The overloaded 2012 rugby season is set to put considerable strain on the top players, which means that the management of their physical condition will be vital to surviving the gruelling workload.
Former Springbok strength specialist Steve McIntyre believes that the jam-packed schedule, which runs from late February to the end of November in the Southern Hemisphere, coupled with the continuously increasing size and speed of the players, will ultimately result in shorter professional rugby careers.
He told this website in an exclusive interview: "The 2012 season is set to be the busiest and longest yet for players. Each year the players' schedule gets more hectic and as a result, unfortunately, their 'lifespan' in professional rugby will inevitably shorten. Every year the players are also getting better conditioned, bigger, stronger and more powerful.
"The increased match time, speed of the game and the intensity of the collisions means there will continue to be an increased load placed on players. All of this makes the physical preparation more critical as the game demands supreme athletes in all positions," added McIntyre.
The Springboks will play 12 Test matches this year, which along with a lengthy Super Rugby season could add up to an unprecedented schedule of high intensity for some players, which is why the management of their workload - so as to avoid burn-out - will be crucial.
"The various franchises would need to manage their players according to their individual specifics. The basic conditioning principles stay the same for everyone but their application may vary according to the various factors the conditioning staff would take into consideration when designing the training programs," McIntyre explained.
With the lack of a real off-season, burn-out is a real threat for some of the players who have not had a proper opportunity to recover from last year or prepare fully for the challenges that 2012 will present.
In order to avoid putting the players under unnecessary stress the volume of conditioning work will drop off during the season, although the intensity will remain similar to pre-season work.
McIntyre said: "If the players have done their pre-season work there will not be a frequent need for high intensity fitness sessions during the season. Again this may vary according to the individual players' game time, quality of pre-season work done and team specific loading cycles in-season.
"The in-season emphasis from a physical perspective is mainly around recovery after games and the maintenance of the player's physical attributes he has built up during the off and pre-season," he added.
Another vital aspect that cannot be overlooked if players are to perform at their peak for an extended period is nutrition, and it is discipline in this area which often separates the stars from the also-rans.
McIntyre explained: "The entire 'conditioning pyramid' rides on the wheels of good solid nutrition. There is an old cliché that says you can't out train a bad diet, and this is very true especially when it comes to rugby.
"If players are not going to take their nutrition seriously they are sabotaging themselves and will never reach their full potential physically – period," he said.
Every team wants to field their strongest combination as often as possible, but at the same time the players are important assets, and playing them week-in and week-out for an entire year is perhaps not the best way to handle such valuable resources.
A lot will rely on a balance being struck as well as effective and open communications between franchise and national coaches as they seek to guide the talent at their disposal through a demanding schedule that seems fraught with peril.
By Michael de Vries
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