Category Archives: Rugby World Cup 2015

Snooze you don’t lose: Is sleep the secret ingredient of World Cup success?

By Caroline Heaney

With the Rugby World Cup final taking place this weekend both teams will be looking for the small gains in their preparation that could mean the difference between success and failure. One such area that has received a lot of attention in recent times is sleep. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, recovery is an important part of competing in a major tournament. Both New Zealand and Australia have played six matches on their way to the final, which could take its toll, therefore, how they recover from that demand is vitally important to their chances of success. Sleep is perhaps the ultimate recovery strategy, but why is it considered to be so important?

Image courtesy of artur84 at

Image courtesy of artur84 at

What is sleep?

Sleep can be defined as a complex state with both physiological and behavioural components where the individual is temporarily disengaged and unresponsive to the environment (Halson, 2013). There are two key stages of sleep – rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. It is NREM sleep that contains deep sleep (known as slow wave sleep). This is the period that is thought to be particularly important for recovery in sports people.

Why is sleep important for sports people?

Outside of sport a lack of sleep is often considered to have detrimental effect on performance. For example, we are advised not to drive or operate heavy machinery whilst tired. It therefore seems logical to assume that tired athletes are likely to underperform. Anecdotally there are many accounts of sleep, or a lack of it, having a detrimental effect on sporting performance. Whilst the purpose of sleep is not fully understood it is generally accepted that it is required to facilitate recovery and preparation for functioning (both physiological and cognitive) in the next waking period (Fullagar et al., 2015; Halson, 2014). Therefore the sleep an athlete has the night before and in the days leading up to a competition (e.g. Rugby World Cup final) is important. The challenge here is that athletes often report sleeping difficulties the night before an important competition due to pre-competition anxiety or excitement (Juliff, Halson, & Peiffer, 2015). Additionally, the sleep patterns and sleep quality of travelling athletes can be negatively affected by factors such as jet lag, change of routine and unfamiliar surroundings. This is particularly important when the 2015 Rugby World Cup final is to be played by two southern hemisphere teams in a northern hemisphere location. That said, both teams have been in the UK for a while and will have likely established sleeping routines. It would be very surprising if this is not an aspect of recovery that both teams have put strategies in place to address.

What does the research say?

Previous research has suggested that sports performers may be vulnerable to sleep disturbances due to a variety of reasons including early training sessions, poor sleep habits, caffeine use, travel, and pre-competition anxiety. Whilst sleep is a broadly researched area, the body of research examining sleep amongst sports performers is relatively small (Halson, 2014). Research that has examined the relationship between sleep and sports performance has explored the effects of sleep deprivation, partial sleep deprivation/sleep restriction, sleep extension and napping. In their review of the literature Fullagar et al. (2015) concluded that there is evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation has a significant impact on sports performance.

Circadian cycle

The time of day that the World Cup final is held could also have an impact on performance. The World Cup final will be played at 4pm, but Australian fans reportedly requested a change to 8pm. It seems that everyone has an optimal time of day that they perform at their best, dictated by their body clock or circadian cycle. The video below gives a simple explanation of this, splitting athletes into ‘larks’ and ‘owls’. It would appear that a 4pm kick-off favours intermediate types (peak performance around 16:00) rather than pure ‘larks’ (peak performance before 12:00) or ‘owls’ (peak performance around 20:00), whilst the change favoured by Australian fans would favour ‘owls’. However, this simple analogy does not take into account the experience, preparation and complex sleep patterns of the two travelling teams.


Who will win the Rugby World Cup remains to be seen, but it is possible that sleep could be a contributing factor. Sleep appears to be an important part of the athlete’s recovery and preparation and can potentially influence performance, so in order to get a top quality final tomorrow let’s hope that both Australia and New Zealand get a good night’s sleep tonight!


Fullagar, H. H. K., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Hammes, D., Coutts, A. J., & Meyer, T. (2015). Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitve responses to exercise. Sports Medicine, 45, 161-186.

Halson, S. (2013). Sleep and the elite athlete. Sports Science Exchange, 26(113), 1-4.

Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Medicine, 44, S13-S23.

Juliff, L. E., Halson, S. L., & Peiffer, J. J. (2015). Understanding sleep disturbance in athletes prior to important competitions. Journal of Science & Medicine in Sport, 18(1), 13-18.

