Need for speed: The value of pace in rugby
We examine how pace can be a difference-maker on the elite club and Test stage. This feature first appeared in the issue of Rugby World on sale throughout November.
BARELY FOUR minutes into England’s 2014 Twickenham Test against the All Blacks, Brad Barritt threw a looping ball to Jonny May. It was May’s second game against New Zealand but his first on home soil. As he passed halfway, he thought he eyed a hole in the defence…
“In that situation I remember we were really tight defensively,” Conrad Smith, who was covering May, recalls. “I let myself get too narrow, so I was calling Ben (Smith) to hold on Jonny a little longer, to let me get wider. Ben was obviously worried about the outside so as he pushed off I knew I was in trouble.”
May ran an arc between the Smiths and made for the touchline, outside a covering Israel Dagg. The Kiwi full-back grabbed nothing but air as he tried to tackle the England wing. May had just blazed his way to a career-high try.
Smith goes on: “I’ve marked a lot of guys with real pace, full-backs like Israel Folau and Willie le Roux can be nightmares for a centre. So I always worked really hard to make sure we defended in twos and threes around those sort of guys. I’d always do the same for my wingers when left to mark guys such as Jonny…”
Sometimes, no matter how savvy you are, genuine speed can undo the best defence. Amidst a season of blistering performances, we look at the mechanics of burning tacklers, the psychology of a break and how the best can get even better…
As one of the best defensive leaders in the modern game, Smith spent his Test career ensuring he would have a minimum of one-on-ones against fast players, particularly wingers. However, even the most electric wideouts must consider how best to utilise their natural abilities.
Darren Campbell won an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m relay in Athens in 2004. In recent years he has trained athletes as a speed and movement consultant and spent two seasons working with Wasps. He tried to make some things clear about running in rugby.
“I look at the movements and efficiency. That’s about different percentages you are running at, the gears you use. Most people just want to run at 100%. Once you’ve got through contact and use your mechanics, it’s about taking control and feeling how to use power.”
Unpicking bad habits can be a large part of Campbell’s gig. But his time in rugby has helped evolve his views too. So while he could get everyone in a diverse squad working on their knee lift or pulling up into their stride down the track, he’s well aware that bulkier beasts don’t need 70m sprints in a game – they need to bust a tackle.
He also knows some fleeter-footed players need control so they can use a sidestep or be equipped to accelerate once they are through a gap. Which is why he adopted the phrase: “You’re in control – the tackler doesn’t know what you’re going to do.”
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But there is a fundamental you can’t avoid. “The key thing in sprinting is switching from explosive power to relaxation,” Campbell says, thinking of the energy system used in a flat-out run.
“You cannot go faster than your fastest. Everybody will decelerate. If you stay relaxed and he’s fighting to catch you, he will decelerate quicker than you. You only have to look at the success of Elliot Daly, who wasn’t a winger but went on the Lions tour and played at wing – his speed has increased by so much. If you focus, it’s impossible to not get faster.”
At their best, Wasps have been able to attack from far out; they have had the confidence to break from distance. Of course, at the very top of the game, players will be that bit faster, that bit better conditioned – Wasps have plenty of international experience in their ranks.
At the flash points of the season, the very best long-range finishers may break out at 90% of their maximum speed, be able to scan the field around them, make decisions and maintain their technique in order to get to the line. Winning footraces is about decelerating at a slower rate than the chasers.
THRILL OF THE CHASE
Even average pavement pounders talk of the ‘runner’s high’ – a feeling of euphoria experienced during an arduous run. And for the lucky, in rugby there is an equally heavenly sensation as you burn off opponents.
“It was a lot more exciting for me to make a break than to score a try,” says Tonderai Chavhanga, the former blur of a Springbok who found such moments of bliss throughout his patchwork career. “There’s more satisfaction in creating a gap with your speed. When I was running in open space, it felt almost as if there was just me. I couldn’t hear the crowd. It was like I was running free. It was almost like I was flying – it was just me, the ball and the ground.”
When it comes to the psychology of being hunted down, Chavhanga has never overthought those moments of breaking free. But for Ugo Monye, the man who scored the try of the 2009 Lions tour, you need bloody-mindedness to finish off such chances.
He says: “I always backed myself, so the moment I broke I was thinking about the try-line. I had the belief, especially in my prime, that I wouldn’t be caught.
“In saying that, a break in your half is different to a break in the opposition half. In your own half, I think you back yourself but must also look to see where your support is coming from – it’s often your second involvement or touch that gets you the try. In the opposition half, any good winger with speed should pin their ears back and back their pace. We yearn for one-on-ones all game and now you have it, potentially a full-back or covering winger – back yourself!”
There are people out there who pay money for so-called ‘Zombie runs’ – events where you are motivated to run by being chased. How does being chased affect your mentality?
“A chaser focuses you,” Monye says. “It puts your speed drills under pressure as poor technical sprinters will tighten up and won’t be as efficient. I loved a chase. Nothing better than seeing two speed merchants race. Think of Semesa Rokoduguni versus May earlier in the season. I always knew if I could get away quickly, over the first ten or 15 yards, I wouldn’t be caught.”
Chavhanga cannot remember being caught. He agrees that if they master their gears, a smart speedster will not be snared, no matter what their time over a full 100m. He sees Shane Williams as the master of using whatever pace was at his disposal to full effect. Clever runners can enjoy the game of cat and mouse.
In 2013, former Wallabies conditioner Dean Benton said that despite Israel Folau’s lethal speed, he could get faster. Having looked at past studies of the multi-sport phenom, Benton told The Australian: “At the Broncos in 2009 we analysed Israel’s running technique. There were discrepancies between his considerable 80cm vertical jump and his ability to convert this into horizontal and lateral speed.
“Essentially, we directed his training towards improving his running skill and related lumbo-pelvic coordination.”
Benton felt that Folau wouldn’t reach his true potential until he was in his late 20s – it is worth noting that he is 28 now – and even then, focus on good habits and technique was needed. The greats can always get better.
It’s a matter of looking at what is most important to work on and how it fits into your long-term plan. Jonas Dodoo, the coach who worked with Olympic gold medalist long-jumper Greg Rutherford, once told The Mirror of Anthony Watson: “If I could get him to do athletics, if he wasn’t playing rugby, he’s someone who could run very fast over 100m.”
Many a fine player has the perfect raw materials to run. Sure, there are only so many hours of training a player can put in before there is a detrimental affect. However, it doesn’t always have to be purely about improving the out-and-out pace of a player with specialist training.
“Christian Wade has not had any hammy injuries this season,” Campbell points out. “That’s because he knows how to run now. He actually had an athletics background but now he understands the movements and doesn’t overwork the hamstrings.”
Jonny May, who has worked on his form with Campbell’s relay partner in 2004 in Athens, Marlon Devonish, feels he has got even faster over the years. Perhaps rugby can still become that little bit quicker. But maybe runners really shine when they are sharp in the minds and conditioned to gallop.
This feature first appeared in the issue of Rugby World on sale throughout November.