The Lions will need to be at least 10 per cent fitter than they were in Australia in 2013 to take on the All Blacks according to Paul Stridgeon, their head of strength and conditioning.
Having been part of the backroom team for the last two tours, Stridgeon takes over from Adam Beard as the Lions' fitness chief for the most physically demanding tour of recent times. In addition to the three-Test series that begins on June 24, the Lions will face all five of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises as well as the Maori All Blacks in an itinerary that former Lions and New Zealand coach Sir Graham Henry has labelled “suicidal”.
The task for Stridgeon, a former freestyle wrestler who finished fifth at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and his team will be not only to get the Lions squad into condition to face the world champions at the end of a gruelling domestic season but to allow sufficient recovery and recuperation between games and travelling. This was much the same on the previous two tours, but the added test of taking on a New Zealand team that last lost on home soil eight years ago elevates the challenge on to a whole new plane.
“When we look at the game data against the All Blacks you know that running wise it is going to be the most intense game that you can get,” Stridgeon told The Telegraph. “We have to try to match their intensity running wise and collision wise. That will be very tough. No disrespect to Australia but New Zealand are a more physical, faster team.
“It will be more of a running game and the collisions will be bigger as well. I would expect we will need to cover 10 per cent more ground than we did against Australia. That will be tough but that is the challenge we have.”
Stridgeon’s work will begin with a pair of training camps at Wales’ base at the Vale of Glamorgan and Ireland’s at Carton House. This is when Stridgeon expects most of the physical gains to be made. However the camps will clash with the end-of-season play-offs in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness PRO12. Depending upon squad selection and league permutations there may be 10-20 players available. “That’s just the way the season works,” says Stridgeon who is also head of S&C at Toulon and will take up a similar post with Wales after the tour.
The focus of these camps will be upon increasing power and endurance in short, sharp sessions. An example would include 15 seconds of lifting bags with 10 seconds’ rest followed by other physical drills over the course of three minutes before doing five minutes of skills.
“We will be putting the players under pressure and we will want the players to execute skills under fatigue,” Stridgeon said. “Our main two focuses will be repeatability – doing something fast, but doing it over and over again – and then skills under fatigue – when you are tired making the right decision and executing the skill well. So we will be doing a lot of pre-fatiguing the players and then going into rugby. That’s what we have to do because we will be tired in stages against New Zealand. It can be on those fine margins whether you win or lose.”
There will also be cryotherapy sessions in both Wales and Ireland while the squad will also undertake simulated altitude training at the Vale. Once the games commence in New Zealand, the focus shifts to recovery. After each game players will wear compression clothing before undertaking an ice bath the following day and then a pool session before travelling.
Yet Stridgeon’s role extends far beyond just conditioning. Since the day in 2002 when he turned up to Wasps for his first S&C role carrying water bottles – it was there his enduring nickname “Bobby” from the main character in the Adam Sandler movie Waterboy was born – Stridgeon has put smiles on faces wherever he has been.
A natural energy seems to accompany him into every room he enters. Hailing from Wigan, Stridgeon gravitated towards wrestling rather than league or union courtesy of his grandfather who took him to the legendary Riley’s Gym as a six-year-old. He was soon representing England internationally and training over in Belarus where bouts took place on bare concrete and bedrooms were infested with cockroaches.
“It was horrendous, but there were really good partners there to fight against,” Stridgeon said. “There would be guys crying but they couldn’t ring home because it was 90 minutes to get to a payphone. It was formative. Everything I have done subsequently has been luxury.”
Stridgeon retains that physical strength. His party pieces include “flagpoling” where he clambers up a lampost before holding his body parallel to the floor. On the 2009 tour to South Africa, there was an open challenge to take him to the floor, to take him down to the mat. There were plenty of challengers but Stridgeon was undefeated.
He also awards the “Bobby Cup” to his personal player of the week if the squad win two games in a week, a tradition dating back to his Wasps days, which frequently entails him dressing up as something or someone ridiculous.
“Of course you need to put smiles on faces,” Stridgeon said. “There will be times when people are down or tired and you need to get them up. It is getting the right balance between giving the players fun when they need it but also saying now’s the time to work.”