England taken to the limit by cycling guru's fitness push
Lancaster's side beating opponents thanks to methods of Matt Parker, the ex-Team GB expert
There are few obvious similarities between the cryotherapy chambers of central Poland and the baronial splendour of a country estate hotel in blue-blooded Surrey, but when it comes to international rugby, the two have this much in common: cutting-edge fitness. What Wales achieved at the last World Cup – and again in winning the Grand Slam last season – was due in no small part to the training camps they held in Eastern Europe. England? They have put themselves ahead of the game by staying put in the home counties and investing in the latest thinking.
Stuart Lancaster's team, warm favourites for this year's Six Nations title, are by common consent the best conditioned side in Europe. In the vast majority of their matches since the change of coaching regime 14 months ago, they have finished the stronger – a last-quarter advantage so frequent that it cannot be explained away as a mere coincidence.
According to Ben Youngs, the scrum-half from Leicester, the players routinely take the field believing they will out-last the opposition. "When you feel the other side cracking and see their players looking for a rest, the momentum swings behind you," he said, reflecting on the run of recent victories, including the important 10-point win over France at the weekend.
"We feel a lot of teams will blow out, so we look to maintain a high tempo. When you see your opponents sucking in air, it gives you a huge psychological boost.
"We train differently with England than I do at Leicester. The sessions at the club tend to be longer. Here, it's shorter and more intense, although I feel I probably run just as far. There's all sorts of data being fed to us – a lot of GPS stuff. Not that I understand all the scientific detail. That's left to the 'brains' in the conditioning team, the people who know what they're doing."
One of those "brains" is Matt Parker, the head of athletic performance who joined the red-rose set-up from Dave Brailsford's state-of-the-art British cycling team at the end of last year. Youngs did not feel at liberty to disclose precisely what Parker has brought to the mix as a master of "marginal gains" – when the half-back said it was "top secret", he was only half joking – but he readily acknowledged that the newcomer had made an immediate impact with his grasp of boundary-pushing training techniques.
"In this England group, you either move forward with everyone else or you get left behind," Youngs continued. "This is the most exciting time since I've been involved – the time in which I've learnt the most and been pushed the furthest. We've established the right culture now and it will continue to develop. It will continue to be handed down to those who come in behind us."
One of the forwards who shone most brightly against the French, the Northampton back-rower Tom Wood, pointed to a second reason for England's long run of grandstand finishes: the strength of the replacements' bench. "When we play at a high tempo early in a game in an effort to stretch the opposition, we do it in the knowledge that we can afford to go flat-out because the cavalry are there, waiting to get involved," he said.
Wood also stressed the importance of the fitness premium. "One of the things that really pleased me against France was that I came off the field feeling there was more in the tank. I could have gone longer if necessary. That was a real Test match – they picked a very powerful side, full of big ball-carriers – but we were prepared to go through a lot of phases early in the game knowing we'd be running into brick walls, because we also knew the gaps would appear in the later stages."
The fact that Wood could last the 80 minutes as well as anyone on the field underlined the effectiveness of England's conditioning programme, for he is still troubled by the chronic foot injury that incapacitated him for the majority of 2012. He now plays his rugby in custom-built, inflexible boots that are two sizes too small for him. The latest offerings, manufactured in Italy, also happen to be bright orange. "I've had a reaction in training," he confessed. "I'll have to spray-paint them before the next game." A game that just happens to be against the Italians.
The England players were speaking at an event for QBE, the business insurance specialist and official insurance partner of England rugby. For exclusive videos from this event, visit: qberugby.com
Healy reprieve for Six Nations
Ireland prop Cian Healy will be available for the Six Nations match against France on 9 March following a successful appeal against the conditions of his three-week ban for stamping on England's Dan Cole. It was originally spread over four weekends, but Healy argued that this was not allowed under the regulations. His suspension will now finish on 3 March.
Scotland centre Nick De Luca has been given a 13-week ban for a tip tackle he committed in Edinburgh's 24-7 loss to Ospreys on Friday. He will not play again this season with the suspension to conclude on 26 May, unless he appeals successfully.
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