Father time waits for no one. The effects of ageing can drag even the most gifted athlete, kicking and screaming, back to the land of the mere mortals, but as sports science has evolved, so too has career longevity of the fortunate few. In football, Cristiano Ronaldo is still scoring goals regularly at 37, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, has pushed on into his forties, where he cannot leave the adrendline-fuelled buzz of the NFL.
The unspoken myth than individuals were facing endemic decline once they hit their thirties is now being challenged as never before.
In rugby, this adage is being questioned on a regular basis. In the last week, we’ve learnt Chris Ashton will continue to break try-scoring records into his 37th year, Johnny Sexton – 37 in July – was pulling the strings as Leinster ended Toulouse’s campaign, and the week before in Dublin, Joe Tekori, a spritely 38, was thumping into Munster defenders and swatting them aside without a care in the world.
Only a matter of weeks ago, the charismatic former All Black prop, John Afoa said he was leaving Bristol, not to head back to Auckland and pick up his pipe and slippers but to play on for two more years, and into his fifth decade. Another duo who are fully paid-up members of the ‘one more year’ hashtag are Matt Giteau and Ma’a Nonu who at 39, are putting the va-va-voom into the MLR’s burgeoning growth.
So the question must be asked, are these players outliers, or the first full-generation of professional players to prove that you can play on into your mid-thirties without being pensioned off?
Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon, head of strength and conditioning for the WRU, who was seconded with the Lions last summer in South Africa, says players have to be a certain type. “You don’t get many players playing to their late thirties, unless they’re mentally tough. In all honesty, they’re just hard as f**k.”
For many years, the former Commonwealth Games wrestler, has worked very closely with Alun Wyn Jones, who has been named to tour South Africa with Wales this summer. Stridgeon says his diligence is what sets him apart. “Alun Wyn will turn up to training with a cool bag on him. It will have his pre-prepared food in it and he will make sure he eats within that 30 minute window for maximum gains. Then he’ll be away. I’ve been involved in this game for 20 years and seen some seriously dedicated individuals, but I’ve not seen anyone like him, apart from, say, Jonny Wilkinson.”
Head West down the M4 and you’ll find Nigel Ashley-Jones, the Scarlets Head of Physical Performance. Jones has worked in the NRL with the Canberra Raiders, plus Premiership sides, Saracens and Sale Sharks. He says the game is benefitting from the first full-time professionals to have come through well-structured (and financed) academy systems and junior development pathways. “In my experience, there are only so many games you can play at an elite level, so it could be the knock-on effect of playing less. Take Rhys Patchell with us. He’s just turned 29 but missed a couple of years of footie and he’s only had the same wear and tear as a 26 or 27-year-old.”
Ashley-Jones says players are picking the fruits of a huge leap in knowledge but fortune undoubtedly plays a part. “Not every player can stick around that long. Some players genetically don’t have that longevity, while some are more professional than others. I hate the word luck, but it is involved.”
The evolution of the athlete is changing. It’s changing with the game and the technology available to us. From an education and support point of view, I’ve seen a huge growth in high-performance departments
Rick Swaby, Athletic Prep Lead, Sale Sharks
At Sale Sharks, Rick Swaby has been with Sale Sharks for a decade and is now their Athletic Prep Lead. He has seen marked differences in player welfare in that time. “The evolution of the athlete is changing. It’s changing with the game and the technology available to us. From an education and support point of view, I’ve seen a huge growth in high-performance departments. I started out around 2012, and there were three support staff here at Sharks, in terms of S&C and sports science, and that was spread across the Academy and First Team. Nowadays, we have more than that for our Academy alone. When you add medical staff, that plays a massive part in a player’s development and management throughout their whole career.”
The improvement in knowledge around player welfare also goes some way to explaining how improvements have been made, according to Stridgeon. “There’s no silver bullet to career longevity. You can get small gains but most of it comes down to dedication and hard work. Nutrition is a big one. Twenty years ago, lots of players would have had a chippy or a fry-up in their own time but now companies like Athlete’s Kitchen provide carefully prepared meals for them every day. Players are far better educated these days. Guys like Kyle Sinckler and Owen Farrell will have state-of-the-art gyms installed, whereas 20 years ago, it would just be a few dumb-bells in the garage.”
Ashley-Jones concurs that player welfare has given players a fighting chance of playing deep into their thirties. “Load management is part of our planning and with things like central contracts with international players who have set rules and regulations to protect them from overplaying. Look at Johnny Sexton over in Ireland and how carefully he’s been managed.”
Swaby says this increased IP allows S&C teams to individually tailor programmes for their players. “All the top players here; Bevan Rodd, Manu Tuilagi, Raffi Quirke and Tom Curry are driven in different ways but they all have that ‘switch’ and that understanding of what’s right for them. Manu doesn’t train in any way like Tom Curry does. One is 31 and one is 23, so it’s going to be different.”
With Curry, Swaby says the ultimate goal is to make sure he plays for as long as possible. “We take player care very seriously. The England boys have to have a break for x-number of weeks after a tour built into their contracts where they have to have five weeks off. When they come back in, we have to build them back up mentally as much as physically, before reintroducing them.”
When AWJ is in camp, he’ll train in the morning with an hour’s weights, then in the afternoon he’ll do an hour’s rugby, but what people don’t see is his day goes from 8am to 10pm at night. It’s the extras he fits in that allows him to be the best
Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon
A common theme, even if you go back to a previous generation, is professionalism and dedication. Ashley-Jones, worked with the current Ireland coach. “A player I coached was Andy Farrell. When he went to union, he’d already played 400 plus games and had incredible longevity. Someone with similar traits is Leigh Halfpenny. They are so, so professional in how they conduct themselves. Jonathan Davies is similar. He’s had four big career injuries but he’s still going strong. They make sacrifices. You know, not going on the drink too much, getting their recovery in and constantly conditioning in the gym.”
