SAINTS head of Performance Matt Daniels has been at the club since 2006 – and he has seen key aspects of this field change in that time.

With the Super League season now here, the hard work that he has done with the players in pre-season in conjunction with the coaching staff – is now being put into practice.

He found time to give an insight into that work, an aspect that has changed massively from the old fitness regimes of old.

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MC: How has world of S&C in rugby league altered in 20 years?

MD: In my time the sports science side of things has developed beyond all recognition really.

The GPS side of things and the load monitoring is all very prescriptive now.

The beauty of what we try to do is obviously we respect sport science and we know it's got his place and adhere to it much as we can, but I think there's also a little bit of a an opportunity at times for some old school and at times, so long as it's appropriate, try to find those opportunities where you've just got to get the work done.

As long as that's done in an educated and safe manner there is still a place for some of the old school mentality.

St Helens Star: Matt Daniels

MC: Within that ‘old school’ does there have to be a team bonding aspect working alongside your drive for fitness?

MD: Definitely. It builds those connections it builds those relationships because until you are placed in intense periods of survival, for want of a better word, alongside your mate, and you're looking left, looking right - you don't know how you're going to react.

To come through those real tough sessions or moments in sessions, whether it be on the training field, a rugby field or whether it be going up Snake Hill in Cyprus, or going into the sea in Formby on a blustery, cold December day.

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They're what we refer to as anchor moments, they are the connection pieces. Everybody can go and do the rugby skill and can go in the gym, but it is those connections and those tough moments that galvanise individuals and galvanises the group.

Over the last the last few years it is something that we've consciously stepped away from because the group that we've had has been pretty stable in terms of the numbers we have had there's not been a lot of transition in key personnel, key players and our leadership group has pretty much stayed the same.

And also that group, to be fair to them, earned a lot of trust through lockdown through the way they approached the sessions that I gave them and they came back post lockdown flying and in great shape. 

That meant we placed a lot more trust in the players and a lot more individual prescription and individual delivery of sessions.

But we just feel with the transitioning squad, with some of those leadership characters, Robes, Louie and Will leaving and more importantly, the younger members of the squad coming in, and it's important at times to take it back to basics and re-create those connection pieces.

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MC: Obviously your job is important all year round, but there is a special emphasis on what you what you planned for between November and now. Explain how you devise your plans from November onwards.

MD: It's always a tricky one because the squads obviously off the back of a long, arduous season and you have got individuals that are all at different points, so some have played a lot of games and need a good break.

Some will go into an international camp and then alongside that you have also got individuals that will need patching up, and maybe operations.

What we always try to do is have a one-on-one meeting with players individually at the season end.

Paul Wellens will sit down with players and have a bit of a review from a rugby side of things and I'll sit down with the players from a strength and conditioning and a -planning point of view and Nathan Mill will sit down with players from a medical point of view.

We look at how much they have played, where they are at individually and then start to plan a programme that is generic but split into those pods of players that require certain aspects.

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Generally they'll get six weeks off, depending on who you are. Two to three weeks of that will be completely off, as in, we encourage them to get away from rugby, encourage them to enjoy time with the family, go and see friends.

They will have a home programme then for the last three weeks of the offseason, where they just gradually start to get moving again so that when they return to pre-season we can hit the ground running a little bit.

In the past we've gradually brought lads back and sort of gradually started to build their load so we don't spike them in load, but with giving them the home programme we can we can actually get a little bit more done early and we always try to give the players time off for Christmas and that's important to again spend time with families.

It's a long season and lads who don't live locally can get home and see their loved ones.

So generally we've got five or six week period of pre-season up to Christmas, which generally is isn't a long time to try and get lads up to speed so the importance of that home programme and that buy-in and adherence of the lads to undertake that home programme is quite pivotal to what we actually do once they return to training in November.

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MC: How do you measure players fitness on their return?

MD: We're very lucky because the individuals that we've had and continue to have, particularly as part of our leadership group, are our most athletic and they're our best trainers and the most, most diligent members of the squad.

So obviously James Roby has retired now but in terms of having a leader who sets the standard, not only by what he says, but more importantly what he does and how he looks and how he carries himself and how he commits to training both on and off the field helps me do my job without needing to say a lot.

But those conversations I've had with individuals from those targets set with individuals as part of those end of season meetings, some of those might be weight-related but the vast majority are skin fold related, so we'll do body fats when they leave at the end of the season and then they'll be set a target for what they need to be on return.

But also with the running side of things, we do the Bronco test, so they'll do that couple of weeks into the return from preseason to see where they're at. It's basically a running test to take a quick snapshot of where people are at and it's literally a 20 back, 40 back, and 60 back run and they do that five times.

So the cut off for that is 5 minutes, but obviously we always encourage the players and, they do it naturally, to compete to win. So we have had some outstanding performances.#

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MC: Does the coach tell you what he wants, given how he wants to play – or do you simply get them fit?