Recovery at the Rugby World Cup

By Caroline Heaney

Image courtesy of nenetus at

Image courtesy of nenetus at

Recovery has reportedly become a ‘hot topic’ at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Competing in a major tournament such as the Rugby World Cup can take its toll on the body. Rugby is a physically demanding sport that fatigues the body, so it’s important for players to be able to recover effectively and bounce back ready for the next match. Teams that reach the final of the Rugby World Cup will have played seven matches and that can be tough for the body to cope with, even amongst elite athletes. Although both teams in the final will have played the same number of games, they may not have had the same experience. One team, for example, will have an extra day of rest since the two semi-finals are played on consecutive days. Additionally, one team may have a more gruelling semi-final than the other which could give their opposition an advantage. How well they recover from that gruelling match could make all the difference to the result. A lack of adequate recovery was reported to be an influencing factor in Japan’s defeat at the hands of Scotland after such a spectacular opening match against South Africa. Consequently sports performers often employ recovery strategies to speed up and maximise their recovery between matches. In this article we will review three commonly used strategies: cryotherapy, compression clothing and massage.


Cryotherapy can be defined as the lowering of tissue temperature in order to achieve a therapeutic objective (in this case to enhance recovery). There are various modes of cryotherapy, but ice baths were traditionally the most common mode used by athletes, however increasingly whole body cryotherapy is being used. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) is where athletes are exposed to very low temperature rooms or chambers. Cryotherapy is openly used by elite rugby players. The Wales team, for example, were using cryotherapy in preparation for last World Cup in 2011 and reportedly stepped into a cryotherapy chamber soon after their victory over England on 26th September.

Cryotherapy is thought to reduce some of the negative symptoms associated with intensive exercise such as muscle soreness and inflammation, and increase waste transportation, but what evidence is there to support this? It would appear not a huge amount. A recent review found only limited evidence to support WBC as a recovery tool and concluded that it may make no difference to muscle soreness or even make the pain worse. Interestingly, when questioned on this a spokesperson from Welsh Rugby stated that despite the lack of evidence they continue to use it because they “think it works”. This indicates the importance of belief in a treatment and the potential for the placebo effect to influence recovery when using cryotherapy.

Compression clothing

Compression garments are the items of tight clothing worn by athletes that have highly elastic properties which provide compression. These garments have become commonplace in rugby, but what is the theory behind them and why are they thought to aid recovery? It is logical to assume that compression is beneficial to recovery due to some of its other uses e.g. in the treatment of sports injuries or the use of flight socks to avoid developing deep vein thrombosis. Compression garments are suggested to enhance recovery by reducing the swelling and inflammation that occurs in response to intensive exercise. The theory is that the compression creates an external pressure gradient thus minimising the space available for swelling, but what does the research evidence show?

In their meta-analysis of 12 compression garment studies Hill et al. (2014) concluded that there is evidence that compression garments are moderately effective in enhancing recovery from exercise induced muscle damage. So it would seem that there is some value to using compression garments to aid recovery.


Massage is commonly used by rugby players to enhance their recovery between matches, for example, the England rugby team use massage as an integral part of their recovery and match preparation. Whilst massage is a well established recovery strategy, there is a surprising lack of scientific evidence to support its use. Brummitt (2008) in his review of the literature concluded that the research has failed to show that massage has a significant impact on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or other measures of recovery. More recently, after reviewing the literature, Nelson (2013) concluded that massage has a promising role to play in reducing DOMS, but urged caution due to the variability in study methodology. This identifies one of the key issues that has stunted massage research – individual differences. Each massage therapist develops their own individual massage style, making comparisons between therapists problematic. Additionally, factors such as the depth of pressure applied, muscle groups involved, ambient temperature, and time of day may all affect the impact of a massage. Consequently, it appears that what is lacking from the body of research evidence is guidance on what techniques, timings and dosages are optimal for recovery.


It is likely that players in the Rugby World Cup will be engaging in a wide variety of recovery strategies during the tournament, including, but not limited those outlined in this article. While the scientific evidence to support these strategies is still relatively limited, they are widely adopted by players and players appear to believe that they are effective. This is perhaps the most important factor of all – if an athlete believes that a strategy will help them recover, they will feel more confident going into their next game and that can only be a good thing.


The science behind recovery strategies in sport will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness level 3 module coming soon.

For more Rugby World Cup related articles, visit the OpenLearn Rugby World Cup Hub.

