Japanese Rugby and Your Recovery from Instense Workouts

“South Africa have the greatest winning record in World Cup history. They are a massive physical team with plenty of experience. Japan have the least winning record in the World Cup and have the smallest team. But it’s a great opportunity and I am looking forward to it.”

  • Eddy Jones, Japan Head Rugby Coach

On the second day of the Rugby World Cup, being hosted by England, the rugby universe was blessed to witness one of the greatest upsets in rugby history.  When Japan, a tier 2 rugby nation, beat South Africa, one of the world’s rugby juggernauts. Then four days later Japan, still battered and sore, took on Scotland.  And… were soundly beaten! So it would be easy to chalk up Japan’s victory over South Africa as a fluke. As just another very weird and unique upset in the sporting world, which happens. But then something interesting happened. Japan had 10 days between their game against Scotland and their next pool match against Samoa, who are a very good team in their own right. Japan looked great! Fit! Disciplined! And they earned a deserved, clinical, and convincing victory over the Samoans.

Now the former rugby coach and the lover of John Gagliardi’s coaching philosophy, would love to talk about Eddy Jones and his approach and success to the game.  I’d love to talk about his success with Australia, then his success helping the South Africans, and then how he has seemingly performed a miracle with the Japanese. Then go I’d rant about how Canada, my homeland, needs to get its head out of it’s a$$ and get this guy on board.  How half our team seemly all attend the University of Victoria is still beyond me, and screams of a Politique that really holds us back.

But I am not a rugby coach at this time, nor an expert on Eddy Jones’s system. I am however an expert in training methodologies and recovery, and that is what I want to discuss.

Japan looked fantastic against South Africa.  Four days later they really struggled and my argument is not because they lacked fitness. On the contrary, they might be the fittest team at this World Cup. They did not have enough days to recover and heal. The proof is that 10 days later, where they did have time for plenty of healing and recovery, they went out against Samoa and looked great again. This was so obvious to everyone who has been watching, that the commentators, in both matches, discussed this at great length. (three days later when the Japanese were going through there run through, their captain as well as most of the players, were still limping around and feeling quite stiff and sore.)

If these guys are professionals, at the top of their game, at the peak of physical conditioning, are not recovered enough… What does that say about your training and recovery needs? This is the point of HIIT. Taking days off from the gym is not about being lazy, or looking for the ‘easy way out.’ Quite the opposite. It’s about going to the gym. Working extremely hard! Then get out of your own way and let your body heal!

For the athletes, it is critical to understand and remember that competition is intense training! Therefore adequate recovery after the competition is paramount as well. This is something “old school” coaches everywhere should know and remember. I’ll pick on hockey again because I grew up playing it and had more than my fair share of these types of coaches. But there was, on more than one occasion, where we would lose a game and did look pretty fatigued in the third period. Our coach’s solution… Skate us until we puked the next practice. Ludicrous! Fitness at that time in the season was not the issue. Recovery from the previous practice where he skated us to death was!  Or the previously hard fought game was the issue. We were tired and struggling not because we were out of shape, but because we had not adequately recovered from the previous work out.

I’ll finish with making it clear, there is a time and place for really hard skating sessions, or fitness sessions with any sports team. Generally pre-season. But good coaches, and you with your training program, can take a great lesson from the Japanese rugby team and the schedule they were dealt in this world cup, and recognize when the focus needs to shift from intense fitness, to proper recovery between those intense sessions.

The irony is we have recognized this for a long time, really!  American football games are played once a week. Virtually all rugby games around the world are once a week. Your most intense training sessions… Should be, on the average, once a week.