Image Credit: Garreth Barclay

No one will have a bigger say on who lifts the Rugby World Cup than the leading teams’ supremely athletic loose forwards. We unlock the secrets of three of the best, with South African number 8 Duane Vermeulen

In the past, winning rugby was based on a fairly simple combination: big forwards, fast backs. Up front you’d have the brawn: massive okes who’d walk from scrum to scrum. At the back you’d have the pace: fleet-footed wingers who’d outsprint the opposition’s desperate tackles. Today, it’s a different ball game. In 2015, world-class rugby is defined by conditioned athletes who combine strength and speed, power and pace.

Games – and World Cups – are won and lost by the men in the middle: the loose forwards. Among the Springboks, there’s no better example among them than 2014 Super Rugby Player of the Year, Duane Vermeulen.

“You have to be the complete athlete,” he says when we ask him about the demands of the modern game. “You have to be able to do everything. A forward has to run at the same speed as the backs, and the backs have to stop a hell of a lot of momentum.”

You can’t be only big or only fast. You have to be both, and you need a physique to match. Fitness is functional, and their training – like your hours in the gym – must be designed to achieve that. Vermeulen and his back-row contemporaries – guys like Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw or Warren Whiteley – understand that, while elite rugby has always been about physicality, the modern game now comes with a whole new level of demands.

“As a loose forward, you’re the link between the forwards and the backs,” Vermeulen says. “So you do everything they do: you battle with the forwards, run with the backs, you steal, you jump in the lineouts… There’s very little we don’t do. That suits me. My natural game is, I want that ball. And as a loose forward, I see a lot of it.”

Vermeulen points to his Cheetahs counterpart Heinrich Brüssow to illustrate the point: “Heinrich is 1.7 metres tall, so he’s not the biggest guy – but he makes a massive impact.”

The high standards, narrow margins and intense demands of top-level rugby have forced the game’s elite players and coaches to rethink their approach to training. Consider Vermeulen’s schedule this year. The Super Rugby season started in mid-February, and ran for 18 rounds into June’s play-offs. Then July brought a (mercifully shortened) Rugby Championship, followed by the start of the Currie Cup season in August. Now in September and October, there’s the small matter of the Rugby World Cup to take care of. From one month to another, players like Vermeulen have to switch from international franchise rugby to Test match rugby to domestic rugby to World Cup rugby.

“It’s weird,” Vermeulen laughs. “Last week you were with your Super Rugby franchise, and next week you’re with the Springboks, so you’ve got to play alongside the guy you played against last week. Sometimes that’s not great, but everything is so professional, and everyone just moves into that next position. You just have to make the switch.”

Adapting to the changing roster of teammates is difficult enough (one week you’re cleaning a guy out in the scrum; next week you’re relying on him to win the ball for you). Now factor in the adjustment of training for a domestic match against, say, the EP Kings, to suddenly training for a Test match against the All Blacks, and you have some idea of what it’s like to be a professional athlete.

“People think that international rugby looks slower than Super Rugby,” Vermeulen says. “It’s not. Test match rugby is a hell of a lot faster than franchise rugby – and you have to train for that. Everything is at a higher intensity. There’s no margin for error.”

The packed rugby calendar means that the players have precious little breathing room in-between, and virtually no room for conditioning. “We have training sessions in the gym three times a week,” says Vermeulen. “But it’s very specific, based on your playing position. During the season, I don’t do a lot of heavy gym work: it’s just maintenance, and keeping your bodyweight at the level where you perform the best.”

While many of his teammates go heavy in the gym, Vermeulen doesn’t because his body has a natural tendency to build muscle quickly. For Joe Bodybuilder, that’s great. For a pro athlete, who needs functional fitness, it means changing your approach to training. “I tend to put on a lot of kilograms in muscle if I gym a lot,” he says. “So if I hit the gym too hard, I become too heavy… and if you’re big and heavy, you become slow.”

Elite rugby is – to steal a line from another sport – a game of inches. Games are won and lost on the narrowest of margins. Recent Rugby World Cup Finals prove the point. In 2011, France were a missed penalty away from beating New Zealand. In 2007, England came within a disallowed try of beating South Africa. In 2003, Australia came within 26 seconds of an extra-time draw and an unprecedented penalty kick-out against England. Instead, it was New Zealand, South Africa and England who lifted the trophy.

