This feature first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Rugby World magazine.
Tyres are flipped, weights are hoisted, pools are emptied and mountains are conquered. Before a ball is kicked in competition, pro players endure some of the most punishing fitness drills imaginable. Here, top athletes from the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 recall the horrors of their 2014-15 pre-season….
“We were sometimes in for pool sessions in the morning at 6.30am, but the big ones were when we had a couple of tough sessions on the beach. Circuits, sprints and contact on the dunes is always the hardest stuff.
“In the biggest session we immediately split into backs and forwards, with the pack mauling up the dunes while we did ‘suicide’ shuttles, dragging each other and running around poles (inset left), everything for ten to 15 minutes. There were also hill sprints for ten to 15 minutes.
“Then we split into four units: the front-rowers, the back five, the half-backs and the rest of the backs. We all went round to different stations, with rucking drills on the sand, contact drills for working on jackling and hitting bags, doing tyre flips and dragging people up dunes. We also worked together on ripping balls from a partner and finished wrestling in the water.
“It was all pretty tough stuff and there are always going to be a few guys who chuck up.
“At that point in the season it’s always going to be a slog!”
“The toughest sessions we did were a combination of running and strongman stuff, for ten seconds at a time. We had one session where you would run for 62-63m, which is quite rough when it’s intermingled with sled pushes as well. You push the sled, run back and someone else pushes it back to the goal-line. And while you’re doing that someone else is doing tyre flips.
“We mixed it up so there was a front-five forward working with a back-row during these drills. It’s not easier because if they take a minute and a half to push the sled all the way, you’re flipping a tyre for the same amount of time! That works well, working on your strength and their endurance, and I suppose we had good weather for it. The new fellas were also getting to know the structures and game plan well – they all got stuck in.
“Of course, you’ll always have a few boys chundering and, with nervousness on the first session back there will always be a quicker heart-rate before you get going. Mind you, there are a couple of players here with a sensitive gag reflex as well, and once a few boys got going…”
“They were killing us! There was a lot of hitting bags, down-and-ups, which sounds horrible, but it’s great. Alan Solomons says we were poorly conditioned last season so we want to be the fittest in the league. It is all about switching off your mind and breaking through that barrier so that, when you’re driving home at 6.30pm after first arriving at training at 7am, you don’t really think too much about it.
“Throughout we were strapped into a heart-rate monitor as soon as we arrived and you had to wear it in your rehab and prehab sessions, through speed, weights and conditioning sessions. I did get to take it off at lunchtime – but you would wear it for 80% of the day so they can profile everything about you. You come in and think you’ve worked really hard and they can say, “You’ve not worked hard enough!” It’s about pushing it to that next level.
“Running up Arthur’s Seat, the big hill in the centre of Edinburgh, was tough. You started off with ten hill sprints on about 150m of grass, then you did 90-second splits between three drills – burpees, wrestling and the ‘prawn’ (an exercise where you swing your hips up the hill to work on ball presentation) – and then ten more sprints.
“After a third bout of the smaller exercise our ‘rest’ was running further up the Seat to another section where we did shorter but steeper sprints of around 40m on rockier terrain. Boys were walking back down the hill backwards because their legs hurt so much!
“I lost count of how many reps we did, but then we ran past the cliffside to finish on the top of the hill and did two minutes of an ‘abs burner’, not letting your legs touch the deck as you cycled in the air. Your recovery after that was making it all the way back down to the car park!”
“Due to my age and some niggles I had throughout the summer, I was on a different programme from the rest of the lads, but this pre-season we did a mixture of standard straight-line running on the pitch, conditioned games and hill runs, which are always the hardest thing.
“One of the most gruelling things we did – and it wasn’t meant to be – was trekking up Mount Snowdon. That was an unexpected slog.
“We went to Wales to do some team-building stuff, going over for a few days and staying at the local rugby club at Bangor. We rocked up to Snowdon expecting a bit of craic, but it was typical Steve Diamond tactics!
“We all left the car park where we were staying with a sat nav address to arrive at. Half of us got there and the other half were somewhere else, and when we phoned Dimes he said he would come to meet us. Half an hour later he hadn’t turned up and we realised he had already left for the top, so straight away we were half an hour behind the rest!
“Going up Snowdon was supposed to help integrate the new guys. And for the first 20 minutes we were all getting on and having a bit of a laugh with each other.
“After that there were a few boys who couldn’t even hold a conversation. Your legs were burning and it was roasting hot. It was like that all the way up and there were about 45 minutes from the first group reaching the top and the last few getting there. A few didn’t even make it, but I’ll not name any names…
“It was actually harder coming down and two days after that I was still getting the weirdest pain in my shins and ankles.”
“Treviso didn’t do much running in the first half of pre-season. We would do two hours of weights – an hour of which was based on squatting – and then the forwards would go out to do an hour and a half of scrummaging. Then, after about four hours of rest, we’d have another two-hour conditioning session, just two hours of weights, half that time at the squat rack again…
“The Italians love a scrum, which is refreshing. It has not been a beasting in the scrums, but about eight boys working together. Scrums are now basically about picking huge boys with a big emphasis on everyone pushing. In England it’s about developing specific positions, while here it’s about the group with a little less detail – it’s an interesting mindset. It’s a lot to do after your weights, only to do more weights and skills later in the day, mind you!”
“Pre-season was a bit brutal for me because Wasps did a lot of swimming this year.
“If you can’t really swim it is a horrible part of your training, but there are lots of ways the conditioning guys can make it even harder for you, like making you swim underwater a lot. There were points where you just felt like you were drowning! It was really quite tough and some of the boys were wiped out after that, but it’s actually good for recovery. Guys like myself, Christian Wade and Nathan Hughes tended to be at the back while Andy Goode’s at the front. It was deliberately competitive as well, so guys at the back had to pull their weight to keep up with the quicker swimmers.
“A typical session involved reps of front crawl flat-out up the 25m pool and back. We did that six times on a running clock, so you had 45 seconds to swim there and back, rest and go again. Then you swim the full length of the pool underwater and front crawl back, tiring you.
“The toughest bit was going halfway underwater, jumping out and doing either dynamic push-ups or medicine ball throws, before jumping back in to front crawl the full length. All in a minute and ten seconds!
“After six of those your shoulders are burning. Then you butterfly the full length and crawl back, on the clock, six times. To finish it was 20m shuttles underwater, six times.
“It was certainly some of the toughest training I’ve done, as I’m not built to swim, but it’s really hypoxic and fills your lungs. It’s just a different sport.”
“Oh my god! It was hard going, as you would expect, but we had one really tough day and to be fair there are some pretty fit boys here at the Dragons…
“Just like the national team, we did the Wales Anaerobic Test in 40-second bursts (the WAT test has players doing a short shuttle and then a much longer shuttle before resting for the remainder of the 40 seconds allowed per run). We did it in a 1:1 work:rest ratio and did three sets of six when we ran it.
“We were doing that as well as standing on the try-line with a prowler, running with it flat-out five times each, swapping with a partner at a ratio of ten seconds off, ten seconds on.
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“It was all short and sharp, and no one ever wanted to be last or even second last in the drills and tests, so you were always raising the bar on the field or in the gym. It was a good environment to work in.
“It all prepares you for when times are tough and it’s worth it when you’re on your settee with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit!”