Fitter, faster, stronger
May 24, 2012
Wales' fitness levels helped propel them to Six Nations glory and could be the key to success against Australia next month for the likes of Leigh Halfpenny © Getty Images
The Art of War tells us that "every battle is won before it is ever fought".
Wales are subscribers to the philosophy. Over the past 12 months Warren Gatland's young side have graduated from also-rans to Six Nations champions - via a trip to the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup - and their new-found swagger has solid foundations based on meticulous preparation and a devilish fitness regime. Next up is a gruelling three-Test series in Australia - beginning in Brisbane on June 9 - where Wales will again be pushed to the limit in pursuit of a rare scalp on southern hemisphere soil.
Lawrence Dallaglio, a Rugby World Cup-winner with England in 2003, once observed that he knew he would be fitter over the last half an hour than an opponent wearing a Wales jersey. That's not how it works these days. Under strength and conditioning coach Adam Beard - a former Australian Schoolboys representative and world-renowned expert in his field - Wales have become a fearsome unit, capable of lung-bursting feats in defence and explosive pace in attack.
A small - not to mention deeply unpleasant - aspect of Beard's work is the Wales Anaerobic Test (WAT), a routine of his devising used to chart players' ability to keep working through the twin barriers of pain and exhaustion. The construct is remarkably simple. A sequence of cones marks the path that the national squad - and on this occasion a couple of well-fed journalists - must take to complete the test, which lasts around five minutes and comprises a series of repetitive actions designed to foster competition between players and push even the fittest to the edge.
The first shuttle is the fastest - a down-up between the first two cones, followed by a figure of eight run and a flat 20 metre sprint - and as Beard cranks up the pressure with another variation, it is quickly understood why the WAT is so feared. Under anaerobic conditions - without air - your body tears through phosphates and lactic acid in search of further fuel, giving Beard and his team an idea of the players' fitness levels under fatigue.
"I was told about the test," Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny recalled. "I thought, 'it can't be that bad'. You soon find out how bad it is. The squad is used to doing it now, we've done it for quite a while and a big part of our success is the fitness side of things. That test is very tough but a game is never going to get that tough. If you're working hard here and getting good scores, you know you're in good shape for playing internationals."
Alongside Wales' much-vaunted coaching setup - comprising Gatland, defence specialist Shaun Edwards, attack coach Rob Howley and former Wales hooker Robin McBryde - Beard was able to work on specific aspects of the team's fitness at their pre-Rugby World Cup camp in Poland, ensuring that they had every chance of making an impact on the tournament.
"The big thing is trying to condition for rugby," Beard said. 'We've got some very talented coaches and they know what they want physically. I sat down with Warren and Rob Howley especially and looked at what we lacked physically. It was running fitness and running economy, and the ability to do explosive efforts under fatigue. We were quite fit, but just not fit for rugby. We really tailored that before the Rugby World Cup. Poland gave us that opportunity to really work hard on those things."
To find an example of Beard's work in action, look no further than the dying embers of Wales' 19-12 victory over England at Twickenham in February. The game hinged on Scott Williams' breakaway try and a thrilling last stand by the visitors, where Halfpenny sprinted almost the width of the pitch to chop down England wing David Strettle as he charged for the line. The final conclusion of the Television Match Official may have been controversial, but even the most ardent of red roses could appreciate the efforts of the Welsh defence.
"I had to cover quite a long distance towards the end of the game," Halfpenny said. "It came down to fitness levels and the fitness work we've done. That played a massive part. Shaun demands the highest standards and that you know your roles inside out in every situation. For me, in that situation, I had to be on the ball. Wherever the ball was, I had to be there. I saw the ball go, and I gave everything to get there and stop that try."
After being plucked from relative obscurity to make his Test bow against South Africa in 2008 - a mere handful of games into his professional career with Cardiff Blues - Halfpenny has grown along with this Wales squad. During the World Cup and Six Nations he produced his best form to date, and that again can be attributed in part to the fastidious manner in which Wales' elite players are expected to conduct themselves.
"It's a 24-hour job," Halfpenny said. "You get up, get your nutrition in for breakfast and come to work. You go home and it's still work, what you're eating, what you're doing. You can't be out late, you have to be in bed the same time every night. It's a strict job, but something I thoroughly enjoy. The Grand Slam was just the beginning for this group of players, we're capable of going all the way."
Leigh Halfpenny, Wales and Cardiff Blues full-back, is proud to be powered by the UK's leading sports nutrition brand, Maximuscle, thanks to their partnership with the WRU. Leigh and his Wales Rugby teammates follow an intense training regime and Maximuscle products are vital to enable them to train, recover and compete at the highest level.
For more information on the WRU's sports nutrition programme please visit: www.maximuscle.com
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is a freelance rugby journalist