Lynn McConnell

Southland-born Lynn McConnell is a sportswriter/historian with 40 years experience in journalism having been sports editor of The Evening Post and The Southland Times. Lynn has written several books including 'Behind the Silver Fern: Playing Rugby for New Zealand' together with Tony Johnson.

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A French view on New Zealand rugby

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Lynn McConnell     27 Mar 2018     Getty Images

French physical trainer and physiotherapist Simon Barrue-Belou, 31, has worked for three seasons with Stade Toulousain. In January he spent a month visiting New Zealand to get a feel for the way New Zealand teams prepare for rugby.


The trip resulted because Barrue-Belou encountered difficulties when appointed to co-ordinate the link between physical preparation and the medical side of the game for Stade Toulousain.

Seeking a potential remedy about how to best deal with his problem he felt New Zealand, as a world leader in the game, would be the ideal place to undertake a study of the areas of the game he was interested in.

"New Zealand has always been and remains the reference in our sport, in terms of results, quality of training and development of players," he said when presenting his thoughts through French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique.

He organised time with the Blues, Auckland Rugby, the Warriors and the Crusaders.

As a result of what he saw he felt French rugby was both close, yet so far, from New Zealand in their preparation.

"So close, because we know how to do everything they do. We have the skills, the resources in all areas and there is nothing unaffordable. And, at the same time, so far [away] in our way of organising, in the staffs, inside the clubs, even probably between the clubs and the selections, but also in our ability to train and develop players," he said.

"Sports in New Zealand, and rugby in particular, is a system designed to train players to win. The different levels work in constant interaction and there are no divergent interests between the clubs, the cities, the academies, the provinces and finally the All Blacks who sit at the top of the pyramid," he said.

Staff at franchises were not as big as was the case in England but the first thing that struck him was the transparency in decision-making. All staff were not only informed of what was happening but were involved in decision-making.

"Everyone works for sports performance, collective and individual. Information circulates without any restriction through all parts of the organisations.

"So coaches, trainers, physios, mental trainers, video analysts, nutritionists, team managers et al know everything about everything and are completely focused on rugby," he said.

The teams were not like large companies that had their own codes and operating processes. Each member of the staff had clearly defined roles and were masters of their own areas and once a particular line of action had been chosen a feeling of confidence and unity emerged.

"Nobody works in his corner. They have a great ability to integrate different skills into a common project. And, beyond, the players are also very listened to, involved in the decisions, especially on the choices of match plans," he said.

Players and staff were close while at the same time respecting boundaries between the two.

There was also a readiness to listen to experts from outside the immediate group.

"Some have profiles from the field, others more scientific but, in any case, there is an opening to sports science, to external skills, to other areas, always in the service of rugby and with a real desire to share and propose new things.

"This is not always the feeling that we have in France where we may tend to close ourselves off and not to seek to innovate," he said.

Barreu-Belou said French sides were not as willing to open themselves to innovations from science and the medical world.

Science didn't need to become a prime focus but New Zealanders were aware of the benefits of using all the supports and skills available to reduce the possibility of missing out on potentially valuable opportunities that could benefit their game.
Another feature that impressed him was players, during gym sessions or recovery sessions, having to answer quickfire questions about different game situations.

"They combine exposure to match situations with game responses.

"It's nothing complicated, but they manage to get the best out of everyone and I think their training reaches a remarkable level of accuracy," he said.

Physical preparation between the two countries was similar but a significant difference was the planning that went into preparation training. Always, however, it was rugby and individual technique that took precedence, not so much the physical aspects.

"Even the best players in New Zealand, those who play at the highest international level, repeat skills all day long; simple things and without intensity.

"They do it before, during and after training but also during physical, muscular or rehabilitation work," he said.

This was where New Zealand sides differed from the French.

Super Rugby was faster than the play in the Top 14. Part of that was from Super Rugby lasting four to five months while the Top 14 went for eight or nine months. While players in both countries could potentially play a similar number of games, that wasn't the case for the New Zealand coaching staffs who were able to rotate their players because of the quality of players they could call on.
By keeping the Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup competitions separate, players had more time to work on different game systems they were exposed to in different teams. And the structure of the off-season was superior.

Depending on the season, and where they finished in the French competitions, teams could have an off-season of between three weeks to two months.

New Zealand, because they have three months without any competitive play, had extra time in which to prepare.

So far as younger players were concerned he felt New Zealand players were high quality athletes before they became professionals while the opposite applied in France.

He felt France should look to focus on technical qualities and rugby skills for younger players.

"Surely we've gone too far by using physical standard to detect our potential players when this should really be secondary. They must be able to acquire a simple physical base: aerobic potential, running technique and muscular technique early enough so that they are prepared to cash in on large workloads to avoid injuries," he said.

He felt New Zealand also enjoyed the advantage of being serious about this approach but at the same time they did not take themselves too seriously.

"The working atmosphere is much more relaxed while the work itself is more rigorous. The players are hardworking, their work is demanding and very involved, so there is a real culture of work and training that is instilled in them from their youth.

"All sessions are done thoroughly and players apply themselves 100 percent.

"I had never seen physical sessions with so much motivation and enthusiasm. All players are convinced that each session will benefit them, so they are fully committed," he said.

Barreu-Belou said France shouldn't look to copy what New Zealand was doing, because if it did it would still be years behind. However, what they needed to do was adapt the system based around the needs of their clubs and the French Federation, and apply it to best suit France.