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Revealed: How Glasgow cracked the Bulls' altitude problem

By URC SA
Glasgow Warriors celebrate during the United Rugby Championship final match between Vodacom Bulls and Glasgow Warriors at Loftus Versfeld on June 22, 2024 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Vodacom United Rugby Championship winning coach Franco Smith may have upended the script when his Glasgow Warriors side shocked the Vodacom Bulls in this year’s Grand Final, but the seeds of success were laid in an exceptional strategy months before that allowed his side to finish stronger at altitude than many sides before them.

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Smith revealed that the Warriors team had consulted athletes who did high altitude training – so called Skyrunners – who run long distances at high altitude –  and brought in a specialist breathing coach to aid their campaign, knowing that they were going to need to perform at altitude on the Highveld.

While a loss against a 14-man Emirates Lions nearly stopped their momentum before the playoffs, Smith kept on with his ingenious methods and it paid off as they finished the stronger side in the final, negating any advantage the Bulls might have had with the altitude on their home ground.

“In November last year, I realised when the schedule came out that the game against the Bulls and the Lions would be a very important game for us and games where we needed to do well. One of the objectives we had was to change the perception that there are other proponents in the game that prevent you from performing,” Smith explained.

“So I started doing a bit of research on the altitude thing – from previous experiences everyone says the less you say about it the better it is. I was one of the first guys to put up a sign in the opposition change room in Bloemfontein where it says the height above sea level.

“It is something that has been discussed – there are two ways of looking at it.  You can ignore it and not mention it and hope it doesn’t have an effect, but I chose the other route.”

Smith sought out athletes that trained at high altitude and studied the lengths they go to, to ensure they perform when needed, and in the process formulated a new strategy to combat altitude fatigue that sets in late in the game.

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That included a new coach and a new part of training that was a massive difference in the way Glasgow prepared for the challenge of coming to South Africa.

“We implemented a breathing strategy in December, where I got a breathing strategist in and a specialist in that helped us with our breathing components. We did some work on it before and after every training session since December.  

“If it worked or not I wouldn’t know, but it allowed us to understand what it is going to be and how it is going to feel. I don’t think it comes down just to that, but at least we fronted up to the issue, and it became part of the process.

Points Flow Chart

Glasgow win +5
Time in lead
61
Mins in lead
20
74%
% Of Game In Lead
24%
100%
Possession Last 10 min
0%
0
Points Last 10 min
0

“You can decide if it works or not from a mental perspective but it is important to cover all the aspects of the game.”

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Another part of Glasgow’s success was their stern defence and the physicality they showed to tame the normally robust Bulls pack of forwards. Smith said he had made this a key part of their game plan, and it paid off in the end.

“There is a lot to be said about having a hard edge, and I definitely thought the South Africans brought that to the URC now since they joined.  I think the first season was one where the South African teams dominated the physical side of the game. I always thought that was the one thing that European teams have to step up and work on.

“I coached in Super Rugby back in the days and learnt a lot in a different aspect of the game and what was needed in my coaching philosophy. When I started coaching in the north, I wanted to marry both of the components.

“Now if you bring some of the Southern Hemisphere and the physicality into the good structure that is already here in the Northern Hemisphere, you must get a good balance of a good product.

“The secret to physicality nobody really knows I suppose – I’ve got my strategy and my plan and worked hard at it not only to become physically strong but also mentally tough and that was where we probably made the most strides.”

It won’t be surprising if the strategy is adopted by other European sides to combat both the physicality and altitude advantages that the South African sides possess. 

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Comments

2 Comments
B
Barry 15 days ago

It showed. The most impressive part of their performance was how they found another gear in the last 10 mins to win it. Superb coach.

E
Ed the Duck 15 days ago

The guy is a genius! Seriously smart man and his impact is there for all to see. Two seasons ago glasgow were smashed by 70+ points in Dublin and Wilson got fired. In no time at all he has turned them into a very serious outfit. Top job Franco!!!

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