ANYBODY that watched Dan Lydiate at work in the Six Nations will understand why his Newport Gwent Dragons teammates are delighted with the introduction of a foam tyre at their training base.
The flanker has proved to be master at the ‘chop tackle’ – a technique where the ball carrier is smashed below the knees.
It’s a policy that is key to the Dragons’ defensive technique; they aim to get their opponent down to the turf as quickly as possible and compete at the breakdown.
It is no surprise that pre-season has heavy emphasis on ‘chopping’ given its importance to the region, And given that it’s pretty daunting to hurl yourself at somebody’s shins and pretty painful to be on the receiving end, a novel tackle bag has proved popular at training.
A tyre is rolled at speed towards the tackler, who smashes it to the ground and has to swiftly get back on their feet and snaffle a ball that is attached (either by a strap or velcro) to its inside.
“It takes the injury aspect out of the equation but also freshens up training,” said Sililo Martens, the former Sale and Scarlets scrum-half whose company gyms2u.com provided the equipment.
“It’s something a bit different and with the contact area becoming more and more physical you need more techniques.”
The Dragons have been using mixed martial arts in a bid to improve their contact area proficiency, with former cage fighter Mike Poole offering some expert advice.
Training sessions have been intense and at times ferocious with the game day chaos of the breakdown replicated on the paddock with jacklers being smashed and having their limbs lifted.
“As a defence coach I wanted to bring a hunger back to the team, something I think that we lacked at times last season,” said Rob Appleyard.
“Our pre-season has been about physical fitness but also about getting tougher mentally and having that desire.
“We have been ferocious in training with live contact; you have to be careful because of injuries but you also need to practice what you are going in games.
“It’s about channelling that aggression and working towards something that could be a game-changing moment whether it’s winning a turnover or stopping their main ball carrier.
“Tackling below the waist is a hard, technical drill to practice because it hurts both the tackler and the carrier.
“We have seen that the boys are then braver to get lower when we are in the live sessions, purely through repetition of the technique on the tyre without getting injuries.
“There are so many transferable skills from MMA and we have been putting them into rugby specific drills.
“We’ve been doing a lot of pad work, some ‘ground and pound’, wrestling; anything that brings something exciting into what is a long pre-season.”
The Dragons are on a break this week before they step up their preparations for the RaboDirect Pro12 opener against Zebre.
“Every team is working hard at this time of year and we won’t come up against a single unfit team this season,” said Appleyard.
“But what I want to see is a mental toughness and hard edge. It’s the old fight-or-flight response and this time of year is crucial if we are to toughen up. “To be fair there has been a change of mindset with the players driving that.
“We have raised the bar so far this pre-season… but the intensity will go up when the players are back for the second block next week.”