New Zealand is almost synonymous with rugby, the black jersey being a symbol of ferocity and stature on the rugby field and the All Blacks holding the number one position in world rankings for 10 years.
Look a little closer and you’ll see the increasing number of international players and staff who have chosen to pursue a rugby career within New Zealand.
Blues Sports Science Manager, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach and American Alex Ross is one such international.
“New Zealand Rugby has just got a mystique about it, I wanted to work in rugby and felt that this was the best place for it,” explained Alex. He’s been working towards a PhD, studying the influence that physical abilities have on a player’s performance.
“Things like speed, strength and power all relate to different areas of match performance,” he said. “So understanding what physical characteristics will improve a player’s on-field performance is very useful.”
Alex’s research is helped along by his personal experience with the sport. The California native grew up in the Bay Area, in a small town called Concord. In typical American fashion, American Football was his sport of choice and the San Francisco 49ers his favourite team.
Alex played wide receiver in football throughout high school. It’s a position that requires speed and Alex had plenty of it. He could run 10.80 for 100 metres by his final year of high school, giving him a strong advantage on the football field. But he found football to be “a bit repetitive” and didn’t pursue it beyond high school.
Alex chose San Diego State for university and it’s here that he discovered the sport that would change his career trajectory.
“A friend got me to come along to his rugby practice and I just fell in love with it,” he said. “I liked the openness of rugby.”
In a football game, he’d run for 3-4 seconds and have 40 seconds recovery. In rugby, that recovery was cut down to 15 seconds, making the workout much tougher.
With his natural speed, Alex caught on to Sevens quickly. By the time he graduated from university in 2009 with a Bachelor of Sports Science, Alex had made the USA Sevens team for the England and Scotland tournaments.
“We didn’t really beat anybody good,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “We were annihilated.”
But he was playing top international rugby players, many of whom are now All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies – Julian Savea and Victor Vito were some of them.
Alex’s love for the game was cemented. He completed his Masters in Biomechanics in 2011 and by 2012, Alex had moved to New Zealand to begin his PhD research at AUT.
He began working with his former rivals, the New Zealand Sevens team, and used the players for research. He worked with the Auckland Rugby High Performance Academy for a year before joining the Blues’ coaching staff in 2014.
Now, a portion of Alex’s time is spent looking at new sports studies.
“There’s quite a bit of research that points to the overlap between psychological and physiological variables in recovery methods,” he said. One study from Victoria University in Australia looked at hydrotherapy and noted that a player needs to believe that certain types of recovery work, otherwise it probably wouldn’t make an impact.
Using this kind of research and player psychology is crucial to the Blues’ holistic approach to training.
With his sights fixed firmly on a Blues Super Rugby title, Alex isn’t making any plans to return to the USA. Which brings up a very important question. What country does he prefer?
He laughs and responds: “It’s a tie.”