A tale of two doors. The first one opens into the dressing room and in walks Kieran Read, the All Black No 8, 6ft 4in, 17 and a half stone, 61 Test matches for the world’s best team and, in many people’s eyes, currently the best player in the world.
“Hello, I’m Kieran,” he says, a big smile spreading across his face. Facing him are a Scotsman, Irishman and a Welshman, which may read like the first line of a joke but that is not the reason for Read’s smile. The thought of sending three representatives of the media out to face the All Black conditioning coach is the more likely cause.
“You play rugby?” he wonders. There is a collective gap of half a century between the collected fourth estate’s last appearance on a pitch – although Iwan Thomas, he’s the Welshman, can at least claim to have been a promising schoolboy rugby player before he discovered he was much better at running away from people than running into them.
The second door. Upstairs, I push it open and step outside into a bright autumn morning. The socks are black, the shorts are black, the shirt is black and on the left breast is the silver fern, one of sport’s most famous symbols. I feel good. I feel 6ft 4in. The words of Israel Dagg, the brilliant All Black full-back, ring in my ears: “Every kid grows up and wants to be an All Black. It is an honour to wear that jersey.”
A small boy is waiting outside to spot any of the All Blacks sprinkling a spot of sporting stardust in his corner of London. I puff my chest out. The boy turns and walks away. The woman from the Daily Mail starts laughing.
Waiting for us is Mark Harvey, or Harvs, one of the conditioning coaches, as well as Sam Cane, an All Black since the age of 20 and heir apparent to Richie McCaw’s shirt, and Aaron Smith, the livewire No 9. I’m in Cane’s team but first Harvs has to warm us up.
There have been behind-the-scenes revelations this week about how the All Blacks are preparing for Twickenham with slogans demanding world domination. The Independent can now reveal some of their training secrets – a cunning use of “Simon says” and breaking off mid-sprint for breathless games of paper, scissors, stone. I’m not sure this information is of huge use to Stuart Lancaster but Smith is uber-sharp at paper, scissors, stone; typical scrum-half.
Harvs leads us around the pitch issuing instructions. The catch is if he doesn’t bark “Simon says” first and you follow the instructions punishment follows. The Independent is soon doing press ups. The black shirt, shorts and socks are not feeling quite so crisp.
Passing and kicking drills follow. Cane nods encouragingly as he plucks a kick out of the air with one hand. I screw a grubber kick wide of the target. “Come a bit closer, mate,” he instructs patiently. The next attempt flies wide of the other side and hits one of the onlookers. I finger a hamstring and look the other way.
But I have got off lightly. Across the other side of the pitch Read is taking Thomas for his own session for the benefit of a TV crew. Thomas is crawling along the ground. “No legs, no legs,” orders Read, the smile still there. Once Read is done Thomas is on his haunches.
What do you want from a modern rugby player, I ask Harvs. “Big strong fast and powerful, that’s what you want,” he says. It’s time to cover the shirt, time to get my coat.