Rugby Union: Black days were always colourful at Newcastle

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HAVE YOU ever seen that television advert, the one where characters hold up a placard declaring their inner thoughts? They are thoughts that their outward appearance would immediately suggest to you otherwise. A sailor "seasick". A spinster "sex and chocolate". How about this one? A gnarled rugby player "love". Now beneath the hardened exterior of most players there is, of course, a soft inner centre struggling to come to the surface of the macho persona. At Newcastle it has come to the fore and very much contributed to our success last year as our collective will and love for one another brought us through every challenge to the title.

The man responsible for this and so many other things is Steve Black. But he's a fitness coach, isn't he? The person hired to add to and refine the layers of hardness not to peel them away. Central to his ideology, however, is that players must feel good about themselves and about each other. That being the case you can understand then that his influence must stretch to more than just the gym and Tynemouth beach training runs. Therein lies the man's prowess and that's what will benefit Wales. If he is used properly and given his head he can give you so much more.

You need to be confident to let him loose, though, because his methods are pretty extraordinary. Do not expect to see bleep test results, bench press maximums and sprint times. Sports scientists may bemoan the lack of any results to monitor a player's progress and state of fitness, but Blackie would argue that the best judge of that isn't tests but the player himself. For this to work, you need to have a strong trust between the player and the trainer. Blackie relies a lot on the feedback from a player to judge what he can or cannot get out of him. Many is the time that I have started a session insisting that I couldn't do much that day to find myself bouncing around after a two-hour workout.

As we see and train with Blackie pretty much every day, he is also able to perform the role of soundboard, nursemaid, gossip monger and general good mate. No one is better able to judge the mood in the camp and, more importantly, how to mould and shape it. He is able to do all this despite anything he may be struggling with himself. You hardly ever see him without a smile and a ready tale to tell. And there are many of those. You just have to look at his background to see why.

On the sporting side alone his cv is extensive. He came into sports science just 10 years ago having himself had trials with Newcastle United at football, tried his hand at boxing and, more successfully, at power lifting. Any Welsh players who want to boast of their bench press maximums, do so out of earshot of Blackie, he may just embarrass you.

His real passion is football, though, and for a brief spell he managed Blackpool Football Club. He has worked with footballers such as Steve Watson, Lee Clark, Les Ferdinand and Shaka Hislop, and in boxing helped coach Glenn McCrory to his world cruiserweight title. Away from sport, his network of acquaintances in Newcastle would make Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's diary look barren and dull.

As you can imagine, the stories are many and varied. If you want to catch them yourself then look out for any appearances as an after-dinner speaker. His humour is different but if you can get on the same wavelength you will be in raptures.

A few weeks ago we lost our long unbeaten home run against London Irish. This was nothing to the bombshell Blackie was to drop on me later in the car park. I could not quite believe he would be going to Wales. In the three years I had been here he was the hub of everything we had achieved together. My initial thoughts were of incredible despondency and disappointment. However after some contemplation we couldn't be happier for him. After all Blackie has done for us, we were glad that in some small way we had given something back to him. By being part of last year's team we, no doubt, put Blackie's efforts out on the stage for all to see and international honours are his reward.

Thanks for everything Steve and good luck for the next few years, though I do hope to spoil a few of your dreams at Twickenham.