Rugby: How the Super 15 get fit

By Michael Brown

The season kicks off this month with each New Zealand franchise hoping that their training regime will produce the best results.

Rene Ranger leads the Blues team up dunes at a training session at Bethells Beach, west of Auckland. Coach John Kirwan wants the team to be super fit. Photo / Supplied
Rene Ranger leads the Blues team up dunes at a training session at Bethells Beach, west of Auckland. Coach John Kirwan wants the team to be super fit. Photo / Supplied

Man vs Wild, Come Dine With Me, The Amazing Race and a Coast to Coast challenge. Welcome to pre-season training, Super rugby style.

There was a time when rugby pre-season training involved eons of running up and down training fields - it still does - but it has also changed to include challenges, quests, community projects and competitions.

From tramping, trapping and triathlons to painting, shooting, hunting, fishing, cooking, white-water rafting and bomb competitions, players are bombarded with a wide mixture of activities. Each franchise hope it's a formula for success when the Super rugby season kicks off this month.

Blues fans, disillusioned after their side's poor run in 2012, may be encouraged to learn their side has gone old-school. There is little of the quirky and complicated, just lots of running. Lots and lots of running ... albeit with fancy gadgets and highly qualified staff in plentiful supply.

New coach John Kirwan wants to play a high-tempo game and players can do that only if they are fit.

The early indications suggest they are on track. Not only is Piri Weepu 10kg lighter than he was at the same time last year but he and nine of his teammates this week set personal bests in their yo-yo fitness tests.

The variety for them has come in the location of their floggings - up the sand dunes of Bethells Beach and over and around One Tree Hill (players were required to traverse the final metres doing an arduous lizard crawl). Entertainment co-ordinator Anthony Boric organised a fishing trip with Geoff Thomas, host of TV show Outdoors With Geoff, but players have otherwise indulged in little more than coffee and cards in the training headquarters.

It's in stark contrast to the Highlanders, who have probably put together the most varied pre-season programme of any New Zealand franchise. They have cleared walking tracks and opossum traps, picked up rubbish, done gardening and car washes, completed triathlons and a 25km tramp into the Greenstone Valley, been trout fishing, hunting and white-water rafting and a handful even flew to the top of the Remarkables mountain range near Queenstown in a helicopter for a leadership meeting.

Their final block of training will be in Wanaka, when the players will bring along their wives, partners and families so those closest to them can also get an understanding of what they are trying to achieve.

Coach Jamie Joseph was born in Blenheim but he fits the rugged Southern Man image often rolled out in the lower South Island and a lot of it was forged over a successful playing career with Otago.

During their first week-long block of intensive training, players met at 5.30am and trained until 9am before having breakfast together. They would then head out to complete community projects before returning to training in the early evening.

"Our dynamics are different to every other team," Joseph says. "There are only one or two players who are actually from Dunedin. While they might be good at rugby, they don't really know who they represent so we spent the first part of our pre-season assimilating with the community.

"The priority is to get everyone fit and strong, but getting them ready is a bit more for us. They trained at morning and night and filled in the rest of the day with work. It helps them understand what the rest of the country does.

"I think initially there were questions [from players] why we do it, but all of the work shows the community we are willing to work outside the square in order to get the support for us to be successful."

Support shouldn't be a problem this season. Joseph has assembled an impressive squad that has the potential to challenge, with the likes of Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn added to a roster that features five All Blacks who went on the end-of-year tour.

The ultimate measure of a team's pre-season campaign is what happens in the regular season and none were as successful as the Chiefs in 2012.

They did their own Amazing Race last year as they hitchhiked from Hamilton through Cambridge, Rotorua, Tauranga and Te Puke to Ohope and this time completed a Coast to Coast as they traversed from Waihi beach on the east coast to Kawhia Harbour on the west.

The route was significant because it took in areas Tainui traversed many centuries ago and coach Dave Rennie wanted his players to capture the spirit of that journey but in a way that challenged the players physically as well as engaging with people in the regions.

They biked, hiked and paddled over the course of a two-day adventure that left many physically exhausted but mentally invigorated.

This week the Crusaders have tackled their own version of The Amazing Race, a TV show that requires contestants to reach a destination as quickly as possible while completing tasks along the way.

The squad split into four groups and dispersed to Timaru, Banks Peninsula, the West Coast and Golden Bay on Sunday and on Tuesday were required to hitchhike to Hanmer Springs, minus cellphones.

"It was pretty easy when Dan Carter stuck his thumb out in Greymouth," Crusaders assistant coach Tabai Matson said.

The following day the squad split into six groups - led, inevitably, by the four hunting Whitelock brothers plus Luke Romano and Joe Moody - to forage in the bush for 24 hours in their own Man vs Wild challenge.

The ability to trap a rabbit or catch a fish is not going to help the Crusaders in their quest for a first Super rugby title since 2008 and eighth overall but other outcomes like trust, camaraderie and belief might.

"It's amazing when you get people outside their comfort zones," Matson said.

They proved that in 2011 when they made the final against the Reds in Brisbane despite playing all of their games outside Christchurch, including a "home" game in London, because of the earthquakes.

- APNZ

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