as you can, trying to work on previous experiences, be that your own travel or the experience of the coaches or staff, speaking to other Regions, speaking to players. You need to have as much information as you can, establish what has worked well previously and what doesn’t.
“We’ve been to Bloemfontein previously so that part of the trip is fairly straightforward. We knew the facilities available to us, and how they suit our needs. Personally, I’ve never been to Cape Town before, or Port Elizabeth, so gathering information from some of our management to get their insight was very useful.
“There are many different things to take into account, what our specific requirements are given the logistics of the long travel, the training days and the equipment needed, and, on a trip like this the transition between places, be that city to city or, internally from hotel to training venue.
“Researching the hotel is vital as that is where the most time is spent. Following long journeys recovery is the priority, we usually emphasise pool recovery and ice baths, but just allowing the players time to relax, eat well and sleep will aid the recovery process. For a longer stay like this, a quality rugby pitch and suitable gym facilities are needed make sure we don’t detrain and can prepare for the game. The travel and fatigue levels can restrict the amount of training you can do, so a quality facility close to the hotel helps reduce any additional travel volume. If the logistics are easy then at least you can be better prepared to train with intensity to mimic the game.
“We also have to keep in mind that, down here for example, the conditions are different to what we are used to, pitches are drier and harder, it’s warmer than we are used to. All those factors can cause issues that may impact on the players ability to train and play at their best. The management team facilitates the players to recover quickly, to perform well. The players actually drive the standards and are extremely professional with their preparation.”
Going into Bloemfontein last week, how much was altitude an issue that had to be taken into consideration?
“Altitude was a factor when in Bloemfontein. It’s 1,395 m above sea level, which is not extreme but it’s much higher than our players are exposed to most of the season. The weather is also several degrees warmer than ours at this time of year, so on the Thursday, Friday and Monday before we left, we tried to acclimatise the players through heat exposure during training sessions, which was worthwhile. That’s as simple as wearing extra layers during training, fortunately the weather was kind and we had some warmer weather. We didn’t make a big deal of it, we just created some awareness of the conditions.
“It’s making players aware that they will feel a little heavy legged, their mouth will feel drier during games, they need to be hydrated, sip plenty of water, and be aware that the heavy legged feeling is natural. It makes things a little bit harder than normal but if you are aware you can recognise the signs. All credit to the players, they dealt with the conditions well and put in a thoroughly professional performance, one which was built on the work they did to prepare in the days prior to the match and the way they carried out the game plan.”
Flexibility – is the secret to a successful trip about being open minded and adapting?
“It’s crucial that you listen to what players feel about a particular situation and take those views into account when planning. If you’ve been a player for a number of years, done tours, played in high-level games and built up vast experience, to not call on that, as a coach wouldn’t make sense.
“As a coaching staff, collectively we plan and run a programme aimed at performance. The specific needs of the players are very important because they are the ones who have to perform on game day.
“We’ll plan ahead, set out a tour schedule, but you can’t then be dictated by that schedule when you are on the road. It will change daily. You have to have the ability to recognise when there needs to be adjustments. Like I said before, that’s a collective process with coaches, medical, operations team and playing groups, combined to identify where things need to be tweaked to give the team the best means of preparation for the weekend.
“That could be recognising fatigue and shortening or changing sessions, or identifying that the travel times you’ve allocated don’t work once you are at the location. Changes at short notice can create challenges but importantly we pull together to make the improved plan work.”
What can you do to help the players in terms of recovery etc., particularly being away from home, being in an unfamiliar place, with all the upheaval of flights impacting on recovery time?
“There are many factors that can help recovery and/or preparation. One of the main ones, clearly, is ensuring that players use their downtime wisely and get enough rest. Also, as part of the recovery process, we provide quality food regularly, as much as four or five meals a day, with the menus all carefully selected to meet their needs.
“We back that up then with supplementation from our supplier, PAS, which we bring with us. The boys have got an extensive range they can access 24/7, this makes sure they are recovering well to optimise performance. Quality nutrition is so important across the entire season, whether at our training base in Llandarcy or on tour in South Africa, the players understand that and eat to suit their individual needs."