Rugby unites millions of people all over the world due to its varieties. In Russia, for example, the most played sports are football, hockey, biathlon and basketball, but despite this fact rugby is also becoming really popular. The Russian Rugby Championship is one of the strongest club tournaments in Eastern Europe. They also show great results at international tournaments, as evidenced by the latest results at the 2021 Rugby Europe Sevens Championship Series where the women’s team became a winner of the second round and men ranked fourth. Every year more and more fans come to the stadiums and the competition between the players is growing. There are top senior league and national teams, as well as youth ones. What is more, the student leagues are expanding and new rugby academies are being established. Still, those who want to play at the highest level must put in a lot of effort, show their potential and have a good physical condition. We can see it in senior players, but what about the younger ones? What are the physical requirements for the young athletes and how their potential is assessed? About this we talk to Ruslan Medvedev, physical preparation coach of the Russian national rugby team (U18).
You have worked with both youth and senior rugby players. You are currently a physical preparation coach of the Russian national team (U-18), you also have experience working with the U-20 team and the senior team CSKA Moscow. What are the biggest differences in working with young players who are still developing physically and those who are already mature and fully formed?
This is the difference itself. Young players of 18 and 20 years old have great potential to improve physical strength and speed qualities, with mature athletes my task is mostly to keep the indicators that they have.
Is your task as a coach responsible for the physical preparation of the representation more to assess their potential and help in the selection of players, or are you an additional support for them and someone who helps in shaping the appropriate features and developing their physical potential?
Both are my main tasks and they are interrelated. In both teams, I was lucky to work with coaches, for whom it is very important to understand in what physical condition this or that athlete is, whether he is able to cope with the pace of the game and the level of upcoming opponents. Physical performance is a very important aspect in determining the choice of players for the national team and the professional team – this applies to both experienced older players and young athletes.
Support, formation and development of youth is our important goal. At the club and national team level, it must be understood that guys who have received a competent base of strength and conditioning training at the age of 15 and above are getting less injured in such a versatile sport as rugby. This allows young promising players to reach the level of professional athletes with vast experience. To summarize: the fewer injuries in a player’s career, the more chances he will be able to play at a high level, get playing time and invaluable experience. So in the future we can count on the development of our sport as a whole.
Rugby is a very physical sport in which certain characteristics such as strength, speed and dynamics play a very important role on the pitch. Are the physical requirements, predispositions and volitional features for players in certain positions the same at the youth level as for professional players?
Physical requirements of course are different and with age these requirements grow to the level of professional athletes. As for the volitional qualities of players in certain positions, then, in my opinion, any player in any position in our sport should be 100% ready mentally, otherwise he will not be able to play rugby and develop at the proper level.
What conditions for development do young players have in Russian clubs? The professional league is developing very well, serious sponsors appear, players can count on earnings similar to the Premier League. This attracts foreign coaches and players, which raises the sports level. Russia is also trying to organize the world championship in 2027. Does all this also translate into the level of training and work with young players who are to determine the strength of the national team in the future?
We can already see many positive changes. For example, the number of tournaments for children in Tag Rugby is growing, and the whole system of youth competitions has been formed. All this really helps us to develop our sport and only with further growth and popularization will we be able to count on a strong national team in the future.
The first Rugby Europe Sevens 7 tournament was played recently in Lisbon. The Russian teams presented themselves very well, the women took first place and the men the third place. Soon there will also be the youth European Championship in both rugby varieties. What are your expectations for these tournaments and how are you preparing for them?
The Rugby 7 U18 team is already preparing for the European Championship and is at the training camp. A tournament will take place very soon and I think we will have a very interesting championship. The guys have great chances to prove themselves, but to understand the teams’ chances, you need to have more information on the opponents in a group. Similarly, with the junior Rugby 15 team. Camps are planned and preparations for the European Championship are underway throughout the year.
And how did the pandemic affect the entire preparation cycle, your work and the physical condition of the players?
The pandemic dictates only a lot of work online, which is not that bad, because coaches are starting to adapt and trying to find new formats for working with players and their control. The planned training camp was successful, the guys got in excellent condition. Of course, I would like to play more test matches – this is the only big disadvantage, but in this situation we are trying not to think about what we cannot change, because all teams are in almost the same conditions.
You are responsible for the physical preparation of the U-18 players in 15-person rugby, where there is a lot of specialization in individual positions. This translates into individual characteristics and physical predispositions. The players of the defense have more weight, they are bigger and stronger, while the attackers are quick and agile. Does it look similar at the youth teams stage? Are players more versatile at a young age and specialization only appears at a later stage?
The defensive players have more anthropometry and strength, the offensive players have less of it, but are faster. At this age, indeed, juniors can change specialization in some positions along the way of their careers.