Rugby: A sport for sampling or specialisation?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

With the World Cup now upon us my household is at fever pitch and my six year old son is mesmerised by the strength, skill and speed of the players. He is a keen rugby player himself and has been attending training at the local club since he was four. However despite his passion for the sport he is yet to define himself as ‘a rugby player’ as he also participates in a range of other sports including football, swimming and golf.  This is similar to most of his rugby teammates who also take part in a range of sports from ballet to ice-hockey. However the majority of his football teammates tend to only play football, football and more football. So what is the best approach? Should my son choose to focus on rugby, the sport he excels at the most, and forget the rest? Would that make him a better rugby player and increase his chances of reaching elite level? What are the benefits and risks of such early specialisation?

Kelsey E ] via Flickr Creative Commons

Kelsey E via Flickr Creative Commons

Early Specialisation

Early specialisation is a hot topic at the moment with youth sports becoming more and more susceptible to commercial pressures and parents and coaches often encouraging children to participate in intensive training and highly competitive events in their specialised sport at a young age. There are various definitions for early specialisation however typically it involves continual year-round training in a single sport between the ages of 6 and 12 years with a specific focus on development in that sport. One of the main arguments for endorsing early specialisation is the positive relationship between the amounts of time spent in deliberate practice i.e. highly effortful and structured activity, and the level of achievement attained. Therefore in theory, the earlier you start practicing the earlier it is that you are likely to ‘make it’ to the top level. However this is a very simple outlook and this linear approach has been questioned in relation to sports performance. Although deliberate practice is considered important the exact requirements of the type and amount of such practice remains in question.

Currently the general consensus is that sampling a range of sports throughout childhood provides the best grounding for both progressing onto a higher level in a chosen sport as well as for continued participation into adulthood. Sampling allows for the transfer of cognitive skills and physiological conditioning to different sports. There is also strong evidence that in sports where peak performance is reached into adulthood specialisation does not need to occur before the age of 13. So how does this apply to rugby?

Rugby is a sport where peak performance is typically achieved later into adulthood. This corresponds to statistics from the previous World Cup winners where the RFU calculated average team ages of 27 (Australia), 28 (England), 27 (South Africa) and 28 (New Zealand). In their 2015 squad New Zealand have opted for experience including four players who have played in four world cups and France have just one player under the age of 25 with an average age of 29.1. Rugby players are thought to benefit from late specialisation whereby players sample different sporting activities to develop physical, psychological and sociological skills that benefit their rugby performance.

‘Rugby is a late maturation sport, further complicated by the different maturation rates that tend to apply to the different positions. There is also a wide consensus based on statistical evidence that selection for elite training and specialisation would be more effective if delayed until after maturation, that period of maximum growth and change. In practice, almost all sports begin such selection rather earlier. So the RFU and the Regional Academies must continue to encourage both early engagement and late specialisation in the sport.’ (England Rugby, 2013)

However according to rugby journalist Stephen Jones this is not happening within English rugby with Rugby Schools dominating and the quest for talent forcing children to specialise and be identified earlier. Interestingly in the England 2015 World Cup Squad Stuart Lancaster has eighteen players aged under 27 including youngsters Luke Cowan-Dickie (20), Elliot Daly (22), Maro Itoje (20) and Henry Slade (22) who have progressed through the player development pathway, which would suggest that the system is working to some extent. It would be interesting to know if these players were early specialisers. However one could also argue that the current system encourages early talent identification and specialisation which can often fail to distinguish between potential and performance and so for those players such as Cowan-Dickie and Itoje that make it to the top level many potentially elite youngsters have been disregarded. There is also evidence to suggest that early specialisation poses risks to the young athletes.

What are the risks of early specialisation?

Evidence suggests that early specialisation can lead to negative consequences, both physically and mentally. Early sport specialisation may increase rates of overuse injury and sport burnout, showing higher training volumes to be a factor in injury with injuries more likely to occur during the adolescent growth spurt. Evidence also suggests that athletes who had early specialised training withdrew from their sport either due to injury or burnout from the sport. This is particularly important for contact sports such as rugby.

As well as the physical risk of injury the main psycho-social risks of early specialisation include decreased sport enjoyment, low intrinsic motivation, compromised social development, social isolation, dropout, psychological burnout, and even the potential to lead to eating disorders in some sports. In contrast early sampling is thought to lead to sport expertise because of the intrinsic motivation that stems from the fun, enjoyment, and competence children experience through their sporting involvement (Côté & Hay, 2002).

What is the answer?

