Pre-season promises to be a testing time

Mark Bennett discusses the conditioning challenges that lie ahead in pre-season

While the players reporting back for training at Llandarcy this week may look forward to the next three months before the new campaign kicks off with a sense of dread, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Mark Bennett has described the lengthy pre-season period as a ‘luxury’ as his team prepares them for the new season.

Recent seasons have seen the Ospreys involved in the end of season play-offs, extending their campaign through to the end of May with the inevitable knock-on effect being a late return to training and a truncated pre-season for the squad.

However, this time around the core group have reported back after their four weeks off less than two weeks into June, meaning they face a prolonged 12-week pre-season, and Bennett is excited about having such a lengthy period to work with the players.

Reflecting on the question whether such a long pre-season can make things difficult in terms of conditioning, Bennett revealed that his view was the exact opposite.

“It doesn’t make it more difficult actually” said the former Wales flanker.

“It’s nice for a change. Since I’ve been here we’ve always had relatively short pre-seasons which mean we’ve got to condense a lot of work into a shorter time frame.

“We’ve got the luxury of being able to do some good developmental work with these players, which means we can get more out of them in pre season and increase the amount of work we are able to do. If we can do more volume now, if we can do more conditioning, then we can get more out of them during the season. This extended pre-season for the core group should stand us in good stead.”

A challenge that faces Bennett and his colleagues in the strength & conditioning team each year, regardless of what date the core group return to training, is the reintroduction of the various other elements of the squad that return throughout the summer as different times.

It’s a situation that is exacerbated during a Lions year, with another group to add to the Wales senior and U20 group, and Bennett admits that the integration of four different groups of players poses a number of issues.

“It does complicate things, for two reasons” he said.

“One, these guys can’t come straight in and simply join in with the training programmes that the other boys are doing. They need to follow their own plan, starting from the beginning in essence, and with four groups coming in at different times of the summer it does present more of an organisational challenge. You’ve got more groups going through the gym, you’ve got more groups to manage for conditioning and it can be a difficult balancing act.

“The other issue, of course, is something I touched on earlier, these guys have to try and condense a lot of work into a shorter period of time unlike the core group this summer. That means that as a coach, you’ve got to become a bit more imaginative with the programme and think about how you can do things differently, how you can combine things to get the best use of your time.

“Irrespective of the timeframes available there are certain things you need to do, cycles that you have to go through. They’ve all got to do their aerobic work, they’ve all got to do their strength work, anaerobic, power and their explosive work. The more unilateral each cycle can be, the more time you devote to one part of their fitness, then the better the results are going to be. That is obvious.

“The more you have to allow things to crossover and do combined programmes, then the less impact you can have in specific areas, especially those players with a longer training history. If you’ve done so many years of weight training, then to get stronger you need to spend a lot more time in the gym. It’s that simple.

“Working on a shorter pre-season does make it difficult, and does mean potential longer days for these players. It also means potentially that they may have to miss some of the rugby sessions so that they can devote their time elsewhere to catch up that way, but that’s a discussion to be had as a coaching team on a player by player basis dependent on the condition that individuals report back to work.”

Bennett emphasised how important the work being done with the core group over the coming weeks is, not only to their own fitness, but also, to their ability to drive the Ospreys forward for another long season:

“The core group are vital for us throughout the season. These are the guys who will have a 12 week pre-season, which is fantastic for them, and it does mean that they should come out of this pre-season as better athletes and hopefully better rugby players because of that.

“I can’t over estimate their importance to the Ospreys throughout the season. They are the ones who are here for the summer, who will drive the team throughout the campaign, at the start of the season and during the international period, and if we are in a position to get these into as near to peak condition as possible then the whole group will benefit.”