Specialization makes the individualization of training very important. It allows you to shape in a player certain features that are desired in a given position. Do you try to shape them in this way with young players?
There is a level of strength and conditioning for each position. The coach’s task is to determine this level with the help of tests, and to plan personal work for everyone in the gym and on the field – this is an individual approach from the point of view of physical training. Also, my task is to improve motor skills. I can do this both individually and in a group, on the field and in the gym. It helps to improve the quality of movements, respectively, and can affect the performance of specialization in this sport.
Moving to a higher age category is probably a big challenge for such a player. Fighting with peers at the age of 18 is something completely different than facing adult players, sometimes weighing 130 kg. For a young athlete it must be a huge step and a collision with completely different loads. How should he be physically prepared for this?
The athlete must be prepared according to the parameters of his age category. The volume of specific work in training with adult players is gradually increasing, this process occurs in stages.
Attack line players often combine the game of 15 ‘ with the Olympic variant, in which speed, agility and good condition count. Supposedly, a well-prepared Rugby 7 player can easily handle a Rugby 15 game. Do you agree with this claim?
I disagree. These are two kinds of sports, similar at first glance, but completely different in their specifics, as well as from the point of view of physical training and game thinking.
This combination of the two varieties of rugby at the club and the national team means that players are heavily exploited. Recently, before the European Rugby 7 Championship, we had the opportunity to observe the training of the Polish national team, which was based on players playing in 15’ on a daily basis. We were really impressed with the intensity of their work on the pitch, despite the fact that most of them played league matches 2 days earlier, and they had three training sessions a day on the national team. However, the coaches emphasized that without monitoring the effort and load it would be impossible, because without it it is practically impossible to measure the work they do on the pitch. How do you monitor your players, does it only take place during training camps or do players have devices in clubs on a daily basis?
The youth team has been working with Sonda Sports sensors since 2020. Only with the help of GPS trackers can you accurately determine the intensity and volume of work carried out in the field. We are very glad that the federation gave us the opportunity to conduct our training as efficiently as possible and in step with the times.
Just like the Polish national team, you have been monitoring your performance and training load using the Sonda Sports system for several months now. How do you use GPS data and what are the most important lessons you learned from it?
As I mentioned above, now we get accurate information on the volume and intensity of the work being done. The biggest plus is that the numbers help identify the less trained players on the pitch and the players the whole team should be following. It is not always possible to see the work of individual players when there are more than 30 of them on the field. It helps us a lot.
One of the main advantages of monitoring is the prevention of overload injuries resulting from overtraining or under-training. In football, they are responsible for 90% of all injuries, which is incomparably more than those that occur as a result of traumatic events. Rugby is much more of a contact sport, so we have a lot of falls, collisions with rivals and face-to-face combat, but also a lot of constant effort, wrestling and running. Good motor preparation helps protect the player from any type of injury, but which of them are the bigger problem and challenge for you as a coach?
The most common injuries are leg injuries: the back of the thigh, ACL, menisci, ankle injuries. Trackers are really a part of injury prevention and they give us a picture of effective and ineffective work with players, which can lead to injuries in the future. Collecting and analyzing data from GPS trackers helps to improve the quality of training and correctly distribute the load.
Again, I will use the football analogy. As much as 80% of all injuries in this discipline occur before the age of 24, and half of them occur in players under 15 years of age. This is due to the fact that players in adolescence are weakened and particularly vulnerable to injuries. Therefore, professional academies carefully monitor biological age and a number of physical parameters. They analyze and evaluate the progress of players over the years and take care of their proper development. As a result, we see a very large increase in awareness, both in the coaches and the players themselves, who initially treat it as a form of competition and motivation to work. But over time, they themselves become interested in these data, which affects their professional approach. Do your players feel that way too?
Young players are interested in knowing test data or data from sensors primarily due to the usual competition: who is stronger, who is faster or more enduring. But the interest in personal development in the future “What is my body really capable of and how long is it capable of being at its peak?” depends directly on fitness coaches. Motivating an athlete is one thing, but giving a clear idea of what physical training is and how it can change the life of a young athlete in the future is quite another. Now we can say with confidence that in Russia there are also specialists who, in addition to the concepts of “Rocking chair” or “Running volumes”, pay great attention to “Prevention of injuries” and it is very important that there are more such specialists in the Youth teams in our country. This is a hot issue, now there is a huge amount of research and programs on injury prevention, such as in England – the “Activate” program from World of Rugby, it helps young athletes to minimize injuries on the field. New technologies from Sonda Sports enable the Russian youth team to see and prevent unnecessary injuries of young athletes. Only one’s own desire to develop, interest in new technologies, and the experience of foreign colleagues can become the basis for creating the development of our team and the development of sports in general.