With early specialisation becoming more prominent despite the evidence documenting the risks the IOC have issued a consensus statement with a range of recommendations for those involved in youth sport. For example acknowledging that each child will develop at different rates due to varying responses to training. Developing children holistically, to provide a foundation that will help them be successful in life as well as in sport and ensuring steps are taken to prevent injury. In addition the IOC challenge governing bodies to embrace the recommendations which are based on academic evidence to ensure youth sport is healthier, inclusive, sustainable and long-term. Johnny Wilkinson is a good example of this ideal:

‘I have always loved rugby but have also been fortunate to play a whole host of different sports from a young age. I hope that all children have similar enjoyable opportunities to play and keep active throughout their lives’.

Evidence suggests that in a sport such as rugby there is no place for early specialisation and in fact participating in a range of different sports would provide a better foundation for performance as well as continued participation. So to answer my earlier question I will continue to support my son in his rugby but also encourage him to continue sampling a range of activities to promote a positive sports experience that hopefully continues into adulthood.

Doping in rugby union: a case of papering over the cracks?

By Gavin Williams

Image courtesy of sscreations at

Image courtesy of sscreations at

An average of 7.8 million viewers tuned in to watch events at Twickenham on Friday 18th September as the self-proclaimed third largest sporting event in the world, the Rugby World Cup, began.

In the lead-up to the event – and amidst the current turmoil surrounding other elite sports such as athletics and cycling – World Rugby’s Anti-Doping Compliance manager, David Ho, has boldly claimed that the sport’s anti-doping programme is the envy of sports around the world.

Ho cites numerous reasons for this including an increased budget, the introduction of the athlete biological passport in 2014, and mandatory anti-doping education for players from under-20 level. The results appear to support Ho’s claim with only four positive tests from 2,100 elite samples taken in 2014 – less than one percent.

This however does not tell the full story. The timing of Ho’s proclamation coincided with the news that the 22-cap South Africa hooker, ‘Chiliboy’ Ralepelle, had been suspended for two years after testing positive for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid. And of course, some may argue that the lack of positive results simply indicates that elite athletes who choose to cheat are merely one step ahead.

While this positive test may be one of only a small number of exceptions at the elite level, further investigation of the sport closer to home reveals a slightly more disturbing picture.

Inspection of the UK Anti-Doping list reveals that of the 50 athletes and coaches currently serving bans for an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV), 16 are rugby union players. If we include rugby league, this figures rises to 29. The vast majority of sanctions are for the use of anabolic agents but the more surprising statistic is they are predominantly issued to players at lower levels of the sport. So what are the potential reasons for this?

Research evidence indicates that during the 20th century the stature and weight of rugby union players increased significantly, with body mass increases far exceeding those in the general population of young males during the same timeframe. Since the game turned professional in 1995 this trend has continued. Evidence from 2002- 2011 shows that the average height and weight for elite players in England increased for almost all positions, with significant differences in weight evident for fly half and back-row forwards (Fuller et al., 2013).

An interesting case comparison to demonstrate this is the New Zealand World Cup winning squad of 1987 and the squad of 2015 – favourites to retain the title. In 1987, the average weight was 99.5kg and 79kg for the forwards and backs respectively compared to 113kg and 95kg in 2015.

When accounting for the importance of size, strength and power it is perhaps slightly less surprising that the majority of doping bans are issued to those players attempting to gain entry to the elite levels of the game. The pressures faced by young people aspiring to ‘make it’ to the pinnacle of the sport – including the need for players to become bigger and stronger along with the benefits and rewards – can lead some to take short cuts. These pressures are the precise reasons cited by Sam Chalmers, son of former Scotland and British & Irish Lions fly-half Craig, who received a 2 year ban after testing positive for two anabolic steroids at a Scotland under-20 training session in 2013.

So, in returning to David Ho’s comments, one factor above all else is clear: while there may or may not be a problem at the elite level of the game, alongside rigorous testing procedures, sanctions and campaigns, education must begin at the junior level for all players so that they are aware of the inherent dangers and consequences of doping in the sport. Only then perhaps can rugby address the issue of doping at all levels.

Another penalty kick to touch…

By Martin Rhys

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans


Last week I drew attention – not that it needed drawing – to the way Japan spurned the offer of a kick at goal to draw a match against South Africa with the final whistle about to blow.

It worked perfectly for them. They went on to score a try and make the biggest rugby headlines ever and more admirers amongst neutral rugby fans than probably any other national side in the World Cup.

Last weekend, another team were three points behind with just minutes left on the clock. The referee blew for a penalty. They had a metronomically accurate kicker who hadn’t looked remotely like missing anything all night. Three points and a draw were there for the taking – a formality, a foregone conclusion.

