Rugby: Fit to be called Wenger's forerunner

Paul Trow meets the coach who has fine-tuned a team of champions
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If the Euro-sceptics were a rugby club, Tim Exeter would be a life member. The Richmond fitness coach, it seems, is somewhat riled by recent adulation heaped on Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, for his use of such training techniques as massage, nutrition and stretching exercises.

"I'm not complaining that he's doing this kind of work, which is very good, but it's a shame we have to wait for a foreigner to come along before we start taking notice of these methods," grumbled the 32-year-old. "Football is pretty insular in this country, but I was doing all these things when Bobby Gould hired me to work with Coventry City a few seasons ago. In those days, Coventry were a top-six side, but we didn't get any publicity."

Notwithstanding the investments Richmond made last summer, courtesy of Ashley Levett's chequebook, the club's coronation as League Two champions yesterday owes as much to the players' fitness as it does to their skills. The routines introduced by Exeter, a former centre who was close to a Scotland cap until a broken neck ended his career at 24, include high and lateral stepping over miniature fences and horizontal stepladders, not to mention duets with rubber bands.

Ben Clarke, the Richmond captain, who has sampled a variety of fitness regimes during his time with Bath, England and the Lions, admitted: "I've always been a hard trainer but this has made me sharper. It's also interesting that we've had no pulled hamstrings this season."

Allan Bateman, the Welsh centre selected for the Lions, is more cautious. "It's difficult to measure whether it makes you a better player but it could help subconsciously and quick steps enable you to elude close markers. It's certainly enjoyable. If training is boring, people don't want to do it and then they don't do it properly. All fitness people have their own ideas, but Tim's as good as anyone I've had dealings with."

Exeter, who played for Blackheath, Moseley and finally London Scottish, originates from the West Midlands but learned his trade as a fitness guru in the United States after his injury.

"I broke my neck in a collision with a team-mate. They gave me two paracetamol, put me in a surgical collar and sent me home. But it kept hurting so I went for an X-ray and was advised never to play again. Then I went to Arizona State University to study the fitness and training methods of their American football team.

"I first teamed up with Gould [now Wales' manager] at West Bromwich Albion before moving with him to Coventry. The only reason I'm not still there was because he resigned. Phil Neal, his successor, is a nice guy but he didn't want me to work the way I wanted to. I linked with Gould again to train the Welsh squad, but I've dropped out of that. It was frustrating because I only got the players occasionally. I turned down an offer from a Premiership side last summer so I could join Richmond. John Kingston [Richmond's director of rugby] lets me get on with it and I've been full- time since February."

The acronym Saq (speed, agility, quickness) figures extensively in Exeter's discussions on fitness but his theories about the game are revealing to say the least. "Rugby is a very complex activity but it's not really an endurance sport. The key areas are speed and power. Players need to produce high-intensity effort continuously yet they only have a short recovery period.

"A lot of players will reach a certain level of fitness but the skilful ones will hit that vital extra five per cent. Rubber bands are used for resistance to trick your muscles into doing more work and reaching top speed quicker, even if you're twisting or turning.

"We work on power-type weight training in the gym, challenging the neuro- muscular system. Everyone wants extra bulk but if anyone does steroids here he's out, and that's written into their contracts. Anyway, bulk gives you strength but not necessarily power. Quality work is the only way to improve speed. You don't get quick over 20 yards by practising over 100 or 200 yards.

"Our sessions generally last for 90 minutes. We have a lengthy warm-up and do a lot of balletic stretching. Ideally, this approach should start in childhood - the younger you are the better you develop your balance and co-ordination. People compare rugby to NFL but I think it's really more like basketball." Indeed, Richmond have been scoring almost as prolifically as the Chicago Bulls this season and that is more than can be said of Arsenal, even under Wenger.