By Nico de Villiers
Posted: Updated:

Recently I was contacted to take part in an old boys rugby game between Paul Roos and our old rivals from Bloemfontein, Grey College. I have not played rugby for 13 years and was very sceptical to take part in this event. I have heard way too many stories of ex-players getting badly injured in these games and even guys doing ACL’s by just playing touch rugby. Common sense told me it was a bad idea, but the S&C coach inside of me manage to convince myself that I could condition myself in three weeks to do it and prepare properly for not just surviving the game, but actually enjoy it.

  • Just a few things about these games, they are 20-25min a side.
  • You have rolling subs
  • Uncontested scrums
  • No rucking
  • No mauling

I manage to play 75% of the game and came through it quite comfortably. Others were not so lucky with 3 hamstring strains, an ACL gr1 and a peck tear amongst the injuries of my teammates (Some of them getting injured in the practice the day before).

So here are my 10 tips (no particular order) on how to survive and prepare yourself for such a game:

  1. Body composition. If you are carrying some extra weight, this is the first thing you should address if you are thinking about getting back in the game. Extra body weight puts a lot of strain on the joint of the lower body and lower back and things like deceleration and change of direction are where you will feel it the most. Additionally, your energy expenditure of running around with an extra 5-6 kg is a lot higher and you will fatigue much quicker which in return also increase the risk of injury. My advice will be to shed as much weight as you can before getting back in the game. 1-2kg per week can be a good goal. Lots of players get back into rugby with the goal of losing weight. This could be effective, but a high-risk approach. I would suggest losing a couple before you even start your rugby sessions.
  2. Strength. Not much can be done to get bigger if you have short notice, but if you have not been in the gym, getting stronger will definitely aid in taking the punches. The literature is quite clear that players with better lower body strength are less likely to get injured and recover quicker from a match. For me, strength was not an issue since I’ve been in the gym all my life, but I will diffidently advice anyone getting back in the game to get stronger, not for performance, but for protection. You can read a bit more on strength training here and here
  3. Speed. This is the area I think most players will lack when they get back into the game. It is not so much about getting faster but exposing your body to high-speed movement again. Strong neural stimulus is not something we get in your everyday life or normal training regimen. Its something that you should actively expose yourself to and there is no better way that sprinting or doing plyometrics. This should be done gradually. To move from no training to sprinting in 3 weeks is not a good idea. Is would rather suggest low-intensity plyometrics, tempo runs and speed technique work and then adding some sledges and hill sprints. Your ability to move fast when the opportunity presents will, first of all, allow you to perform on the field and second of all protect you from injury. So I would strongly suggest that slowly build up running speed to a point where you do some sprinting work before you go into a game. 
  4. Output. Besides the contact, this is probably the one thing that will shock your body the most. With output, I mean intensity and with intensity, it’s about exposing your cardiovascular system to near max output. Rugby is without a doubt a game where you will get your heart rate up no near max and this is something you should do before you get back on the pitch. There are several ways of doing it. Circuit training is one of the most common ways, but getting out on the pitch and doing shuttles and making tackles is probably best. High output work will require lots of rest and can only last a short while. Working (Shuttles/Tackle bags etc) 15-30sec on 15-30sec of for 3-6 reps, resting 2min and then repeating is a simple way I used to prepare myself and it worked quite well. You can gradually increase the volume, but don’t get back down on the intensity, rather rest longer. Once again this should be a gradual progression.
  5. Impact. Ouch! This is the one that will make you hurt the next couple of days. Rugby is a contact/collision sport and although is the reason most of us love to play it if you are not conditioned for it, it will most probably cause an injury along the line. Playing the old boys game there are some rules to protect you from uncontrolled contact (no rucking), but believe me, in all the games that were played, this is the one area that every player tried to prove a point and there were some big collisions out there. For me, there are three stages one can prepare yourself for contact. Stage one is force absorption, exercises like falling, catching tackle bag, crawling, tackling hits from shield all fall in this stage. Stage two is more controlled contact like tracking and tackling, rucking against a shield, tackling and being tackle against a shield. Stage three would be similar and a combination of live and bag work but in an unpredictable environment (don’t know what the opponent will do and when you will fall or be tackle etc). You can watch an example of some stage one drills that  I have used here.
  6. Prehab. Injury prevention/prehab or whatever you want to call it is something I will pay attention to before getting back on the pitch. This could be very individualised based on previous injuries or weaknesses. The one thing I would recommend if you do some injury prevention work/rehab, don’t go soft. Remember you about to expose your previously injured area not to normal daily life but to some high-speed impacts. Your rehab program should be rigid and as close to what could go wrong in the game as possible. Standing on a balance pad will not be sufficient for protecting those ankles and doing some bands IR/ER work not going to help when you make a tackle. All prehab work should work toward performing or resisting movement under fatigue in an unpredictable environment. For me, personally, ankle mobility and stability was a focus point while lumbar stability is something I would suggest. If you are not a custom to contact the spine does take some shots and doing some high threshold lumbar stability work would be on my menu if I have to do it again.
  7. Aerobic Fitness. Although the game I was preparing for was only 40-50min with rolling subs, there is still some value in developing your aerobic base. Your aerobic system is what sustained all your other systems and helps you deliver oxygen & remove byproduct to and from the muscle. It allows you to recover from the high-intensity bouts. So how much aerobic fitness do you need? I would suggest 30-40min of aerobic work 3-4 times per week. You can either do it by running or do some off feet cardio. I would suggest off feet to start with, especially for the heavier players. If you are keen on running you can find a couple of running protocols here & here.
  8. Movement. No matter how fit and strong you are, doing a new movement pattern at high or even moderate speed and intensity can leave you sore or even injured the next day. Think about how you feel after bowling in a backyard cricket game, or playing a game of soccer. Even something slow as a game of golf can leave you sore the next day. When it comes to rugby, there are many movements that can hurt you but its mostly the acceleration, deceleration and change of direction that will catch you. Horizontal patterns like rucking and tackling are also something to get used to but you can address this in your contact preparation. While running through some old school change of direction drills will help, its unpredictable or reactive movement that you need to train. Playing some small sided games like 6 touches or breakdown touch is an excellent way to prepare you for the movement’s demands of rugby. Start slow and build up in time and speed of the games. This will also be an excellent conditioning tool and you can combine a game of touch with some output drills and shuttles.
  9. Technique. One of the first things I notice when watching lower level rugby games is the low level of skill and technique players have in performing tackles, rucking, passing and even catching. If you go watch international teams training sessions you will always notice that that, even though at the top level, they are always working on their technique. There is an old saying that you never forget to ride a bike, but there is a substantial difference between how I ride a bike and the winner of the Cape Epic rides a bike. It does not matter how strong and fit you are, the better your technique when it comes to running or going into contact, the better you change of performance and doing it without getting injured. The major areas I would focus on is tackling and contact technique. Do some one on one work with a partner every day. It does not have to be high intensity, just good quality.
  10. Medical. It does not matter how well you prepare your self and how “tough” you think you are. Injuries in rugby are reality and catastrophic injuries are also a reality. If you are a professional player you come to terms with these things cause it’s your bread and butter, but playing for the fun of it, if something goes wrong, you need to be prepared for it. Please ensure you are cleared by a medical professional before you ever try and get back on the field. Also, make sure you have medical cover if something should happen and you end up in the hospital. On game day, make sure there is sufficient, qualified medical professionals with a spine board and harness, cervical colour and head blocks and first aid bag next to the field. Additionally, they should have an emergency plan and access to an ambulance. Please consult the  Boksmart safety requirements before a game. Lastly, for the sake of your future of your face…where a mouth guard!!!


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