The horrors of the pre-season
July 17, 2014
The Exeter Chiefs are put through the pre-season mill © Getty Images
Rugby is a tough sport; players are willing to get beaten to a pulp week in week out playing for their clubs. During my professional career I have seen players literally in pieces having played a game.
But there is one thing that unites all players, the general hatred for pre-season training. This season is the 17th time I have dragged my sorry carcass through weeks of some of the most disgusting fitness sessions strength and conditioning experts can come up with. Everyone knows that it is tough and rugby fans all hear about how hard it can be during the summer months building up to the new season but some of the physical effects range from horrific to flat out weird. But, by the end of it, you actually start to feel pretty good about yourself and are desperate for the matches to start.
Much of what is thrown at you during the couple of months of pre-season is of course to improve player fitness and strength levels but I have learnt over the years that there is also an element of the coaches and trainers putting players in situations which mentally stretch them - will they give up as soon as it gets tough or will they dig in for their team-mates?
The majority of pre-season stays on army bases are designed to test you mentally. Some of the most irrelevant exercises are completed with many players asking why they are there and protesting that it doesn't make them better rugby players. That's not what it is meant for - mentally they are being tested. Yes it's sometimes physically demanding too but that's the main focus.
At Newcastle, the strength sessions weren't the problem for me. The real dread was to be told to meet at Tynemouth Beach early in the morning. At 1.1 kilometres long it's not too far as runs go but bear in mind the sand and my short, stumpy legs and it becomes more testing. At the end of each length we had to run up a crazy number of steep steps and then go back down the slip road to the beach. Anything from six to ten lengths would be thrown at you. Don't complain, just get on with it and grind it out.
At Toulon, part of the fitness test was a rowing test. Six blasts of 30 seconds with the same rest. You generally want to get put with someone of a similar height and strength as for us shorter individuals there are far more strokes to be banged out. So, when I was called out with Sonny Bill Williams I was up against it. I was rowing against the current while he left me in his wake. Brutal, it was a great way to feel incompetent!
I had been on tour to Argentina before I arrived in the south of France and I started pre-season a week or two after the other guys. I wanted to make an impression. Our fitness coach was keen on the lads running hills as part of the preparations. It wasn't a soft incline, it would have given a bit of a leg burn if you had walked it. We ran 140 metres and the lads who had already done a couple of sessions knew how to run them. I didn't. Again paired with Sonny Bill and also Jonny Wilkinson I knew I had to get out of the blocks to make an impression. Did I? And some!
Tom May will captain London Welsh this season © Getty Images
I ran my first two in 16 and 17 seconds. I smashed those two slow coaches. The third one I ran about 19 seconds, much closer as a race. I was then hit by what can only be technically described as a lactic acid tidal wave. My fourth effort came way before I had recovered. I blew up before I had even got half way. Twenty-five seconds later I arrived at the top, white as a sheet. I was in trouble. Pre-season is about the only time watching someone puke is hilarious to everyone, apart from the guy bent double. I remember a crowd of us doing the same to Noah Cato at Northampton as he spent some time staring into the bin.
Strongman sessions were probably the toughest thing at Northampton and pre-season this year at London Welsh hasn't been too bad. There are obviously some tough days but the guys have to balance our short off-season and the exertions of last season with preparation for the new. The fitness and lifting weights doesn't get any easier the older you get and if you ask any of the players who have finished their careers, the one thing they will be guaranteed to say is that they won't miss pre-season.
No one would declare their undying love for pre-season but if, like me, you are into your fitness and conditioning then in some freaky way there is some degree of enjoyment in getting fit again. Alongside the fitness, coaches work your skill level under fatigue and slowly you build into the season proper so that by the time the pre-season games begin you are in a position to complete everything that is thrown your way during a normal training week. The process of getting to this point though is, when you look back at it, something to enjoy.
It sounds bizarre but now I am at the older end of the playing group, I can look back at the pre-seasons I have had and say that being in a position to earn a living getting into the fittest condition you can be is a real privilege. Perhaps when it has all finished and I am retired it is something I will actually miss ... maybe.
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