When the All Blacks take on the Springboks, the game doesn’t really start on a Saturday evening at Eden Park, it kicks off in the weeks and months beforehand, even if no one is keeping score.
Because although every goal kicked, tackle made and try scored on the night determines who emerges victorious at the end of 80 minutes, it’s the decisions made in advance that play just as big a role in a team’s success.
Some of those decisions include game strategy and coaching but other factors like fitness, nutrition, and physical and mental health all have an impact.
That’s where the likes of Doctors Nic Gill and James McGarvey come in, men who are specifically tasked with making sure that what happens off the field will put the All Blacks in the best position to succeed on the field.
“In the All Blacks, we’re getting data every day on every player,” says Gill, the All Blacks Strength and Conditioning coach who’s been working with the New Zealand national side for the past 11 years.
“We have information on how players are sleeping, how quickly they’re running, how much weight they’re lifting, how fast they are moving that weight… We look at [those numbers] on a regular basis to help make decisions on what that player needs, what they don’t need, how they’re tracking, if they’re getting enough recovery in et cetera.”
“Those numbers help guide our discussions and help us make our decisions.”
And a big part of how a player performs in any given match is a result of how well they’ve recovered from the previous week.
Over the course of a long season, players can be expected to back up match after match, putting their body on the line against opposition who are just as desperate for wins. With sometimes less than seven days between games, effective post-match recovery is paramount.
“In the All Blacks, we prioritise recovery as something that’s very very important,” says Gill. “We understand, I suppose, the benefit to performance, the benefit to training, the benefit to adaptation from the training [that recovery can bring].
“Especially nowadays with the increased intensity of the game. The sheer size and strength of some of these players is massive so recovering from collisions and the amount of work they have to do in a game is hugely important.
“If recovery’s compromised, especially in rugby players, typically what you end up getting is injuries or a really blunted performance. Going into battle every Saturday, you need to be in your peak condition physically, but also mentally. If you haven’t recovered sufficiently during the week, you’ll enter that battlefield in a compromised manner and you’ll probably come off second best.”
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Naturally, as one of the most successful professional sports teams in the world, the All Blacks have their post-match recovery process down to an art – but it still needs to be catered specifically to each athlete. That might mean ice baths, active recovery on a bike, or topping up nutrients and energy that have been lost through the hard slog on the pitch.
Healthspan Elite have officially come on board as supplement suppliers for the All Blacks this year and their range of products for top athletes who aspire to reach peak performance are just as important post-match as they are leading into game week, says Gill.
“Post a test-match, the protein hit that we get is important. We get this through Healthspan Elite’s protein powder. Then we get the Vitamin C, and Vitamin A doses through an immunity boost and multivitamins.
“[During the week], whilst we encourage natural wholefoods as a first choice, sometimes it’s just not practical and so we do rely on supplementation to ensure that the boys stay healthy.”
Another massive factor in recovery is sleep. It’s hard enough for most people to recuperate after a day of work or study, but it’s even tougher when your work involves playing one of the most intense, adrenaline-pumping sports on the planet and not finishing up until late at night.
“We know sleep is massively important,” says Gill. “We know that it’s the most important tool to ensure that we learn, we improve our skill and we recover from any physical exertion so we wake up the next day better and faster.
“If we have a kick-off at 8 o’clock at night, we’re not getting back to the hotel until 12:30 in the morning, 1 o’clock. Even if you wanted to get a good night’s sleep, you’re not going to be switching off until 2 am.
“We’re sort of a little bit lucky in the All Blacks that we’re a travelling team, we’re always on the road, we’re always in the hotel. If you want to get lots of sleep, you can. And we can encourage naps during the day too because our days are pretty busy and pretty full.”
James McGarvey, All Blacks doctor, is also conscious of how important getting a good night’s sleep can be – and it can be a particularly hard thing to get right when players are expected to regularly adjust to new environments.
“Our players know about sleep hygiene and how to get off to sleep and get the best quality sleep,” says McGarvey. “They know the importance of sleep and getting enough hours.
“We use a variety of things to help if people are struggling with sleep – put them in their own room, use things like tart cherry juice or natural melatonins, that kind of thing.”
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The other factor that’s become more of an obstacle this season is illness – the impacts of common colds and flus.
The global coronavirus pandemic has understandably tightened up precautions surrounding any cold or flu symptoms but even outside of the anomaly that is 2020, minor sicknesses can throw a player’s preparation off.
“In the All Blacks, we have relatively short periods of training so we need them to take on everything they can. There’s lots of evidence around people with symptoms missing days [and how it] directly relates to performance on the field, so we work pretty hard to try maintain immunity as our first line of defence.
“If they have a more significant illness and they can’t train, there’s a more major effect. With COVID, we have to isolate everyone who’s got any symptoms so it has a massive effect, because they’re stuck in their room for three days. We’re working harder than ever to prevent that.”
Naturally, that means ‘Doc’ McGarvey must do what he can to prevent the All Blacks from getting sick – whether that means complete immunisation or simply strengthening the body’s already robust systems.
“Really, just all of our wellness steps are things that help players’ immunity. Things like sleep, which is a challenge in this environment with all the travel and hotels and late games. Diet is a big one. Our nutritionist works really hard to give the players as healthy as possible a diet.
“Supplements can also play a part, says McGarvey. “Vitamin C, especially in athletes or people who are working hard physically, seems to reduce your risk of respiratory tract infections. We also use probiotics and multivitamins, to try to ensure people are getting everything they need.”
The Healthspan Elite range is all batch-tested and competition safe, which means that the All Blacks – and any other professional or aspiring athletes – can take supplements they are confident won’t contain any banned or illegal substances.
The All Blacks have always lived by the mantra that no man is bigger than the team, and that players who are on the bench or supporting the starters at training are just as important for the side’s success as the men who are wearing jerseys 1 to 15 come game day. It’s not just the players who have a massive role to play, however.
The All Blacks can only put their best foot forward if men like Dr Nic Gill and Dr James McGarvey are making sure that the players are recovering well from the physical toll that playing rugby takes on the body, getting the right amount of sleep, able to fight off everyday sicknesses and taking the right supplements to support all of the above.
A champion team will always beat a team of champions – and the team is a lot bigger than many may give credit for.
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