For every player at this month’s World Cup, there’s the finest of lines between winning and losing. Vermeulen, who only recently recovered from neck surgery, knows that his own 2015 World Cup campaign is on the narrowest of knife-edges. “But there’s a lot you can do to become that 1% better in everything you take on,” he says. “Start at the beginning, with how you breathe: some guys breathe through their mouth, and not their nose. If you close your mouth for just five minutes, and breathe through your nose, you’re going to feel the effect, because it’s going to become difficult for you to breathe. So breathe in slowly, for two or three seconds, then breathe out slowly, again for two or three seconds. It’ll slow everything down, but it will also expand your lungs, and help your body generate more red blood cells. So there’s 1% extra.”

Even something as basic as a good night’s rest can make all the difference. On big-match weekends (and the World Cup will produce plenty of those) Vermeulen prepares by going to bed an hour earlier. “When you’re on tour with your franchise, the guys will get sometimes together during the week and have a good time,” he says. “But on an international weekend, when you’re playing Australia or the All Blacks, there’s no joking and no going out. In a week like that you might hit the bed an hour earlier every night. That extra hour’s sleep makes a huge difference the next day – and after a week of hitting the sack an hour earlier, you’ve accumulated seven extra hours. That’s almost a whole extra night’s sleep. It’s massive for your recovery.”

“Recovery” has been a big word in the Springbok dictionary, going into the World Cup. A handful of key players – including Vermeulen, Kolisi and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers – have undergone surgery in the past year, with Vermeulen especially worrying about his match fitness.

Modern rugby places massive demands on the body – and those demands mean, inevitably, that the body is going to break. In some cases, it’s a natural result of the constant beating the game’s top players have to take, week in, week out. Take Vermeulen’s neck injury: it was triggered by a crunching tackle in a Super Rugby game against the Bulls in April, and then flared up again more than a month later during the captain’s run ahead of a game against the Lions. Before he knew it, Vermeulen was in surgery, with his World Cup hopes in the balance.

In some cases, though, picking up an injury is just down to plain bad luck. And like any active guy, Vermeulen has learned to take things as they come.

“Rugby is a contact sport,” he shrugs. “So you can’t really prepare for the worst-case scenario all the time. I’ve seen guys in the best physical shape of their lives go and tear a hamstring. Or they’ll break a leg at a point where you wouldn’t expect that to happen. It’s weird. It’s stupid. Look at Pierre Spies: he’s a great example of a fit player, but then he tears a bicep, which puts him out for the whole season. You can’t prepare your body for injuries. You can’t put a percentage on things. You’ve got to give it everything you have. That’s all you can do.”

Three months later, Vermeulen was named in the Springbok’s Rugby World Cup squad. Heinrich Brüssow, the guy whose praises Vermeulen was singing at the start of our conversation, didn’t make the cut. At this level, those are the margins between success and failure.

 

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 DUANE VERMEULEN’S WINNING MOVES

During the season, Duane Vermeulen’s gym work is mostly made up of maintenance work, with the seriously heavy lifting done in pre-season. Get yourself up to Springbok level with these four moves… and then try for the bonus point

SPLIT SQUAT

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand facing away from a bench with one leg resting on it, laces down. Squat down with your standing leg until the knee of your trailing leg almost touches the floor. Push up through your front foot to return to the start position.

ALTERNATE DUMBBELL PRESS

Standing holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder-height, palms facing forward. One at a time, raise each arm to push the weight up until it is fully extended. Lower to the start position and repeat. Keep your core tensed throughout. “This works your arms and your core,” says Vermeulen, “because you’ve got to stabilise during the rotation.”

 LEG PRESS

In the leg press machine, position your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform and raise until your legs are outstretched without locking your knees. Slowly lower the platform until your knees are at 90 degrees to the floor, then push back to the start position through your heels.

 WEIGHTED SPIDER CRAWL

From a push-up position, raise one foot off the floor and bring your knee up towards your elbow. Pause then return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. To do it like a Springbok, add a weight to your back. “It’s like climbing, but on a horizontal surface,” says Duane. “We usually go 20 metres, then back, with a 20kg weight on our back. It’s difficult, but the weight on your back depends on what you want to carry.” Watch your form. “This isn’t normal crawling,” he adds. “Normal crawling is easy. This is about getting your hip out, getting your knee out, and being as low to the ground as possible.”

 BONUS POINT:

THE WATER CARRIER

“In preseason, when we’re building strength, we’ll do tyre flips, we’ll hit tyres with a hammer, we’ll pull those massive chains… and then we’ve got the gym ball,” he says. What’s so scary about a stability ball? Just add water to find out. “Fill a stability ball with water, and then carry it 20 metres,” says Vermeulen. “It’s not easy – a lot of the guys struggle with it.” Remember, while you’re carrying the ball, you’ll have to stabilise your core because of all the water sloshing around. “Actually,” he says, “you may want to start with a small gym ball. If it’s a full-sized ball, you’ll never carry it.” Challenge accepted?