One-time cricket coach gets Eagles fit for purpose

The USA's strength and conditioning guru Huw Bevan helped England become world T20 champions and is now helping to close the performance gap between rugby nations.

TOKYO, 9 Oct - Acclimatising to the sultry and humid conditions has been a hot topic for the 20 teams during the first weeks of Rugby World Cup 2019.

While rugby fans have been happily basking in Japan's warm autumnal weather, it has been a different story out in the middle, where not only the players' stamina has been taxed to the limit, but also their ball-handling skills due to sweaty palms and drenched jerseys.

In learning how to adapt to such extremes, the USA players benefited from some unique insight.

Huw Bevan, their strength and conditioning coach, spent five years in a similar role with the England cricket team. He travelled with the players on summer tours around the world and helped them to win the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean in 2010.

To give the USA team a taste of what lay in store at RWC 2019, he took them to Colorado Springs.

"We were very aware of what we would be facing in Japan," Bevan said. "A big part of our preparation was at Colorado Springs, which is obviously at altitude and extremely hot.

"It helped us prepare for the heat and also from an aerobic perspective." 

Bevan, an ex-hooker who played for Bridgend, Cardiff and Swansea, is a High Performance consultant for World Rugby.

He says it takes at least two weeks to adapt to a change in conditions. "But the more exposure the athletes can have, the better. If you're able to train at a high intensity for an extended period of time in those conditions then that's ideal. The more familiar you are, the more comfortable you become and the more prepared you are to play in them."

But mastering the humidity is just one of many challenges that Bevan and his USA players have faced in the build-up to the tournament. 

With three of the squad playing club rugby in the southern hemisphere and another 12 based in England or France, and not all of them regularly exposed to first-team rugby, maintaining the necessary intensity within the camp has been problematic.

"There is a differential in the level of exposure that they're getting," he said. "Titi (Lamositele) is playing at Saracens and played in the Heineken Cup final, which is brilliant, but Paul Lasike, at Harlequins, didn't necessarily get to start as many games as he would have liked."

Bevan said the establishment of a strong domestic competition, Major League Rugby, will play a crucial role in helping the USA get closer to the Tier 1 nations.

"The MLR can provide players with the level of exposure that narrows the gap to playing at international level. The idea is to get us competitive with the top 10 teams in the world."  

World Rugby's own performance guidelines set development targets for Tier 2 nations designed to reduce the points conceded against the heavyweight sides.

Statistics show that in the past 36 games against the best sides, Tier 2 nations have conceded on average 13.32 points in the final quarter. USA, after trailing France just 12-6 at the break, were eventually swamped 33-9.

Bevan, however, points out that this does not mean Tier 2 players are less fit. "A typical player that someone like Eddie Jones (England coach) is working with would have a greater training age than probably the majority of ours," he said.

"They’ve had more exposure to physical conditioning. From a skills and tactical awareness point of view, they've had a greater exposure at a higher level. You would expect them to be further advanced. They've probably been involved in an academy, so they've had that professional approach to their rugby potentially since they were 16 or so."

USA face another stiff task against Argentina on Wednesday before rounding off their RWC 2019 campaign against Tonga on Sunday. With the help of World Rugby and a blossoming MLR, Bevan feels the future is looking up in the United States.

"A successful MLR with well-structured, well-organised performance departments, with a high number of USA-eligible players in key positions, is the top of my wish list," he said.

RNS nh/mj/sw/mr