The Evolution Of Rugby Training | Go Back To The 80’s

Written by Simon Cushman

Where Did Rugby Training Begin?

With the rise of the six-nations back on TV followed swiftly by the British and Irish Lions Tour this summer, let’s have a look back on how the physique of a rugby player has changed and what brought it about.


Rugby union was first professionalised in 1995 after the success at the Rugby World Cup, meaning that players went from part-time to full-time athletes and their training volume could increase. However, even prior to this it was clear that the development of the rugby player was geared towards a winning mentality.


Back To The Start


The origins of rugby are thought to be a magical football match where William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran to the end of the pitch, however games that were taken to form rugby as the international sport we see today have been around since the Middle Ages, although not much like the recognised, organised game. These took the form of villages fighting to get a ball to their neighbouring town square, or Eton school forming a scrum like game where they tried to drive the opposition past a certain point.


Recognised and standardised laws were put in place in 1871 and an organised game was made by the newly formed RFU to differentiate between association football. In 1892, Northern clubs formed leagues with longer seasons and they began to train their players to cope with the demands of the sport, which would go on to be named rugby league, separate to union. From this point, rules would continue to change to shape the future of rugby and indeed shape the players themselves into the battering rams you see today.

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Size & Shape


We can see the shape and size of rugby players have dramatically changed. But how has the training played a part? Just by watching videos of past games from the 80s, the players are much more focussed on the continuity of the game, trying to keep the ball off of the floor as much as they can and being nimble and agile to skip around defenders. Whereas now they are more inclined to take contact and set up multiple plays to exploit their opposition. However, which came first, the training or the demand for bigger players???


Back in the 80’s little was known or thought of in terms of sport science, so there’s not a lot of data to look at in terms of the training players took part in and if they were even doing the correct training for the sport. Coaches would prepare athletes for competition by training natural ability and skill, but from the first World Cup, games became more competitive with players starting to show an increase in size, to which rugby later developed into a collision sport, competing at the ruck, maul or scrum. Now it not only became a game of skill but of physical power as well.

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From here, players began to train in the gym as well as on the field, with strength coaches starting to put into practice what they have discovered from other sports such as powerlifting and bodybuilding. The coaches wanted bigger and stronger players; that meant being able to lift more, and having more muscle. Gym training was at its most basic with players purely focussing on getting massive and strong, which would have had a slight negative effect on their endurance. This is when we see an increase in the research towards endurance training and an implementation on athletes in team sports.


However, even up to 1995, players were still thinking of their amateur days and maybe not seeing the benefit of training as seriously as they could, not to mention trying to juggle their work and rugby commitments. Prior to its professionalisation, players were fitting all of their rugby skills training and their weight training into two nights, which we know now to not be as beneficial, but the knowledge and science weren’t available to guide coaches and players.


Since 1995, the volume of training has increased, which has adapted the team’s structure and backroom staff. With changes in the law’s (rules), including not being able to kick straight into touch and being able to take a ‘quick tap’ penalty made the game more continuous and demanding. This meant the players needed to have a greater endurance.

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Introduction Of Technology


The implementation of technology such as GPS units has helped to quantify the demands of the sport, creating an idea of what players should be working towards. Improvements in sport science and research in training and nutrition have meant that the size of players has increased, but also their ‘functional mass’ is greater. Players can be caught eating up to 3 grams of protein per kg of their mass per day. That can be over 300 g protein for the average player.


Even prop’s, who used to be recognised as the largest players who work to win a scrum are stronger, agile and much more mobile due to these advances. Then comparing this to the outside backs, thought to be the little ‘whipits’ of the group, now look like pure machines with a lot more upper body mass to cope with the high collisions and are much leaner. The changes in the match demands have brought about an adapted rugby player who is stronger, faster and heavier than before, rising from an average of 92.3 kg into 1994 to 105.3 kg in 2014!


This change in body composition creates an exciting game, but for the players, it means a huge chance of injury due to collision forces repeatedly being reported to replicate a 40 mph car crash! Because of this, you can expect more changes to the laws of the game to improve the safety of players

Lesser Known Facts About Rugby:


#1 The first streaker at a sporting event, Michael O’Brien came out to bare all in a rugby match in 1974.

#2 Women’s RFU was formed in 1983, yet only became professional in 2014.


We asked former England professional and Six Nations winner Phil Greening his view on the development of rugby plus the sheer size and weight of current players. Check it out!

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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. Faye has worked with numerous high-profile oranisations, such as Men's Health, Sky Sports, Huddersfield Giants, Warrington Wolves, British Dressage and GB Rowing, providing her expert sports science support. Find out more about Faye's experience here: She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding.

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