Earlier this year, Louis Rees-Zammit turned heads with a revelation that would have put defensive coaches around the world to sleep a little less soundly: He’s actually getting faster.
The 21-year-old from Cardiff has heralded himself to the world since breaking through at test level, really making his mark for the first time during the 2021 Six Nations Championship, when impressive attempts against Ireland and Scotland. laid the foundations for a victorious campaign. .
Those performances, in turn, led to a call-up from the Lions last summer and he will now become a fixture in Welsh teams for a long time, as his performances for Gloucester have rarely waned since making his debut at Kingsholm to the 18 years.
Rees-Zammit credits the work he has done with Dan Tobin, Gloucester Performance Director, to make it even more peaceful, but the man himself downplays his role.
“The main thing to say is that it is a genetic monster,” Tobin told WalesOnline. “He came to us fast, he was an incredible athlete. You have to give his parents credit for the genetics they gave him because I haven’t done it fast, he’s fast anyway.
“You get a gem like that and then part of your job isn’t to really screw it up. You’ve got some athletes that have to be treated differently because they get so close to this genetic ceiling of ability that they have, their nervous systems are so fast that when they’re being really explosive it’s going to get more out of their system than a slow twitch guy that has the ability to repeat it more but does not reach the same heights.
“So you have to keep in mind that sometimes more recovery time is required for them than other people, but you also have to pay more attention to the efficiency of how they move because there’s less room for error for those guys when they’re down. producing a lot. strength, power or speed. If they are wrong, the consequences are sometimes serious injuries.
“Working with Louis is making sure his stance is good, that he hits the ground well, that his hips are conditioned enough to handle the running speed that he’s capable of producing.
“He already had the ability to produce what he does, we didn’t give him that. We gave it the ability to repeat it safely.
“When he came to us, he had some issues with his adductors, hamstrings and lower back. So it was just fixing some things technically because he had a great engine in terms of how fast he could move, but not necessarily the best structure in how he moved.”
Determining the exact speed of a rugby player is not an easy task. People tend to look for stats on the maximum speeds recorded, but it is very rare for a player to reach them in a match environment.
For the record, Rees-Zammit reportedly hit 10.73m per second when scoring that extraordinary attempt against Fiji last November, when he ate the initial 20-metre lead held by the Fijian defenders in the blink of an eye.
Tobin points out that there isn’t a lot of opportunity during the season to work on a player’s speed: “Are we going to the court two or three times a week to make him faster? Absolutely not.” Instead, he says the focus is on regular “microdosing” exercises that target the biomechanics of running to ensure Rees-Zammit doesn’t put undue stress on the muscles around the hips and elbow. trunk.
While he’s not about to take too much credit for Rees-Zammit’s pace, Tobin admits the flying winger has gotten faster in the last 12 months. Although he believes that his true talent is not in his top speed, but in his ability to switch gears smoothly, evidenced in his impressive solo attempt against Newcastle earlier this season.
“Yeah, we track acceleration, we have a tracker on these guys at all times. It has progressed in its acceleration in the last 12 months,” Tobin said.
“His top speed is something he rarely gets a chance to hit in practice or games, but when he did, I think he did with Wales in the November series, he ran faster again.
“That capacity is there. But to be honest with you, I think his real talent is his ability to change the pace quickly. The try against Newcastle ( take a look here ) showed that ability to take steps without missing a beat, but also his ability to cruise at 60 percent and then shift to 80 percent. He didn’t actually run that fast to score that try, but the way he changes gears leaves people dead. That’s the most impressive part of his running ability.
“His change of pace from moving slowly to changing gears quickly, I think he does it better than anyone in the world.”
The way Gloucester run Rees-Zammit does not align with the widely held belief that bigger is better in the chaos of a rugby match. They have resisted the temptation to add muscle to his relatively slim frame (he weighs 87kg) for fear that it might take away from his ‘super strength’, which is his speed.
Instead, Tobin is letting nature do its thing for now, as Rees-Zammit naturally completes his frame and grows as he matures into an adult.
“If we go after those qualities, if we want him to squat 50kg more in six months, if we want his upper body to get bigger, put some size on him, which is an easy thing to do in a young rugby player. , that might fuck up what he’s good at, which is moving fast, being explosive,” Tobin said.
“We deliberately didn’t want to pursue putting a lot of muscle mass on a guy at a young age. [because] Naturally, he put on about five or six kilos in two and a half years when we weren’t chasing him.
“There is some training involved, but he is still growing and maturing physically and you have to let that process happen instead of getting too excited to interfere with him. From that point of view, he gets stronger as he gets older. Some of the strength changes that occur as he matures will drive acceleration improvement, making him move faster and jump higher.
“Those processes can happen quite organically, you’re just pushing them and making sure the progressions are appropriate and you’re not chasing anything difficult that might take the wheels off the track.
“It’s more of a management project than a development one.”
Staff from the Welsh management group are involved in the project. Head of physical performance Paul Stridgeon and sports scientist Ryan Chambers are in regular contact with Gloucester, with both camps sharing things like the winger’s GPS reports, what kind of training he’s been doing and if there have been any injury issues while he’s in. your care.
It all keeps the wheels turning, fast, in Rees-Zammit’s case, as he rises from a talented youngster to a fully-fledged international star. But at the age of 21, he still has more to come. Though Tobin feels the growth might not necessarily be in top speed from him, that he will probably improve anyway, but in the Welshman becoming a more complete player.
“Obviously people get excited about how fast he is, but you have to remember that he plays a complex and chaotic sport. He is a rugby player. For me, our first priority is to keep him injury free so that he plays as many games as he can in his career. The second priority is to make him as effective a rugby player as possible.
“It’s not necessarily about hitting a maximum of 10.5 meters per second because it’s very rare that the opportunity actually presents itself. He will always have that ability there, but for us it’s about making him as effective as possible through the rugby bits, the decision-making bits, the ability to execute his skill while running at his pace. For me, it’s a combination of rugby coaches and us doing it right, the medical team keeping it sweet. That will be the combination to make him the best possible player throughout his career.
“The game has been spent just trying to put the best athletes on the field. They must be good decision makers, able to operate at a high level of skill. It has a combination of all those things. It’s not about trying to outdo his athleticism because if we went down that rabbit hole, we’d probably miss out on something else in his development that we should focus on because he’s too one-dimensional.”
Tobin concluded: “Zam is a very driven person, he desperately wants to be the best he can be and he soaks up all the information he receives. That combination along with his genetic ability makes him who he is.
“As long as he continues on that line, he will go a long way.”