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Scotty Stevenson: Death on a summer's day just part of Tietjens' relentless regime

Sir Gordon Tietjens has a word with Sonny Bill Williams  during a training session. Photo / Alan Gibson
Sir Gordon Tietjens has a word with Sonny Bill Williams during a training session. Photo / Alan Gibson

They simply called it Death.

There was no official name for this particularly excruciating training ground exercise designed and overseen by Sir Gordon Tietjens, so the players came up with one of their own. Death is what it felt like, so Death it became.

It's a simple exercise, really. All you have to do is run for an hour, back and forward across the full length of the field, at times at a sprint, at others at a canter, and then you can play. You will need seven on each side, an endless supply of stamina and a sense of humour.

Those are basic ingredients here on a weekday in Mt Maunganui. It is testing day; it is breaking day. There is nothing fancy - no high-tech equipment and no shortcuts. Instead, there is just a field and a coach - both share the same name - and a group of men who are slowly but surely being crushed.

The heat is relentless on Sir Gordon Tietjens Field. What seabreeze exists is blocked by a row of trees that provide shelter for the small group of management staff who are filming the training, or filling the water bottles, or keeping an eye on the players for signs of fatigue, or cramp or worse.

The field has no shade. The players are melting.

On the far side of the pitch, Liam Messam and Scott Curry are running their own drills. They are not yet ready for this kind of session. Why they would ever want to be is beyond me. Curry was named captain last year. He was injured in the first tournament in Dubai. If you ever want to see determination, take a look at his face. He spends the entire session running and stretching and willing himself to heal so he can rejoin his team.

In the middle of the ground is DJ Forbes, the man who decided to stand down as captain so he could concentrate on making the Olympic side on merit. You should watch him work. He has memorised every summer-baked centimetre of this field. He has run these shuttles and played this game a thousand times or more. He is relentless.

Sonny Bill Williams jogs past. Like the rest of the side, he has now been running without a break for two hours. He is shaking his head. "This is crazy!" he wheezes with a laugh. I'm not entirely sure he thinks it at all funny. None of them do, really. Except maybe Kurt Baker, who is leaning on the team truck, ice on both heels. Baker is the biggest pest on the world series. He would give an aspirin a headache. His banter almost broke the coach in Sydney, a fact he wears as a badge of honour, of course.

Sam Dickson, quite possibly the least known New Zealand representative rugby player in history, is cleaning up the kick-offs. Dickson, the Canterbury boy who, like so many before him, was plucked from obscurity by one of Tietjens' scouts, hauls himself from tackle to tackle, from play to play.

He jumps higher and with better timing than anyone else on the field, catch after catch after catch. New Zealand's success is built upon players like Sam Dickson.

The whistle blows. The voice calls another play. And then another, and then another. With each shrill blast, there comes a collective hope that time is up. Two hours becomes two-and-a-half. Still they run and still the sun beats down on Blake Park. Sione Molia's calves have cramped up. He keeps on running.

Finally, time is called, just as the shadows begin to creep across Sir Gordon Tietjens Field. The team gather in a huddle, and within moments there is laughter again. Tim Mikkelson, one of the all-time greats and the current captain of the side, offers a few words. Job done.

That night the sound of waves breaking on the beach at Mt Maunganui sends them to sleep. In four days they fly to Las Vegas, to a tournament they have never won. They have cheated Death once more, which may be why their series hopes are still very much alive.

- NZ Herald

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