Jan van Rooyen On Pre Season


How to get more excitement around pre-season?

Happy New Year! And more importantly… Happy new Season!

The first of January always brings about a sense of new beginnings. In the Schoolboy rugby world, it also heralds the start of the second part of the season planner, Pre-season. In the previous post, I discussed some off-season training focusses and tactics, and this post will be all about the on-field part of pre-season and why I hate running for conditioning.

Traditionally, on-field pre-season conditioning for rugby always looked a bit like the cross-country team had a training session on the rugby field. The coach arrived without any rugby-balls, just his whistle and his stopwatch. It had a lot of 3km time trails, 400m, 200m and 100m repeats. We ran “Strikdassies”, “90 Seconds” and even a few “Suicides”. And even as someone who actually ran cross-country at school and love running, I hated those sessions! They are boring and holds little correlation to rugby. The players make any excuse to miss these sessions.

We have changed up our pre-season planning to get more excitement from players, and I will share a few thoughts on this:

How we think about conditioning demands:

As a sport-scientist, when I plan our weeks, days and sessions, I always start by looking at the stats! To condition a player, we need to look at the match demands a player experiences.  For this post, I will use the 2017 under-18 Craven week Main game between the Golden Lions and Sharks at St Stithians as an example.

First Half
Time of Ball in Play 13:36
Restarts to get Ball in Play (KO, LO, Scrum) 17
Average time of Ball in Play 48 seconds
Longest time of ball in Play 87 Seconds
Rucks 60


Second Half
Time of Ball in Play 12:54
Restarts to get Ball in Play (KO, LO, Scrum) 18
Average time of Ball in Play 43 seconds
Longest time of ball in Play 90 Seconds
Rucks 60

Disclaimer: I use these stats as an example because these teams, coaches and players will never meet again and thus these stats are not critical. Please note that these stats will vary according to teams, game plans, conditions, or coaches.

From the above stats, we can make the following conclusions: The average ball in play period for this game was 46 seconds and included about 4 contact situations.

I also added the longest period of the ball in play for each half. As a matter of interest, I would also point out that possession changed twice in both these phases, through kicking or turnovers.

Now, what do we do with the above stats? From the above stats, I get my targets for rugby conditioning. My goal in conditioning a rugby player is for them to complete 35 fifty-second bouts of high intensity running, including three contact situations, with about 1 minute of rest in between, all while handling a ball and making decisions. If we can do this, we have a match, ready player! How hard can it be?

How we approach pre-season sessions:

We enter this phase of the season with the expectation that players have been doing slow long runs in the off-season. The Aerobic base should be in place and strong enough to build from. Our on-field session will be planned in the following way:

10-15 min Warmup (Including Dynamic Stretching and Activation, Change of Direction work and possible speed work)

5 Sets of (7min Skills Drill, 2min Endurance, 1min Water break)

5 – 7 minutes of Cooldown

The most important part of the planning of pre-season is the skills! Instead of running for the entire session, we change our skills sessions to get a lot of running intensity. A few examples:

Instead of doing a short run and pass drill, our head coach does a channel drill that includes about 30meters of sprinting, 30meters of jogging, 2 or 3 passes to each side, and 6 changes of speed or direction. Players then jog back slowly (recovery) before they do this again. By doing this drill for 7 minutes, players do about 200m of sprinting, 200m of jogging, 20 passes to each side, and change their speed or direction about 35 times. We finish this block of with two minutes of up-and-downs (falling and getting back up), grappling, pummelling or other wrestling exercises to simulate the contact aspect before the players take a water break.

Instead of running the shape off nine or 10 once and falling back in line, players have to complete 4 phases of running the shape and setting up a ruck, falling back and running the shape again, before jogging back, having a short recovery moment and going again. By doing this drill for 7 minutes, players will simulate about 24 phases of the shape, while running about 200 meters and falling and getting back up 25 times. We will then add 2 minutes of 40m sprints every 15 seconds to stimulate endurance before the players take a water break again.

These types of sessions get a massive amount of conditioning effort whilst working on skills, decision making and game plan.

Tips to implement this type of pre-season:

  • Coach, plan together

It is extremely important that the head coach and S&C Coach work closely together to plan sessions and drills to target the correct energy systems and fatigue according to the planning phase, but also give the head coach enough effective coaching time. These types of sessions put big pressure on the coaches to coach effectively in a little time.

  • Smaller groups

Always break up large groups of players into smaller groups, or split them to different stations. In this way, players do not stand around a lot, and endurance can be the focus

  • Focus on skills and decision making under fatigue from the start

The thought process uses to be that players aren’t fit enough at the start of the season to do decision making or skills drill under fatigue. But by training these skills from the start while improving endurance, you will see unbelievable growth as fitness improves!

  • Do aerobic sessions as games/strongman competitions/Parkrun

Aerobic sessions and base work are still important, program conditioning games, e.g. Fiji or Drop-off Touch, Strongman Competitions, or Team Parkrun competitions at the end of the week to keep the base!

  • Coach one-on-one!

A coach stopping an endurance-focussed drill to coach a skill because one player made a mistake is the most frustrating part of being an S&C coach. If most of the group is doing the skill or drill correctly, take the player making mistakes to the side and do some one-on-one coaching while the rest of the group keeps the intensity up. Stopping the group session for one player's mistake only lets the intensity of the session drop!

By changing up skills drills, to induce fatigue, suddenly we are doing a lot more focused training, and not doing mind-numbing running for 60 minutes. Players feel they are not working as hard, we get better athlete buy-in, and the excitement around training sessions are much more tangible.

Happy training! Enjoy the pre-season. May all your dreams turn into goals!

*Jan van Rooyen is the Conditioning Specialist for Hoërskool Monument Rugby and the Golden Lions u18 Schoolboy teams.