Just like Japan, they spurned the kick and went for touch.

They lost.

The team of course was the host team, England. The opposition was Wales. Now, putting aside for the moment my unfettered delight at the result and the way in which it was achieved, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the way in which the same decision at pretty much the same point in two matches had such dramatically contrasting consequences. I wonder how much of it was to do with the effect the decision had on the opposition.

When South Africa gave away their penalty, they were certain that they had thrown away their narrow victory and would have to put up with a draw. No other eventuality crossed their minds at that point. Japan had played out of their skins, yes, but after all there was a certain world order and Japan would respect that and be grateful beyond their wildest expectations for a share of the spoils. When Japan kicked for touch, it hit home very directly that Japan believed they could win and that belief of Japan’s had an intimidating effect on the Springboks because they hadn’t for one moment seen it coming.

When Chris Robshaw turned down a definite draw and ordered Farrell to go for the touchline, Wales must have been delighted. Rather than wonder like the Boks what on earth was going on, the Welsh reaction would have been more like,

‘Oh, you really think so, do you? Well, let’s see, shall we?’ Or words to that effect…

Not long before that penalty, Wales had lost another three backs to injury to take their total to six, and in the face of that cruel depletion had scored a try where a scrum-half playing on the wing had cross-kicked to give the other scrum-half a chance to pick up and score. Which he did.

For probably the first time in the match, Wales were full of themselves. The men on the field were defying the odds of cruel injury and a chariot-ridden Twickenham, and believed that they could do it.

It was absolutely the wrong time to challenge them to defend a try. They would have died rather than concede.

Two almost identical decisions on what to do with a last-minute penalty. One spot-on. The other so very wrong.

For more Rugby World Cup related articles, visit the OpenLearn Rugby World Cup Hub.

Siblings in the scrum: long history of brothers makes rugby a family affair

By Jessica Pinchbeck

It’s well known that family plays a key role in a child’s initial socialisation into sport and his or her continued participation. This family involvement is certainly evident on a Sunday morning at my local rugby club where siblings of both genders and all ages participate in a range of activities. Add to this the fact that as many of the mums and dads are former players who now help with coaching and refereeing, with a few grandparents thrown in as well, there can often be three generations of the same family involved.

The level of family involvement in the 2015 Rugby World Cup appears to confirm research that family influences a players’ introduction and experience of the sport in a variety of ways – from taking up the game to sibling rivalry driving performance. Being an England fan I was already aware of the two sets of brothers in the England squad – Billy and Mako Vunipola and the brothers Ben and Tom Youngs (whose father Nick was a former England scrum-half).

Tom and Ben Youngs, whose father also played rugby for England.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Then there is Scotland and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie. Interestingly it was Jonny, the younger sibling, who first took up rugby, sparking Richie to then follow suit.

Scotland’s siblings Jonny and Richie Gray.
Jeff Holmes / PA Archive/PA Images

The Ireland squad features brothers Dave and Rob Kearney. Rob has said that his passion for rugby was strongly influenced by his father’s love of the sport though he also acknowledged the important role of mothers in today’s game – if his mum didn’t want him playing the game he wouldn’t be doing it.

What all these sets of brothers have in common is their closeness and the bond between them, as well as a healthy element of sibling rivalry. Dave Kearney explains this relationship: “If there’s someone with you it’s easier. It’s competitive too. You’re working hard against each other and trying to get the best out of each other. It was good having someone you can work with and push on.”

Owen and Ben Franks are the latest in the line of 43 sets of brothers who have played for the All Blacks over the years.
Reuters/Nigel Marple

New Zealand has a long history of brotherly participation with 43 sets of brothers having played for the All Blacks at different times. However for those brothers lining up alongside each other this figure drops to nine. This year Ben and Owen Franks make up the fraternal component of the 2015 squad. Once again it was their father who was instrumental in their rugby career, training the duo from a young age. Like the Kearney brothers, sibling competition also plays a key part and Owen revealed that: “Ben would try to bait me into fighting him because I was so much weaker and smaller but as I got older I could start to compete a little bit more.”

Springboks brothers Bismark and Jannie du Plessis.
REUTERS/Howard Burditt

Canada also join the brotherly club with the inclusion of Phil and Jamie MacKenzie as do the Springboks featuring Jannie Du Plessis and Bismarck Du Plessis. The Du Plessis brothers have spoken openly about their strong relationship and bond and even made their Springboks debut together in the same game. Their closeness is magnified by their working, living and playing together and their unified goal of playing in a World Cup final watched by their father.