The sheer wealth of options for elite athletes is why someone like Richard Wigglesworth can play into his 40th year, Stridgeon believes. “People are learning all the time how to manage players better. It’s not just about games. We are privy to so much information on players. We know what everyone is doing and it’s all individualised. We do wellness in the morning. We ask them how they slept. Whether they have high energy or low energy. What time they went to bed and we can follow that information up quickly.”
Stridgeon, a former Commonwealth Games wrestler, believes support staff at the elite level now provide every service players need to be the best athlete they can be. “In camp we offer soft tissue treatment. ‘Hot and cold’, which is slang for cryotherapy and sauna. When AWJ is in camp, he’ll train in the morning with an hour’s weights, then in the afternoon he’ll do an hour’s rugby, but what people don’t see is his day goes from 8am to 10pm at night. It’s the extras he fits in that allows him to be the best.”
The world record cap holder went the extra mile to be fit for the Lions Tests, Stridgeon reveals. “When Al was injured in the last game of the November Series against Scotland, to get him ready for the 2021 Six Nations, we hired him an oxygenated hyperbaric chamber, which helps you recover more quickly. He did two one hour sessions a day to make it back. so when he was injured playing for the Lions, I phoned him on the Monday and said, ‘Al we can arrange for it to be delivered to your house’, but it turns out he’d already rung them, had it delivered and started his recovery. He’ll do whatever it takes.”
Finding an individual, tailored programme is essential, Swaby believes, and it’s one reason why Manu Tuilagi has emerged in the best shape of his career in Manchester. “Manu is the lightest he’s ever been. He’s 104kgs and in the best shape of his career, while Rohan (Van Rensburg) is down to 105-106kgs. They are power athletes, so need their own set programmes. At Sale we have sub-groups to help on certain body areas, so if someone has tight hamstrings or stiff hips, they will get immediate help. Players didn’t have that sort of individual focus years ago.”
Professional sport is obsessive by its very nature. We’ve found ourselves having to build up knowledge but now we’re at a tipping point and pulling it back a little to allow them just to be footie players and not professional bodybuilders
Nigel Ashley-Jones, Scarlets, Head of Physical Performance
One note of caution is extended by Ashley-Jones, who says that this new group of super-profressionals can go too far. “Professional sport is obsessive by its very nature. We’ve found ourselves having to build up knowledge but now we’re at a tipping point and pulling it back a little to allow them just to be footie players and not professional bodybuilders – you can have too much education. Over the last 20 years we’ve flooded them with information and there’s a risk of overload. No stone is left unturned in professional rugby these days.”
Ashley-Jones feels that most sides, in most contact sports, are doing similar things to help players, which is why there’s been a correction on what they are focusing on. “At the Scarlets, we are going to try and stop looking at the one-percenters and try and look at the bigger picture. We are in a building phase. It may not be sexy but we’re looking at the times of the games so when’s best to train. Maximising recovery through sleep. Not training when it’s dark. A high percentage of our squad travel more than an hour to training. We don’t want the players wasting their time, so for post-game recovery, we’ll have a Cardiff, West and East split. We’re trying to manage travel stress. Connacht will be similar to us. We have to drive four hours and back to Heathrow just to get to South Africa, so it’s how we can best manage that for players.”
That holistic 360 approach to the individual needs of the player is reinforced after an injury, Stridgeon, explains. “Once there’s an injury, John Williams and Chris Edwards from our medical team will prepare individual tablet boxes for the boys with things like fish oils to reduce inflammation. They’ll be sent an ‘injury pack’, with things like collagen, which helps tendon health, or gelatin. That’s why we give them jelly for dessert. For any players who struggle with their body weight, we arrange for meals to be delivered to the door, to make sure their intake is measured. Players these days ask more questions. They want to know everything. We don’t tell a player to do anything without our own empirical research. They have the full facts before making decisions.”
The advances in medical research have also helped players get extra years out of their careers. “Those injuries that were career-ending can now be fixed.” says Swaby. “If you look at someone like Jimmy Gopperth. He was 35 when he did his ACL. Five to 10 years ago, that would have been career over, but now he’s got a new deal at Leicester Tigers and will play until he’s 39. That’s a testament to the condition he’s kept in, being professional, getting support from his club. They are using the right tools to get back on the field.”
Those early building blocks to a player’s longevity start at a young age, often in their teens, Ashley-Jones, says. “The investment now is going into making pathways bigger and better. Most pro sides are doing the similar stuff but by doing all the little things properly from an early age, like Leinster, who have done the basics horribly well, is how you succeed. What are our pillars to success? Hard work, accountability, managing logistics and recovery.”
Swaby concurs on education from a young age and says social media can be a positive in gathering knowledge. “The rise of social media plays a big part. Everything is out there for S&C coaches and sports scientists. You don’t need to go to conferences to learn what people are doing outside the game. We need to embed that education at a younger age. The younger age-groups get more focus work physically while having the education programmes in place to help them with other areas of their development. From a mental perspective or nutrition point of view, they have a syllabus to follow to help them with their development. Boys like AWJ, Richard Wigglesworth and Mike Brown have been around for 20 years but the answer as to how far they can go age-wise is still in the future.”
Stridgeon says a shout out musts also go to the player’s support network for allowing athletes to make the sacrifices to prolong their careers. “You don’t get many players playing to their late thirties, unless they’re mentally tough but it helps if they have a lot of support around them. AWJ’s missus is hugely supportive. Their partners help by allowing them to recover so they don’t have to run around after the young kids.”
Last words go to Swaby about the great survivalists in the game. “A player will become a great player but how great they will become will depend on their support network, innate talent and, yes, that little bit of luck.”