George Smith was, and indeed still is a lot of things to the game of rugby: ball thief, ruck monster, silky skilled, terrible kicker. But for all that Smith was and is to the game, ‘noted trainer’ is not often something associated with the great number seven.
But he absolutely is a thinker within the game, and a few years ago he stumbled upon the perfect solution to the necessary evil of pre-season training: he just kept playing. As he switched from France to Japan to a surprise Super Rugby comeback with the Brumbies, and then Japan and the Queensland Reds for a couple of seasons before heading back to England, he maintained his super-human levels of rugby fitness by just staying on the paddock.
If ‘training smart’ includes actively avoiding pre-season training, then kudos to you, George Smith.
But the Super Rugby-Japan-Super Rugby thing is becoming a bit more popular, legislated even for Australian players with both sabbatical contracts available for the top-level Wallabies – Bernard Foley and David Pocock did this, Israel Folau was going to – and similar sort of arrangement available to long-serving but uncapped players, too.
The 2018-2019 Top League season in Japan was re-aligned to allow for the Rugby World Cup, and it meant that the competition was all over before Christmas. And that made it super attractive for overseas players to head north for a lucrative hit-and-run rugby mission that allowed them to return to their Super Rugby sides for the New Year pre-season resumption.
One such player to take advantage of the schedule was Brumbies scrumhalf Matt Lucas, who though he was involved throughout the 2018 season for the Brumbies – even starting a few games – didn’t necessary play a whole lot of rugby.
For him, the chance to take advantage of the Brumbies’ growing history and qasi-sister club arrangement with Suntory Sungoliath was too good an opportunity to pass up, and one he jumped at.
Losing the Top League Final 55-5 to the Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter-led Kobelco Steelers wouldn’t have been part of Suntory’s plan; it was the first time in seven seasons Suntory or the Panasonic Wild Knights weren’t crowned Champions.
But none of that took away from Lucas’ enjoyment of his season with Suntory, and he was still grinning about his experience with the Japanese heavyweights when I caught up with him last week.
“Mate, I loved it,” he said, in answer to the obvious ‘how was it’ question. “Obviously a very different experience, both culturally and rugby, but I couldn’t speak more highly of it.”
“Beautiful people over there, the team environment was special, and it allowed me to play a lot more footy. That came on the back of a season in which I was involved heavily, but I was ready to play more, and it enabled that. It developed my footy a lot as well.”
Which is interesting thing for a nearly 29-year-old scrumhalf to say. Proves the old adage that you’re always learning something new about the game of rugby. Clearly though, the speed of the Japanese game would seem suited to someone like Lucas and his running game.
“Exactly. The ruck’s sometimes non-existent over there, which makes for a very quick game. The ball-in-play time is through the roof; there’s not many stoppages. So it did test me, and it did force me to develop a whole new set of skills, essentially, and that’s only going to benefit me.”
The test for Lucas, therefore, is going to be transferring those new-found skills into Super Rugby. And interestingly, doing that comes down to unfairly maligned notion of ‘playing what’s in front of you’.
“When you go over there, because it’s such a fast brand of rugby, there’s not too much time to think, you’ve just got to play and act on instinct, so I think that was hugely beneficial for me,” Lucas said.
“I really enjoyed that side of things, so I think coming back I’ve not got to make sure I’m not falling back into old moulds and keep an open mind about what’s in front of me.”
“For me, it’s now just about going back to comes natural to me, and act on that while, hopefully, thinking about it all a little less.”
His return to Canberra coincided with the mercury hitting new highs for the summer, with the Nation’s Capital setting a new record of four consecutive days above forty degrees on the day I spoke with him. But that’s unlikely to be of much value in the Brumbies team rooms at their University of Canberra base. The only fact that matters to his team-mates is that M.Lucas missed a large chunk of pre-season.
“Yeah, don’t worry, the boys have been climbing into me these last two weeks about missing out on the previous six, or whatever it was they keep reminding me,” he said, acknowledging the elephant in the locker room.
“I have now done a lot of pre-seasons in my time, and they are hugely beneficial. But I think what I developed, and what I got over there by playing a lot footy, I’ve come back really fit.
“I think the time was probably right for me to go and get a bit of footy under my belt, even at the expense of missing pre-season. And I’ve certainly been hammered since I came back, both on the training track and off it, but for me, at the time where I was at, playing more footy was a good thing.”
But logistically, he conceded that missing the chunk of pre-season like he has means that he has to cram over the few remaining weeks before the Brumbies opening game against the Melbourne Rebels on February 15. The two sides play their first trial game of 2019 at Viking Park in Canberra on Saturday night.
“Oh yeah, no doubt,” he agrees. “You come back, and there’s thoughts going through your head that you’ve missed six weeks, I’ve sort of been flying under the radar here, but I also think about it, that I’ve been playing a lot of footy as well.
“‘Lonners’, and Powelly (Brumbies scrumhalves Ryan Lonergan and Joe Powell) are obviously ahead of me in terms of team clarity, and that sort of thing, and it’s my job to catch up there.
“But when it comes to playing, we’re all picked off performance, so that’s where we’ve all got to up each other’s game.”
We’ll find out soon enough whether the Suntory experience has indeed sent Matt Lucas’ game to new levels. There’s no doubt the Brumbies are not just hoping it has; they’re counting on it.
But would he do the back-to-back seasons again?
“I don’t know,” he said, in an interesting first response. “I really enjoyed it, certainly, but I also don’t like to think too far ahead.”
“I’ve got a few huge goals for this year within the Brumbies, and it’s such an exciting group off the back of such a good finish to last season.
“In terms of thinking forward, as I said, I loved it, and if that opportunity presented itself, then yeah, I’d definitely look at it, but at the moment it is great to be back in Canberra, and back with these guys.”
“I just want to play as much footy as I can. If I’m playing a lot of footy, it obviously means I’m playing a good brand of footy that’s benefitting the Brumbies.”