Potential record breakers

At the top of the list is Samoa, which is fielding three brothers: George, Tusi and Ken Pisi, in the same squad. If all three appear on the pitch at the same time they will create Rugby World Cup history. George explained his feelings of brotherly love: “When Ken was small, Tusi and I used him for tackling practice … Later, whenever we were on opposite sides in a game, I had this extra-special feeling of just wanting to smash him.”

Samoa is fielding three brothers in this year’s World Cup: Tusiata, Ken and George Pisi.
Reuters/Paul Childs

Samoa are no strangers to family ties and the Tuilagi brothers Henry, Freddie, Anitelea and Sanele have all played internationally for Samoa and brother Manu played for England. Brother Alesana Tuilagi, a winger in the Samoan 2015 squad would therefore also contribute to the history books if he makes his Rugby World Cup debut.

The family connections continue still beyond brothers, with other family links in the competition including Ireland’s Luke Fitzgerald whose father Des played for Ireland, Welsh back Ross Moriarty who is following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who both played internationally for Wales, and the England player Owen Farrell whose father Andy, a former England player, is also part of the England coaching staff. Rugby, it seems, truly is a family affair.

Jessica Pinchbeck, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An age-old rivalry decided by modern scientific advances? Hitting the peaks of performance

By Gavin Williams

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Picture by Tomos Evans

Saturday represents the 127th International match between England and Wales, in what is the most significant game of the Rugby World Cup so far and undoubtedly the most significant match-up between the two nations in over a decade. At this point in the tournament, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A win could ensure one foot is firmly placed in the quarter finals but a loss ensures a must-win game against an in-form Australia XV who have just won the Rugby Championship. Of the 126 International matches between the two, England have won 58 and Wales 56.

The potential impact of home advantage is well documented, but Warren Gatland’s side have won twice at Rugby HQ since 2008, so the Twickenham fear-factor felt by Welsh teams of old is one not shared by the current group. Others have commented on the psychological impact of kit colour, and this may bode well for Wales as red has been shown to be associated with greater success. Debates will rage about the respective starting XVs, what they mean for the style of play adopted and how each will attempt to manage the game. These debates will extend beyond kick-off, at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening and continue well after the final whistle sounds.

At this level of the sport, what is clear however is the fine margin which differentiates between success and failure. This is encapsulated in a term, marginal gains, often associated with British Cycling and Team Sky and coined by Sir Dave Brailsford who describes it as “… the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of … and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

So how does this relate to Saturday’s game?

The search for these marginal gains and the extra edge to enhance performance explains the reason behind the intense – and somewhat gruelling – training camps undertaken by both teams in preparation for the tournament. The phrase attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” certainly cannot be directed at either camp in advance of the tournament.

Wales held a two-week camp at high altitude in Switzerland, employing a ‘live high-train low’ (LHTL) methodology. There were training camps in the heat of Doha where the squad continued to sleep at high altitude, in Colwyn Bay, north Wales and finally at their oft-utilised camp in Spala, Poland. England meanwhile utilised a two-week high altitude camp travelling in Denver, Colorado, approximately a mile above sea level, employing a ‘live high-train high’ (LHTH) methodology followed with training at their base in Pennyhill Park, Surrey.

Although the specific method employed by both teams differed, the use of high altitude highlights the investment in state-of-the-art training methods to gain an advantage.

But how would this impact on their performance at the Rugby World Cup?

Altitude presents a distinct physiological challenge to the body due to decreased barometric pressure, and thus, decreased partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) – termed hypoxia. It is widely documented to adversely affect human performance in the short-term (West, 1999), and initially lessens the intensity and duration of training that athletes are able to sustain due to the decreased availability of oxygen for working muscles.

Acclimatization to altitude however can result in central and peripheral physiological adaptations that improve performance, perhaps the most important an increase in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This is achieved through a proliferation of red blood cell production initiated by erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone predominantly produced in the kidneys and perhaps more commonly known for its use in blood doping by cyclists, which can enhance endurance performance and recovery.

More traditionally associated with endurance athletes, the potential impact of altitude training for team sports is now being explored (Brocherie et al., 2015).

