Warriors in hostile territory

West recruits the cream of Devon to ensure his troops are battle- hardened for winter showdown with the old enemy; Dave Hadfield sees Wigan's tough guys softened up by the Marines
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The Independent Online
It has been said, with only a little exaggeration, that rugby league is like going to war. The players of Wigan - newly and still unconvincingly christened the Warriors - will be in a better position than most to judge the truth of that comparison when they next go into battle against their old enemies from St Helens on Boxing Day.

They have spent the last week learning to be warriors of a different kind at the Royal Marines' Commando Training Centre in Devon. "A coach is always on the look-out for something different," says Wigan's Graeme West. "We have been back in training for a couple of months and this has been a great variation on our usual routine."

You can say that again, sergeant-major. Full-time professionals train hard, of course, but not for eight hours a day. "It's the lack of sleep that gets to you," says the Great Britain centre Kris Radlinski. It is a sentiment that would no doubt be echoed by some of the new members of the squad taken out on the town by battle-hardened veterans like Neil Cowie and Terry O'Connor. "But we came here to build up team spirit and it's certainly worked."

That was despite a number of prominent figures missing in action: a number of players loaned to rugby union clubs were lounging with the officer classes and others, like Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards, headed back north after a couple of days of physical training. For those who remained, Thursday was a fairly typical day's work.

The River Exe was still hidden in the mist at 7.30am as they started to warm up on the assault course. "You can smell the beer coming out of them," says one PTI (Physical Training Instructor). "Male bonding. That's what it's all about."

Cowie, who believes that his seniority should allow him to stand on the sidelines and issue orders, has a subtly different view. "Westy," he says. "We're not coming back here. Ever."

Plenty of teams do come back, though. Football clubs like Notts County and Coventry have used the extraordinary facilities and Derbyshire are hoping to do so before the start of the cricket season.

Even the injured players, of whom Wigan have a number, can get a good deal out of it. The camp can have about 10 per cent of their personnel on the injured list at any one time so their remedial facilities are exemplary.

Why that should be needed is all too clear on the next of the morning's delights - the Tarzan course, a series of rope clambers, climbs, leaps and slides designed, in the military argot, to "get the ring-piece twitching".

The item of equipment once known as The Death Slide is now known, more prosaically, as The Rope Slide, but there have been, says PTI Cpl Tim Clarke, "some nasty accidents". There is almost another when Wigan's conditioner, Chris Butler, swings shins-first into a horizontal log. It is proof, mutter players who have been flogged by him for seasons, that 50-year-old psychotics do not feel pain.

There was a death in the pool last year, when a recruit had a heart attack during the equally notorious Swim Test - a leap off the 10-foot board in full kit.

By way of variation, would-be Marines can slide off that same diving board while in a canoe, which turns into a rudimentary one-man submarine as it plunges to the bottom. "It takes a lot of balls," says the self- confessed landlubber Radlinski. "The sort of thing that makes you feel you've achieved something."

"It's all specialised training," says Cpl Clarke, "so to come here and be able to do our training without any build-up is very good. "There's a high general level of fitness, of course, and great strength. They're all highly competitive, well-motivated people, so it's good to have a visit from people who think like us."

There's still time before lunch - shirt and trousers in the sergeants' mess, if you don't mind, gentlemen - for the standard Marine fitness assessment, under the critical eye of PTIs who frown on the rough edges of some of the sit-up and burpee techniques displayed by the players. If they were real recruits, rather than mere guests, they would be copping far more flak, I'm assured.

"You won't be needing any coats and gloves," their helmsmen tell them that afternoon, as they sit shivering on the Exeter Canal. "You'll have a sweat on soon enough."

Too true: dragonboat racing, at which the Marines are British champions, is a strenuous business. Mixed teams of recruits and rugby players paddle their way ferociously up and down the canal, and, on one occasion, into the bank.

"That was the worst thing I've ever done in sport," says the unlucky Nigel Wright, the subject of much conjecture from his team-mates over his chances of surviving the week without injury.

The worst? The toughest? The hardest on dodgy shoulders?

"No, just boring. Crap."

But that's what the troops have always said about their work-load. And Wright, it must be remembered, was in the losing boat.