Mick Stephen: "Sevens players are the elite of the elite when it comes to conditioning"

Mick Stephen, head of athletic performance for the Australia men’s sevens programme, is in no doubt about the calibre of the athletes he’s mixing with.

“With sevens you are dealing with the Ferraris of the rugby world,” Stephen said from Cape Town, ahead of the second leg of the HSBC SVNS 2024 series.

“Sevens players are the elite of the elite when it comes to conditioning, especially around speed and repeat speed. It’s 14 minutes of go-go-go.”

The Australian knows what he is talking about. He has long straddled both the worlds of the 15s and sevens games. He spent more than three years whipping Super Rugby side NSW Waratahs into shape, before returning to Rugby Australia and the men’s sevens outfit. And while he loves the nuance of 15s, from a professional strength and conditioning perspective, there is no contest.

“If you refer back to 15s, the ball-in-play time is something like 34-35 minutes (per 80-minute game), work rate (measured by) metre-per-minute could be somewhere around 100, maybe 110. Our peak in sevens is more than 200 metres per minute. You’ve got to be flying,” Stephen stressed with a somewhat maniacal grin.

“You can’t miss a beat. If you’re not conditioned well enough you’ll get caught out really quickly.”

The fastest men in rugby

It all starts with one thing: speed.

“There is a lot of speed work,” Stephen said. “We will get speed sessions in two to three times a week. That can be speed, speed acceleration, speed agility. It’s about not only being able to hit max speed, it’s about the ability to repeat that, what we call 'repeat speedability'. We train that, we test that.

“If we think in a game there are four-to-six speed efforts, we will target that in our scenario sessions.”

As the man who helped steer an unfancied Australian men’s side to a first overall HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title in August 2022 acknowledges, they are not starting from scratch.

“A lot of these guys are in the programme because they normally have got pretty good genetics; they’ve got a decent base of speed; they’ve got good agility; they can step on a dime; they can change direction; they are very deceptive - you are not dealing with the big brawn, you don’t have the 120-kilo props,” Stephen confirmed.

“It’s not about building from the base up. It’s fine-tuning and really finding their points of difference and what they offer the team.

“Obviously, there’s different shapes and sizes within that and there are different positions in sevens but at the end of the day, it all comes back to speed and space on the field. That’s what you train for. You train to be able to dominate the space.”

Reverse-engineered training

Pre-season training – two words feared by athletes the world over – is not too different from the 15s game. Stephen’s squad enjoyed a longer break than usual before embarking on this campaign, getting six weeks off after qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in last season’s final tournament. Once back in, it was the usual – “running, volume work, accelerations”.

But as soon as the intensity ramped up as the new season drew nearer, the unique demands of sevens became apparent.

“In 15s you’ve only got to perform one day per week for 80 minutes, in sevens you’ve not only got to perform six times over two days, you’ve got to have the ability to perform back-to-back days and within those back-to-back days, multiple times in the day,” Stephen said of the high-octane HSBC SVNS series weekends.

So, Stephen and his team “reverse engineer” the problem, making sure that a training week replicates match days. There will be six hardcore sessions over two days, with players focusing on cooling down, recovering and warming-up between each one.

“It’s for a physical perspective but just as important, if not more important, it’s training the mental ability to be able to drive yourself not only once but pull yourself back up for another session and then cool back down, recover, reset and then have the ability to do it again,” he explained.

Peanut butter sandwiches and recovery boots

There is almost as much action in a sevens locker-room as there is on the pitch. Between games in Cape Town, or indeed any of the eight stops on this year’s circuit, players will have between two and four hours before needing to hit top speed again. In that time they have to weigh in, rehydrate, refuel, rest, recuperate and then complete the whole warm-up process once again.

Recovery boots, that constrict and pump blood, and ice baths help, but a lot of it is as simple as stuffing your face.

“Eating is a skill, or nutrition is a skill at least,” Stephen nodded. “It’s about thinking what can your body digest, or learn to digest in a certain period of time. Be it bread, light rice, light meats.

“Some athletes can’t stomach anything, so it might be a peanut butter sandwich and a protein shake. We have performance gels, too, which are basically just goo that is full of sugar and electrolytes and taste like lollies.”

Post-tournament, at least 48 hours is devoted to sleep, nutrition and hydration. In back-to-back tournament weeks, team hotel pools and saunas become social hives, as the world’s best strive to get back fit and firing.

For a coach in charge of strength and conditioning it is relentless, but fun.

“When you are in a session and they’re going full throttle, they’re absolutely humming, and they are in really good nick, you sit back and admire the flow, going ‘wow, these guys are something special’,” Stephen says, beaming away. “I’m very lucky to do what I do.”