The use of a LHTH methodology may be limiting as it detrimentally impacts on training intensity so other methods have been sought. Live-high train-low (LHTL), the method adopted by the Wales camp in Switzerland and Doha, is seen as the ‘Gold-standard’ altitude training method to enhance athletic performance (Levine and Stray-Gundersen, 1997). It is increasingly being used by sports teams at the elite level, as it can realise the benefits of increased red blood cell production attained through living and sleeping at higher altitudes without compensating training intensity. It therefore avoids the potential issues encountered with LHTH methods. This is of particular importance for relatively short stays at altitude, like those undertaken by the Wales and England camps.

Furthermore, in an intermittent sport such as rugby, increased red blood cell count and enhanced oxygen-carrying capacity can promote recovery between the bouts of exercise, which may have an impact during the latter stages of the match. This of course may influence the tactical approach with the sides seeking to employ a high-tempo game, keeping the ball in play for long durations to tire their opponents.   The Welsh squad is renowned for the emphasis placed on fitness levels while the commentary team during last Friday’s opening game against Fiji highlighted the importance of keeping the ball in play for the English side. It could well be, then, that the side which is better prepared physically will emerge victorious as the impact of fatigue on decision making and the ability to stick to the game-plan may well have a significant impact on the outcome.

So off the back of a strenuous summer of training, which team will be savouring the fruits of their labour? By 9:45 p.m. tomorrow evening, we will find out.

Kevin the Kiwi

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

Without doubt Sunday afternoon was the most stressful of my married life……. The All Blacks going into half time a point down to Argentina changed my husband from the usually pretty relaxed Kiwi I married into someone who actually started to shout at the TV.

I guess it started when the Haka singing Kevin the Kiwi arrived from my parents in law last week and all talk and planning of our social life over the next 6 weeks was adapted to ensure that all games could be watched in full.

Kevin the Kiwi  (Picture by Candice Lingam-Willgoss)

Kevin the Kiwi
(Picture by Candice Lingam-Willgoss)


While both from an academic and personal perspective I am aware of the passion and reaction that is often associated with a sporting contest on the international stage, I was still left wondering why it means so much? There is such a strong emotional connection between fans and teams that tears of joy or sadness are common place at many games – Argentina being a great example.

What causes this emotional link between athlete and fan? Even I felt ‘something’ watching New Zealand play (and not just the worry of a potentially grumpy husband for the next few days). Some findings report this connection is developed as early as when children are 9 years old in that “they’re capable of developing an emotional, long-term attachment to a sport, team, or particular athlete”. This level of attachment may also be permeated into adolescents and adulthood by the concept of basking in reflected glory. As human beings we want to be successful and that in turn means being associated with success and as such phrases such as ‘we won’ or ‘they didn’t stand a chance against us’ are common place following your own teams victory.

While these are more psychologically driven explanations of fandom, other scientific explanations reveal that it could be the pleasure seeking side of us that craves success as whenever a fan’s team experiences a win, that individual’s “pleasure centers” will be ignited via a surge in dopamine.

What is clear is that there is unlikely to be one clear reason why people love sport or why individuals feel so connected, this is likely to be different for different people one of the leading sports-fan psychologist in North America, Daniel Wann sums this up nicely – surmising that there are potentially eight different motivations for why people love sport:

“People like sports because they get self-esteem benefits from it. People like sports because they have money on it. People like sports because their boyfriend or girlfriend or family member likes sports. People like sports because it’s exciting. People like sports because it’s aesthetically pleasing. People like sports because, like the theater, it is a venue for emotional expression. People like sports because they need an escape from real-world troubles. People like sports because it provides a sense of belonging, a connection to a wider world.” 

So perhaps for me, my connection was because of my husband, whatever the reason I know that an All Blacks win guarantees a happy home!

The Best Rugby Result Ever?

By Martin Rhys

I’m old enough to remember Wales thumping up cricket scores against Japan during the 1970s. Phil Bennett the diminutive Llanelli outside-half would waltz through the Japanese defence at will, thrilled to be playing against somebody his own size for the first time since he was eight.

He wouldn’t have been so thrilled this week. How times have changed. Emphatically no longer the whipping boys of world rugby, Japan turned the tables good and proper on a rugby super-power, the mighty Springboks.

And it wasn’t a case of putting up a good show as gallant losers either. They actually beat the two times world champions, matching them for power and speed and whacking them for spirit and pace.

So much about the victory was superlative that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Probably at the end.

Three points behind with the clock going into red. The referee blows for a penalty to Japan. The penalty is easily kickable, particularly for a man who has barely missed a pot at goal all afternoon. Kick this penalty and they draw with the world champions. What a result!