MD: It's really collaborative. Obviously it's a bit of a unique environment given I've been there for a period of time and seen Paul come through as a player, captain, assistant coach and now coach, so the relationship we've got is pretty good in in that we can be open and discuss players.

I think we're pretty much on the same page in terms of the style of play that we want and obviously we need the players to be in a certain physical condition to be able to play in that style.

Whenever there's an issue with an individual, which is very rare, he is on to it first and discussing it with me or vice versa. And generally, nine times out of ten we are on the same page and tipping each other what's happening.

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MC: What are the things that you can only do from November to the season’s start before you get into the weekly grind of playing and recovery?

MD: Basically with our loading strategy, we try to gradually increase load week on week so with the GPS we measure metrics, metres per minute, distance, high speed running, accelerations, decelerations.

And these are all things that back in the day, without sports science, you might have turned up on day one and just run the legs off them.

But by doing that, you're obviously increasing the risk of injury and so we gradually increment the load in terms of distancing.

So that first week back for pre season will be relatively low in terms of in terms of running distance and relatively low in terms of metres per minute intensity wise as our marker and it will be relatively low in terms of high speed running.

Obviously as the sessions develop and as the preseason develops, we gradually build that week on week till we get to what we call our acute chronic.

Basically we don't want to do is spike the players also we don't want them to dip or to trough in load.

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We're trying to keep them in the a sweet spot where we're getting enough into them that they're developing, but we're not sort of easing off too much so that the next time we do something they spike and again put them at risk of injury.

So this time of year in particular is about maximising that load so we're at a point where our distances are pretty high, our metres per minute in terms of intensity is pretty high.

Our high-speed running is high.

Our acceleration, deceleration density in terms of what we do as part of the session is all pretty high.

And that's what we try and build at this time of year so that when we go into the season and games start coming thick and fast and we can't get as much training load into them just because of the physical nature of the games that we've got a bank of fitness and a level where the players are as robust as we can possibly get them going into a start to the season.

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MC: When they're on the weights are they competitive with each other or have you got monitor who can lift what within their own capabilities.

MD: They are competitive and we've changed the gym up slightly so there's a bit more intensity to it. The players have given us positive feedback and that level of competition in terms of getting your block done to the maximum that you can, has definitely gone up another level since we've introduced that.

MC: On size there used to be a really big emphasis on size, say 20 years ago and lads were encouraged to put on weight that they couldn't necessarily carry. Saints have someone like Matty Lees can just keep going and not be fazed by being a few kilos lighter than some of the bigger props. How has the approach changed?

MD: It probably ties in a little bit with sports science. I can remember coaches in the past being obsessed with a number on the scales and it didn't really matter what that was made-up of in terms of fat-lean mass it was literally just wanting players to be heavier.

Matty Lees and George Delaney are great examples of players who you have got to allow them time to develop and basically grow into the frame.

The way the games is going and the way the game has gone and the is the athletic prowess is far superior to any big man trundling around the middle of the field.

You are much netter with a 98 kilo Matty Lees who is agile, dynamic and powerful than a 106 kilo Matty Lees who can’t do the minutes or who can’t get around the field.

I would say 15-20 years ago you could pick who played prop, you could pick who played winger just by their body shape and the body type.

Nowadays you look across our squad or squad and it is very difficult to point out positionally which person plays in which position based on the body shape and somatotypes.

MC: Despite all the gym work, given the amount of running they do they are never going to be shaped like body builders or hulks?

MD: Exactly that. They're explosive athletes that are dynamic so Jack Welsby, for example, will cover between 8 and 10km in a game on average, half backs will cover around about 8km and even your interchange front rowers are on 4 to 5km per game.

So that is the big area. Obviously we spend, particularly in the offseason, a fair bit of time in the gym, but the lifts and the exercises we do are all to obviously build strength, endurance and power, but they're all functional exercises that are designed to help the lads perform the actions and movements that they require on the field.

That is to try and make them as physically robust as possible rather than trying to just aesthetically make them look better and make them want to take their tops off.

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MC: You have to make the players do some tough stuff – is there ever any pushback from the players or are they quite compliant?

MD: They are very compliant. What I try doing, and they don't like it most of the time, is I drop a cardio challenge in every now and again, which comes a bit out of the blue.

So maybe on a Friday afternoon when we've had a contact session in the morning, done some video, have done a big field session and then leg weights.

Just when they think they've done at 4pm on a Friday we might do a Wattbike challenge or a skier challenge and they pull a face but as soon as they crack on and start competing then then they are good.

In years gone by doing the wrong thing became the right thing at one stage, but obviously now with the group of characters that we've got and the leadership group that we've got is as competitive as they've ever been and as driven as they've ever been so it makes it makes my job a lot easier.

