Hard slog on the Tyne should pay off

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The Independent Online
When would you think our pre-season training started? Before this era of professionalism began, you may have said August, leaving a good month to prepare the body and mind, and invent a few new backs moves which are sure to bring you a hat full of tries.

Well, things are different now. Rugby has become a profession for many players, especially at Newcastle. But not many would have guessed our pre-season started in February, with three months of the 95-96 season to go.

Under the watchful guidance of our strength and fitness guru, Steve Black, a few pear shapes have been inverted and a few stomachs have rediscovered that washboard look. Sessions take place in gyms across the town, the rugby club, a cricket ground, Tynemouth beach, an athletic track and a one-off to the local wet and wild slide park.

Until the end of April, some consideration was taken for the fact that we had games to play. From then on, though, a typical week has consisted of a strength and/or fitness session every weekday complemented with three skills sessions and two team runs. So, just like the rest of you, we, too, get that Friday feeling!

The off season was also ushered in by a squad gathering at Wynyard Hall, home of our illustrious owner, Sir John Hall. Some perhaps thought this was to show them the kind of pad they would be living in after 10 years' shrewd playing of the transfer market. Others noted the number of gardeners Sir John may be looking for if it all goes wrong.

The gathering was, in fact, a chance to get together and discuss how we are to go forward into this new era. Everything is focused on the kind of rugby we want to play, and, to achieve it, the kind of training we have to do, the skills we have to develop and the culture and attitudes we must nurture.

The goal posts were set then and training resumed in earnest to continue relentlessly until our first real test, a tour to the Bahamas. At least that is what I and many others thought when I set out on a few weeks' holiday. On my return, things had changed to the somewhat less enchanting destination of the high veldt in South Africa. No doubt a bigger test of our progress than the Bahamas, but even more a test of our ability to get on with each other.

Entertainment is not very sophisticated in the towns we were visiting and neither was the accommodation, food or mode of transportation. Things went swimmingly, apart from one set-to between our physio and one of our players from the student brethren. A sizeable splatter of cake ejected by the latter on to the former's cheek sparked things off. It was about all the entertainment served up, considering the meal was in a prison cafe, with the food prepared and delivered by the convicts themselves. Believe me, throwing the food was one of the viable options as many hungry players scurried back for room service.

On the pitch, we lost and drew two games we should have won and lost one we should have got stuffed in. Our best rugby, thankfully, came in the second half of our last game, in which we came back from 24-3 down to draw 24 all. The previous game we had been given a lesson by a side playing the kind of rugby we wanted to play, and we looked like we had managed to pay some attention come that last game.

We returned to Tyneside confident that things were headed in the right direction and with our tails up, knowing how much we still could improve. Things do not happen overnight, though, and cultures need time to develop, as was shown by our disappointing draw against Melrose. Their team included eight Scotland players in a side that has been together for a few years.

We are a side who must counter everyone's immediate doubt. A team of individuals, they say. Pulled together at great expense, are they likely to want to spill blood for each other? You can understand the doubters. We can understand and accept their apologies come the end of this season.

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