In a previous piece, Setanta College graduate Annie McCarra MSc, examined the Physical Demands of Rugby Union, and the difference between the senior and junior game. In this article, Annie examines the demands of Junior Rugby in more detail.

A Closer Look at the Demands of Junior Rugby

Contrary to other sports, as the age of a rugby player increases, there is an overall decrease in relative distance and high speed running, with an increase in contact situations. It is suggested that the lower level of skill and inferior defensive structures displayed at Junior Rugby level and at younger ages results in a lower frequency of contact and therefore more running, which demonstrates a growing variation in physical demands as the players age and skill levels increase. Contact situations increase most between u16 and u18, which indicates that a key consideration when preparing players for the progression between these levels should be an increase in focus on the contact element of the game.

In open play, evaluation of running performance alone is not sufficient, as research shows a high frequency of acceleration and deceleration efforts across the spectrum of players, and with huge forces placed on the body during fast acceleration and deceleration efforts, the ability to tolerate these demands should be an important feature of training from an early age.

Positional Group Differences

Positional group differences at junior rugby levels are similar to the senior game, with backs performing more high speed running and covering greater distance than forwards, and forwards involved in more contact situations than backs, with that difference becoming more pronounced as the age increases. Despite the overall decrease in running distance and high speed running in both positional groups, there appears to be an increase in maximum sprinting velocity for the backs as age increases, and a significant increase in sprinting volume evident in backs between u16 and u18. The inverse relationship between running and physical contact can be attributed to positional roles in the game, where forwards engage more frequently in tackling, and compete for possession at set pieces and breakdowns; whereas the greater high speed running demands for backs at all levels is attributed to their higher maximum velocity sprints and roles they undertake in more open field play (e.g. repositioning for receiving and carrying the ball).

When examining the changes in the physical demands of rugby players as age increases, the changes in player characteristics should also be considered. The difference in body mass between forwards and backs becomes more pronounced as the age of the player increases. The mean body mass was identical between forwards and backs at u16 (forwards: ±72kgs, backs: ±72kgs), with increasing differences for u18 (forwards: ±88.9kg, backs: ±78.8kg) and university level (forwards: ±109.8kg, backs: ±88.2kg), as well as international u20 (forwards: ±110.3kg, backs: ±89.9kg) and international seniors (forwards: ±115.8kg, backs: ±93.8kg).

Body mass increase has been shown to hinder speed increases, and research has shown that sprint test performances (5m, 10m, 20m, 40m) from u16 through to senior level remain similar despite the increase in body mass, with the exception of the backs who display an increase in maximum sprinting velocity as age increases. The lack of improvement in sprint test performance in forwards with increased age may be attributed to their larger gains in body mass, when compared to backs. Therefore, as the player ages and body mass increases it is beneficial to focus on maintaining high speed running, as this will influence player momentum, which is an important attribute in rugby.

Energy Systems Used

Unfortunately, the available research does not detail time spent in various activities, which would provide us with useful work to rest ratios for the junior game, however it is clear that all three energy systems may be used to varying degrees during game play, with more time spent in lower intensity activity (using the aerobic system) than in higher intensity activity (using the ATP-PC, and anaerobic system). Consequently, all three energy systems should be conditioned to withstand the metabolic demands of rugby, however it has been concluded that repeated high intensity efforts determine success in the game, suggesting that the development of the ATP-PC and anaerobic system should take preference, with the aerobic system being developed simultaneously during rest periods between training these systems.

Practical Takeaways

The gradual shift from greater running distance and less contact to greater contact and less running distance as age increases, demonstrates the need for increased contact preparation (particularly for forwards and when transitioning from u16 to u18), which aligns with the increase in body mass to withstand the demands of contact on the body. Coaches should implement appropriate training interventions, focusing on contact skills, along with the progressive development of upper and lower body strength and power qualities to improve the players contact efficiency and better tolerate collision.

High speed running ability should not be sacrificed as body mass and focus on contact increases, and efforts must be made to maintain this quality, with a further increased focus in sprinting velocity and volume for backs (particularly when transitioning from u16 to u18). Research shows that a reduction in running intensity occurs when multiple contacts are performed in a training session, and given the inverse demands experienced by forwards and backs, this can be exploited for positional training purposes; with forwards exposed to more contact situations, and backs exposed to more sprinting efforts.

The physical demands of the game at junior level also inform us of the skill related components of fitness we need to develop to adequately prepare for participation in the game:

  • The combative nature of rugby and the increasing frequency of contact situations confirms the need for development of strength and power in accordance with the guidelines of long term player development.
  • The high speed running demands, along with the multidirectional acceleration and deceleration efforts, confirm that development of speed and agility, as well as endurance to sustain repeated efforts, are essential for successful participation in rugby.
  • Finally, development of all the components necessary to participate in rugby are determined by the ability to move efficiently, and with players being more sensitive to the development of fundamental movement in their younger years, as well as poor functional movement being associated with increased risk of injury, movement ability should be considered a primary focus in preparations to meet the physical demands of junior rugby.

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