Pre-season training used to be like hell with the lid off. I remember Francois Pienaar, the then head coach at Saracens, going away for a week mid-camp to shoot a TV advert for crisps in South Africa and leaving a pretty simple set of instructions for our fitness coach: "Run them hard, am and pm. Every day." Easy to say when you're at 35,000 feet in business class.
It is memories like these that make me glad that rugby, like fashion, moves with the times. Trends come and go and evolution refines the concept of training for peak performance. Science seems to have as much to do with training now as technique and mental toughness.
There was no science behind the horrendous Marines camps to which we were subjected year after year; in truth we knew that then, but we can prove it now. We would be kept up through the night with sirens, long runs in the dark and shrieking squaddies, none of whom appeared to require any rest whatsoever. I once finished a week-long camp in Aldershot, under the supervision of coach Buck Shelford, having had 12 hours of sleep in six nights and weighing 9kg less than the day it began. I, along with everyone else, was wrecked and felt terrible for the first few games of the season. Brought us together though, right? Do me a favour.
Transport oneself to the present day and things are a bit different. Our longest session so far has been 75 minutes and we rarely train past lunchtime. Our pre-season boot camp was in Aix-en-Provence, a quite beautiful place and home to our new owner, Bruce Craig. This may, to the more traditional reader, seem inappropriate but we had a great time. Yes, pre-season has been fun.
The thing is – and this seems to be the hardest concept of all for the old-school rugger bugger to grasp – not everything a professional player does has to be horrific. We wear all sorts of gadgets for training: heart-rate monitors, GPS units, even gum-shields that alter the position of one's jaw to maximise power (yes, this is why my fellow prop Davie Wilson looks like that), so the bosses know if we are putting the work in. There is no hiding place. When we train it is brutal, but there is no reason to drag it out. Our gym sessions are just 40 minutes long but leave us sitting in the corner, shaking like wimpering dogs.
One fad that seems, thankfully, to have been left behind is pre-season training without a ball. "You ain't seeing a ball till week six, boys," Shelford told us. This meant we were going to be running in straight lines of varying lengths for the next month and a half. How to demotivate the motivated in one simple step.
Now we are throwing a ball around from start to finish and the skill levels are rising as a result. We try things we would never have dreamt of just a few years ago because it is that sort of environment. Mistakes are now more acceptable as we are pushing our limits every time we train.
Mental toughness is not something that can be coached, either. When your session consists of running this season's patterns of play over and over again you soon see who is pushing hard and who is going through the motions, and the game – soon enough – will push all wasters to the side. There is just not the space for passengers any more.
So we run hard, complete the play and listen for our coach Steve Meehan's next instruction as we walk back, catching our breath. On the way back we will often receive a tap on the shoulder from our new performance director, Ian McGeechan, who has noticed something we have not.
We had no idea what his role would involve before he arrived but, sure enough, he is out there every day in his tracksuit and trainers, getting rained on like the rest of us. His strength is his experience, and his relaxed demeanour means that any technical tips or individual pointers he offers are delivered in such a simple, frank, absorbable manner that each one sticks in the mind. We are truly lucky to have all these blokes helping us on the field.
Of course, some evils of old remain; the angry little man with the callipers still arrives every week to pinch our love handles and tell us we are too fat (my meeting was a bit awkward; he couldn't find an ounce of the stuff. He compared me to "a 19-stone Lance Armstrong". I just wonder what's going to keep me warm this winter). We still have to run fitness tests even though the results never affect either training schedules or team selection.
In fact, they seem only to be there to make the fitness team feel worthy. We run the test on day one, then again in the last week of training and, lo and behold, everybody has become an Olympic-standard middle-distance runner in but a few weeks, making them the best fitness trainers known to man. I'm convinced they make the shuttles shorter second time around.
This week, though, the real fun starts. All the friendlies are over and now we play for keeps. Every year there seems to be more at stake, more to lose. But as the pressure grows so must our ambition and as the big games arrive the science disappears. Training techniques may have moved on and there may now be a few more six-packs around but the game is just the same; all the hard work must count for something. Winning is everything.
Mid-life crisis as I get down with the kids... but feel a bit of a Twit
I am going to live to the age of 60. I know this because, at the age of 30, I have experienced my mid-life crisis. It began when I realised that, having recently become a father, my new role was not, as books had me believe, alpha male hunter-gatherer but luggage packer.
The amount of associated paraphernalia that goes with this (not so) tiny creature is utterly staggering and it is my job to get it all in the boot. Thing is, there are two lumpy dogs in the boot, too. I had no choice but to purchase a roof box. I have never felt older. The guy at the dealership – a friend, I might add – laughed when I ordered it.
Eventually all the princess's vehicles, potions and outfits were crammed in through a combination of planning and brute aggression. There was a little space left so I threw in my toothbrush and a pair of Speedos and we hit the road.
After a week of "Grandpa on holiday" gags from my Bath team-mate Peter Short, a switch was flicked in my head and I knew that I had to act; to reposition myself on society's cutting edge. I signed up to Twitter. I now find myself in the loops of Stephen Fry and Olly Barkley; two very different characters but both are in possession of the little droplets of wisdom which I now seem to require if I am to achieve any sort of emotional equilibrium by bedtime.
Sadly, though, Mr Short saw this reactive counter-strike for what it was and called me out as – of all things – a wannabe. The net result is my continued presence in the land of the Tweeters; I could not leave. In truth, I have begun to enjoy it a bit now. I would not quite say that I know the ropes but I am getting there.
Do I feel any closer spiritually to the 18-year-old me? Not really, but it's nice to mix it with the kids a bit. As long as none of them asks me to help load the roof rack, I might stick around.Reuse content