MC: In training looking at the minute-by-minute monitoring on the GPS - how long has that been in place and what does that tell you?

MD: We've probably had that system operational now since Keiron Cunningham’s time here and then obviously when Justin Holbrook came in, he really embraced it.

Obviously, he'd had a lot of experience on that side of things when he was assistant coach at the Roosters.

So we came up with a bit of a system that can seem like overkill potentially if you're new to it and listening in but it really helps us with that load side of things, so we know where the players are at generally as a squad, but also know where players are at as individuals and where they sit.

So if a player, for example, is spiking in in terms of his high speed running, we might be able to interchange him with another player just to take a bit of load off him.

Or we might, we might pull them from a session or we might adapt the drill.

What we always do is plan the session beforehand and then we get that fingerprinted.

So we've got a bank of drills so that we know, for example, one minute of drill X gives us 250 metres of running, 30 metres of high speed running and however many metres per minute.

So we can really prescribe what we're going to cover in the session before that takes place, so coaching staff can match what they need in terms of aims and outcomes from a rugby side of things, with the physical outputs of the drills that they're going to select for that particular day.

What we try to do, particularly in pre-season but also in season, is we have clarity days - usually on a Monday and a Thursday where we go through detail and it's relatively low level.

And then we have intensity days on Tuesdays and Fridays, in which everything's on the bounce, everything's moving and there is a real intensity.

Any review stuff on an intensity day is done after the session once we have filmed it. Whereas on a clarity day there is a bit more time to stop and go through things in a bit more detail so there is a bit more learning.

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MC: The actual monitoring on game day – do you monitor what people are doing as the game is going on and look at it afterwards. Or do you just let them play on game day?

MD: We let them play basically but it is monitored and if we have player returning from injury who we need to keep an eye on. If we are prescribing limited minutes for somebody, then we'll keep a loose eye on what the GPS metrics are looking like.

But generally, the game is the game and we very, very rarely make any decisions based on what's going on on the GPS, in terms of, in terms of interchanges and substitutions and that type of thing.

MC: Every cog in the Saints wheel has to be working and accountable. We had that run last year where there was a series of hamstring injuries. I suppose you have to investigate every little area and see who's done what and might not even get an answer?

MD: Load is one of the initial areas that we’ve scrutinised.

Obviously it's never a great experience when we lose a player through injury, particularly with a soft tissue injury like a hamstring, so the loading side of things is definitely our first port of call to see whether there is or was anything that we could have done differently or anything that we've missed.

But again it's important that you do your due diligence in terms of looking at all your processes and that even encompasses lifts in the gym.

Have we done anything different there that might have sort of contributed to it?

Has the player himself done anything differently away from the training ground that could have potentially contributed to it?

It is multifactorial but it's important that every person and every individual and every department comes together to look at what's gone on and see if there are any changes in the process that needs to be made to obviously prevent things like that happening again.

MC: Now that pre-season is over what does a week look like in your area?

MD: Once we get up and running the early weeks of the season are pretty low key in terms of my input in terms of conditioning work on field.

It sort of highlighting periods within the fixture schedule where we can get a little bit more into them so we'll still maintain those intensity days. So our match day -3 will be our intensity day and that is a day where there will still be a conditioning element to it, but it will be mainly through the use of the skill drills and everything will be on the bounce.

So a typical week if we have Friday to Friday, we would obviously have the game on the Friday night and Saturday is recovery and review, so they'll do like an active phase of recovery where they do some low level cardio and some low level low level weight circuit just to get them moving again.

And then a passive phase where they do some breathing exercises and some mobility and then ice bath and sauna.

Off on a Sunday and then Monday, they'll come in and they’ll do the well-being and daily markers. So we do that every training day. Then they'll roll into a bit of a rotation of massage, gym and mini skills in the morning and then in the afternoon they will be on the field.

Tuesday is an intensity day where we’ll usually do some preview of that week's opposition, go out on to the field and run some 13 v 13 so we will have the Reds and the Blues where the Blues will predominantly run plays that the opposition for that week, we think will run after the coaches have studied video of the opposition’s previous games.

Then they'll have leg weight when they come on field. Wednesdays are predominantly a day off but anybody who needs any extra treatments will come in with the medical staff then.

Thursdays are the Captain’s run session and Friday is the game so that that's why a typical week would look like for us.

MC: Who is in your team specifically in Strength and Conditioning?

MD: We work hand in hand with the medical staff and obviously Nathan Mill is obviously head of medical. Andy Thompson and George Jackson are the medical staff we work with.

There is a crossover with us with regards to players returning from injury and getting them back up to speed on return.

In terms of S&C we have my brother Adam, and we have a good working relationship and similar philosophy on how to approach things. That makes it a lot easier.

And a big part of the go-between is Ben Edwards, the sports scientist who has just finished his Masters and has come on with us full time now after being with us for a couple of years.