It's official: rugby league really does produce Men of Steel

Dave Hadfield discovers proof that one game produces the fittest athletes of any sport
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The Independent Online

Rugby League's player of the year award, won this week by Wigan's Pat Richards, is called the Man of Steel – and there's a reason for that.

Castleford have not exactly won a lot of awards in recent years, so they can be excused a warm glow of satisfaction over the small blow they struck for the code's athletic reputation last week.

Three members of the Tigers' first-team squad competed against their counterparts from Sheffield United and Yorkshire County Cricket Club to determine which set of sportsmen were fittest for purpose. To the sound of cheering and jubilation along the M62 corridor, it was the Cas boys who came out on top.

"I'm not surprised the rugby lads won, because of the combative nature of their sport," said United's head of strength and conditioning, Dean Riddle. He is one of the few people equipped to compare the disciplines and what they demand of their specialists. Over the last 20 years, the New Zealander has been involved in rugby league with Leeds, cricket with Yorkshire and England and now Championship football with the Blades. "What something like today shows is that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses," he adds

Castleford's strengths showed early and literally in the power events in the United Academy gym, where their team which consisted of the goal-kicking winger Kirk Dixon and two young up-and comers, Joe Arundel and Adam Milner, proved too good for their opponents. "I didn't exactly volunteer for this," said Dixon as he cruised through the bench-presses, two weeks into the Tigers' off-season, and sent out for extra weights. "I think I was the only one still left in the country."

Arundel, an emerging centre with his eyes on the shirt vacated by Michael Shenton's move to St Helens, won the over-hand pull-up event in some style, but Cas did not have things all their own way, with Yorkshire's Jonny Bairstow winning the vertical jumps with the sort of salmon leap that serves him well as a wicketkeeper.

In the running events, the Castleford players kept their noses in front, so much so that rugby league's ambassadors were able to come a relaxed last behind the footballers in the concluding bleep test and still win by a distance overall. "I was always quite confident that we would do well. It was pretty enjoyable and it's a bit of good publicity for the game," said Dixon, who raised eyebrows with his strength, even though he is a relatively lightly-built player. "To come here at the end of a long season and win this is a good effort."

Castleford's showing also drew praise from Riddle. "It shows that modern rugby league players are nothing like the big blokes who used to trundle through the mud," he said.

"It also shows what a good job Kevin Till is doing on strength and conditioning at Castleford. They might not have the resources of some clubs, but they are bringing quality young players through for the team."

It was not an afternoon of unalloyed triumph for the rugby league players, because Bairstow shared the individual honours with Sheffield United's Maltese striker Daniel Bogdanovic, who led a team which also included two young defenders, Kingsley James and Matthew Lowton. "And he gets paid twice as much as me," complained the cricketer, who has since been named in England's Performance Programme squad for the winter.

What the three clubs have in common is that they all use Multipower sports nutrition, under whose auspices the competition was organised. What it proved, according to Riddell, was that the rugby league players and cricketers, in particular, are a lot fitter these days than the general public might give them credit for.

Not that the implied pat on the back cut much ice with the fiercely competitive Bairstow, still bristling at the egg-chasers coming out on top. "They should win the bench-pressing, shouldn't they?" he said. "That's all they do."

"We can all learn from each other," said Dixon, who will be starting his serious pre-season training with Castleford in a couple of weeks time. "It's good to get together and compare what we do."

Multipower is the Official Sports Nutrition Supplier to Sheffield United, Yorkshire CCC and Castleford Tigers. For sports nutrition tailored to your individual needs, visit: www.multipoweruk.com

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