Will Reds' hellish pre-season pay off at altitude against Bulls?

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

The Reds' reward for the sweat and toil of a hellish pre-season could come in the thin air of Pretoria on Sunday morning as they attempt to rewrite their recent South African history.

Queensland have not won in South Africa since their one-point victory over the Cheetahs in 2015, their subsequent battles on Super Rugby's toughest road trip ending in tears, especially at altitude.

But fitness is a rugby skill as fundamental to Brad Thorn as being able to catch and pass a ball.

With more time to plan ahead of his second season as head coach, Thorn brought in strength and conditioning guru Brynley Abad, who has helped push the players' fitness to new levels.

"We won't run out of gas this year, it's a different program," Thorn said.

"S&C (strength and conditioning) has been a focus for us.

"We're a big side, especially in our pack but we're a fit side.

"It's something that was important to me - it was important to me as a player and it's important to me as a coach."

Reds strength and conditioning coach Brynley Abad has the team ready to play at peak level for 80 minutes. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

A member of World Cup, Super Rugby and NRL championship teams, Thorn played a the highest level until he was almost 40 and still looks as though he would not be out of place packing down in a Reds scrum.

"If you're not fit enough, you're not going to mix it with the top teams," Thorn said.

"It's something we looked at and it's good."

The Reds' three wins this season have been sealed in the second half as they finished full of running in the dying stages of the game.

And they are looking to repeat in the effort on Sunday morning (AEST) in Pretoria despite knowing their lungs will be screaming and limbs ailing in the thinner oxygen at 1300m above sea level.

Reds captain Samu Kerevei knows his men are in for a challenge against the Bulls.

"Obviously it's a bit higher than usual compared to Brissie, there's a lot of altitude here and it's been pretty tough at the start of sessions," he said.

"It's really hard to win here in South Africa.

"For myself, there's been tough times in the past and I think I've only won once here.

"The Bulls are an exceptional team - very big human beings, very tough."

The Reds sweated through a hellish pre-season to be ready to play at their peak in Super Rugby.  Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

But Abad - who was on board with the Reds in 2011 when they won the Super Rugby title before moving to the Firebirds where Queensland's premier netball team made four consecutive Trans-Tasman and Super Netball grand finals, sealing two titles - has prepared the Reds for the "worst-case scenarios".

Whether that's playing without a stoppage for minutes at a time while covering a couple of hundred meters and being able to respond to turnovers or transitions in play, or being able to respond under fatigue or at altitude, Abad believes the Reds have the work in them to be able to respond on the field.

"We'll be judged by whether or not we can run out games," he said.

"The New Zealand teams are probably the benchmark and they're the guys that actually play rugby.

"When you come off transition or there's a turnover, they go.

"And this is the challenge, can our players actually go with those intensities? Can we defend, can we quickly go off transition?

"We've worked a lot on worst-case scenario this year so that when it happens, our players understand it, their bodies recognise it physically.

"I'm biased, I'm subjective but I feel we really are a very fit team and I think we'll prove it."

The Reds may not have had massive time at altitude but a gruelling pre-season in temperatures above 35C has modelled the mental and physical challenges they are likely to face in Pretoria.

 

And while they take an undermanned side into the clash after unavoidable collision injuries to Jordan Petaia (foot), Feao Fotuaika (broken thumb) and Filipo Daugunu (broken arm), the Wallabies rotation policy (Sefa Naivalu) and Junior Wallabies commitments (Isaac Lucas, Fraser McReight), Abad's program has not resulted in a rash of soft tissue injuries that are often the result of fitness push.

"There's a certain game model that the coaches will come to you with and say: we want to play this way, therefore  we need to make sure they have the ability to sustain high intense periods of the game.

"So that's what my job is. But also, there is quite a high relationship between injury status and winning and losing.

"We know that when you keep key players on the field - for instance in rugby no.9s, no.10s, playmakers - keep those guys on the field and generally you've got a better chance of success.

"Rugby is a funny games because there's a lot of those injuries that sometimes you can't help but certainly, in terms of injuries like soft tissues - tearing quads, tearing hamstrings and calves - that's something that we feel that we can control.

"And if we manage load well, then we continually give the coaches players every week."

Abad is an expert in his field. But he is no diva.

"There are non-negotiables for each of us and that's where we all influence each other in terms of - why do we need to have this?

"It's not like: 'this is my domain, stay away', I actually say to the other coaches, I reckon we can do this with the ball to tick off my stuff.

reds players Isaac Lucas and Tate McDermott toiling in the pre-season heat. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

"If I can get the ball into their hands, or get some sort of skill into them but also tick off the physiological stuff, then we win.

"We do some speed and get (attack coach) Jim Mackay into our speed.

"Cameron Lillicrap our scrum coach and physiotherapist, I go: 'Can you do some scrums to give us our power hit?'

"We're all working together to make sure that it can be ticked off.

"Part of being a really successful team is being able to recognise that as a strength and conditioning coach, you're not the saviour, you're actually trying to encourage the ball in and whatever you can get out of that you can get out of that is good."

Just like the players, he says all members of the coaching staff have bought into Thorn's culture and work together to ensure the best outcome for the team.

"Even Brad will say last year when he came in he didn't have a lot of time and there wasn't a lot of organisational stuff around the staff around him at that time, he had to quickly pull people in and rush things and there wasn't a lot of planning.

"This year, it's changed. He's recognised as a head coach that there's a lot more to getting a successful rugby club, so he's got really clever.

"He's got really good people around him so that when he looks right, he's got a wall, when he looks left, he's got a wall: there's people that are really supporting him.

"And from there, we've driven his model and what he wants."

What he wants on Sunday morning is a win in South Africa. And in the thin air of Pretoria, his fit Reds have their best chance in years to deliver.