When it comes to rugby league, no team is more feared or respected than St. Helens R.F.C. This week, we speak to Matt Daniels, who’s been the team’s Head of Strength and Conditioning for the last ten years, about the training it takes to become top of the table – but first, what’s Matt’s background?
Matt previously played Academy rugby back in college whilst studying sports science, he later went on to represent England and Great Britain at student international level.
Fast forward to 2008, Matt’s involvement grew before becoming Head of Strength and Conditioning for the league leaders. St. Helens remain top of the table, with last week’s defeat their only loss in seven games. Six points clear of Myprotein rivalries, Warrington Wolves – will the Saints smash through the defence to seal the deal?
It’s a privilege to pick the brains of somebody of Matt’s calibre, and exclusively for Myprotein readers, Matt Daniels agreed to guide us through the importance of strength and conditioning, from amateur to professional.
What are the key physical requirements to be a successful rugby player?
The modern-day rugby league player needs to have a range of physical attributes not only to be successful, but to be robust enough to deal with the substantial game demands and play consistently at the top level. These attributes include strength, power, speed and agility alongside aerobic fitness.
What are the most common exercises rugby players complete in the gym?
In terms of common exercises, it is an individualised approach to programming so that a player’s athletic development is specific to his own needs analysis. This may mean a specific squat pattern (front squat, back squat, belt squat, box squat) or push/pull exercise (floor press, landmine press, prone pull, dumbbell row) is employed that will have most ‘bang for your buck’ with a specific player dependent upon outcome goals.
With all the exercises, we try to make them as functional and specific to the sport as possible within the gym setting. It is also common to employ individual modifications week to week when in season due to the contact demands and after effects of the game.
What are your thoughts on training on the pitch compared to in the gym?
The correlation between the two is high. What happens in the gym is the foundation of what happens on the pitch. This maybe power development, acceleration/deceleration mechanics, movement patterns.
As mentioned earlier the conditioning of a rugby league player is multi-faceted so to prepare a player for the demands of the sport, both elements are imperative.
Is gameplay more important than strength & conditioning?
The two go hand in hand really. It’s important that the foundations are in place before game-play via a strength and conditioning programme. This should be focussed on what the individual athlete requires to be successful in the game as well as prepare them to be able to deal with the demands of the game itself.
To neglect the preparation stage of an athlete is fundamentally flawed and massively elevates risk. Once a player is up to speed and conditioned to a level where they are ready to play then game-play itself is the best conditioning a player can have as this is the end goal and ‘match fitness’ as it’s referred to can be achieved.
Ultimately it is important for Strength & Conditioning coaches to remember that these athletes love to play the game- that should always be the goal and the motivator to train hard. It is important to monitor what players do in games so that if any extra recovery or fitness top up required can be administered.
What do you consider the biggest changes or advancements in the sport over the past few years?
I think the biggest area of change within Rugby League has been the growth of Sports Science. This area has always had some level of involvement but it is now at a stage where via use of things like GPS (Global Positioning System), workload monitoring, HR monitoring, hydration testing, body fat measuring and fatigue monitoring, we are able to prepare, monitor and recover athletes to a better extent than ever before.
Sports science has resulted in excellent advancements within the sport but in my opinion, it is important that we find the balance between pushing players to build robustness and killing them with kindness.
How does training differ between positions? Do players have different training schedules/timetables?
Different positional groups do work to a slightly different training schedule but most of the time the full squad will be on the field together but maybe working on positional specific skills.
From a physical point of view, each position has its own demands i.e. high-speed running, number of collisions, repeated efforts it is also evident that each player within a positional group will play a certain way and therefore we will have different demands within the same positional groups.
It’s important that all individuals are conditioned suitably to be able to deal with these game demands and cope with worst-case scenario of a match play period.
How important is recovery post training and match?
The recovery process is an integral part of the training schedule and post-game acts as the first step of preparation for the following game. We employ a large range of recovery modalities again aimed at individual requirements and usually specific to positional demands.
When does pre-season conditioning start and how do you prioritise the programming?
Pre-season generally starts in early November which gives us around 10-12 weeks before the first round of competition. The programming tends to be very different for athletes depending on their training age and how much previous exposure they have had to intense training demands. Although we want to push players to make gains we need to manage them to a level that we are not putting them at unnecessary risk.
How do you keep rugby players motivated to push through strength barriers?
We are extremely lucky in this area. Our players are naturally competitive, to make it as a professional player that element of competition has been in them from a young age. This level of competition helps to drive motivation in the gym.
We are also lucky in that some of our best and most experienced players are our best trainers which helps to drive standards and provide motivation to any younger player coming into the squad.
So, now you’ve had a unique insight into what it’s like to be a league-leading player, you might be feeling inspired to put his advice into practice. If you feel safer as a spectator though, you won’t want to miss the biggest game in rugby league, and one of the highlights of the sporting calendar, which will kick off in front of a full Totally Wicked Stadium on Good Friday.
Don’t forget to cheer on the Saints.
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