The man who will make sure the Lions roar
April 18, 2013
Conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon is one of England coach Stuart Lancaster's key lieutenants © Getty Images
At the end of a long, hard season will come the greatest challenge.
The British & Irish Lions travel to Australia this summer to take on the Wallabies in the three -Test, ten-match tour after a gruelling campaign that started back when the Olympics were still a global obsession.
While Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and Jess Ennis were charming the Home Nations, Britain's top rugby players were smashing chunks out of each other in pre-season training. The targets swiftly switched from team-mates to opponents as the latest battle for domestic and then European honours got underway. Before long southern hemisphere aggressors arrived on British shores for the autumn internationals and then came the Six Nations.
By the time the season reaches its climax many will have been playing for almost ten months. The chosen few will then head straight to Australia for what they hope will be one last hurrah - technically it will be tough, mentally and physically it will be relentless.
"The boys will be coming off the back of a hard season but we will be training intensively because they've got that step up to Test match intensity that is needed two weeks after the end of the season," insists Lions fitness coach Paul Stridgeon, who will help ensure the players are physically prepared for the Wallabies.
There is precious little time to mend bodies, refresh minds and create a world-class team. Their first mini-camp, for those not involved in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Premiership finals, will be in Wales in mid-May. The rest of the squad will join them after the domestic finals, which are on May 25. On the Monday they fly to Hong Kong where they face the Barbarians before arriving in Australia to prepare for the first Test on June 22.
Any players coming from the French Top 14 could be further delayed (though, perhaps crucially, this topic has not come up in Stridgeon's early meetings with head coach Warren Gatland). So there will be little time and much work to be done.
"Having played high intensity rugby with big collisions, that first week will be a lot about recovery," says Stridgeon. "Everyone will be treated individually, if they have not been playing every game they will get conditioning top-ups and so on.
"There will possibly be some individual differences with what players do at their clubs but across the board the conditioning is good, no matter where you are in the Home Nations," he said. "They come to us in pretty good nick and ready to go.
"And we'll be getting plenty of weights sessions in because that is what the coaches like and that is what the players will need. We have got to train above Test match intensity so the boys are ready for it."
And that intensity promises to fierce. In Australia the pitches will be hard and fast, the atmosphere frenzied and the tempo breathless. Of course the Wallabies play their best rugby in such conditions, but far from setting out to strangle the game, the Lions want to unleash their own brand of controlled mayhem.
"We will look to play a fast game because we back ourselves fitness wise, we know the Home Nations are fit teams," Stridgeon said. "And our training will dictate that. So we will have some intense pockets of training that will be above the Test match intensity so we know that when we get there we will be good."
As ever it will start upfront, in the set piece and the collisions at the breakdown. It is here that the Lions believe they can go at the Australians with their front-five power and scrummaging strength.
"That is where we have targeted them in the past and gone at them, especially with England," said Stridgeon, who as the RFU's national fitness coach is one of Stuart Lancaster's key lieutenants. "So we will look to assert our game on them, especially up front with a big scrum. So we see that as a possible point of difference between the sides."
The Lions will play six warm-up games in just over three weeks before the vital opening Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane. Three days later they play the Melbourne Rebels and then it is the final two Tests on the successive Saturdays. But despite the demands of the tour and the inevitability of injuries, the relatively small squad will have to continue pushing themselves to their limit and training to their maximum right to the end.
"We are out there for six or seven weeks so we will obviously still have to keep the training high," said Stridgeon. "We will probably still get three weights session in, even in a Test week. If someone needs extra conditioning we'll do that. Obviously some guys will be playing in the Test team and still have to back up mid-week because we aren't taking a massive squad. So that will need a lot of management."
England conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon and England international Courtney Lawes impart their fitness wisdom © Maximuscle
As much as developing the players' fitness and the team's strategy it will be crucial, especially in those early weeks, to create a powerful team spirit. Fusing players from four different countries into a tight team will be central to the success of the tour and the ultimate outcome of the Test series.
Stridgeon, who knows Gatland from their Wasps days and the previous Lions tour, expects a similar squad atmosphere to the 2009 when they travelled to South Africa. And it is clear after five minutes of chatting to the fitness guru that he will play a key role in developing that culture.
"That will be the main thing," he said. "On a tour like that for so long, if you don't have banter it is a pretty harsh place after two or three weeks. That is how you get people together by having a laugh; it breaks down people's inhibitions a bit.
"We'll have everyone training together. There will be no mid-week team training together and Test team training together. We'll get some big groups in the gym because that gets people to know each other. There will be a lot of team bonding stuff as well and a lot of down time for the boys.
"If you like someone and know them better on a personal level you are more likely to put yourself in a horrible place for them on a professional level," insists Stridgeon. "You are more likely to do that for them. So that is what we aim for, that team-ship that will get us through. It will be a good feel, a good hard-working culture but the lads will get down time to have some banter as well."
All that remains to ask is, can they succeed where the previous three Lions tours have failed? Can they win a first Test series since the tour of South Africa in 1997?
"It will be tough because the Australians are a good team and they always raise their game in big games," warns Stridgeon. "But we should have a chance of beating them down there. We came so close in 2009 and I think we will use that as a motivating factor for pushing us on to trying to win the Test matches."
Paul Stridgeon was speaking at the Maximuscle rugby event, part of the Maximuscle Protein Project. To find out more about the Protein Project visit: www.maximuscle.com/proteinproject
Paul Stridgeon chats to member of the 2009 Lions squad during their tour of South Africa © Getty Images
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