They kick to touch…

Now come on! Who amongst you – after 80 bone-shuddering, lung-vacuuming, soul-wrenching minutes – would not have taken the chance of a draw against South Africa? And a much more than honourable draw, a draw which would have made headlines across the rugby world as the mighty Boks were humbled. I’d have taken the three points. Be honest, so would you.

Not Japan.

They were after bigger headlines, headlines which would turn the Boks’ humility into humiliation. They went for touch, won the lineout, and for over four interminably red minutes spread and twisted the South African defence until the hint of a space was enough for Hesketh (not the most obviously Japanese of names but who cares!) to make the line.

Consider for a moment the amount of belief in yourself and your team that went into that decision to go for a win. I can’t think of many nations in that David v Goliath position who would have done the same. Yet it was simply the emotional and indeed logical culmination of the belief and spirit which they had shown throughout the match. Close-ups of Japanese forwards during a lineout were nothing short of awe-inspiring and even scary. They would permit nothing to be an obstacle to completing the goal they had come to achieve. That goal defined them. For 85 minutes that’s all their lives were about. It was what they had to do.

(A short diversion here – read last year’s Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It will repay you mightily and add to the insight into the Japanese psyche that you glimpsed in this match.)

As for the World Cup, it couldn’t have had a better result at a more perfect stage of the competition. All the preliminary matches with the no-hopers acting as cannon-fodder for the big boys, the matches nobody is remotely interested in watching? Well, Japan changed all that!

Rugby – A Blow to the Head, a blow to the sport?

Tonight on BBC Panorama “Rugby and The Brain – Tackling the Truth” the Chief Medical Officer of the World Rugby, Martin Raftery, will announce plans to alter the laws of the game to limit the risk of players suffering concussion. He will confirm that there will be a specific focus on tackling. Only a few days ago, The Telegraph reported that “Jonathan Thomas quits with epilepsy caused by multiple concussion”. Following mild seizures and memory loss that he believes was the result of sustaining multiple concussions, the Worcester forward and former player for Wales, announced that he was retiring from rugby on medical advice. He is not alone, in the media this year, it has been reported that a number of high profile rugby players such as Rory Watt-Jones (Cardiff Blues) and Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster and Ireland) have had to retire from the sport due to concussion related injuries.

Rugby World Cup (Land Rover MENA) Creative commons license Downloaded from

Now in light of those stories, with the Rugby World Cup underway and all the excitement that has already been ignited, the pragmatic and perhaps more curmudgeon-like souls amongst us may turn our attention to the dangers associated with a sport that kindles our national passions. Of all the injuries that can occur in rugby, concussion is now the number one cause of missing matches through injury at elite levels.

Concussion can occur in any situation where a blow to the head occurs, such as in road traffic accidents (RTA) or as a result of a work-related accident, however, its incidence is becoming increasingly common in athletes who are prone to knocks to the head as part of their sport. Certain sports are more susceptible than others such as: rugby, NFL football, boxing, ice-hockey, rugby, football (soccer), equestrian sports, cycling, and diving. It is so topical an issue that in December a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Will Smith will be released simply entitled “Concussion”. In the United States there has been a prolonged debate about the health dangers of NFL football following the mounting evidence that repeated concussions can lead to degenerative brain disease (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE]). CTE is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterised by a diminished ability to think critically, slower motor skills, and can lead to volatile mood swings. Unfortunately, at the current time CTE can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem. These risks alongside the large financial settlements that have been awarded to former NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions should make us ponder whether rugby may be the next sport in the concussion spot light and whether the risks associated with rugby comprises a price worth paying.

But it is not all doom and gloom, although researchers have found that concussions in rugby are common, it has been found that concussion accounts for 29% of all injuries associated with illegal play, but only 9% of injuries sustained in legal play (Gardner, Iverson, Levi, Schofield, Kay-Lambkin et al., 2015). Accordingly, Roberts, Trewartha, England, and Stokes (2015) investigated collapsed scrums and collision tackles, and found that injury prevention in the tackle should focus on technique with strict enforcement of existing laws for illegal collision tackles. Furthermore, World Rugby is taking a proactive stance on concussion identification and management heading towards “a cross-sport and society approach to concussion to ensure consistency of research, education, prevention and management strategies to further protect athletes and members of the public”.

Sports such as rugby carry risks, but through legal play and active pitch side management of suspected head injuries, we can but hope that this World Cup is remembered for exciting play and home nation success rather than media reports of players with serious head-related injuries.

Concussion in Sport will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness module coming soon.