As rugby returns to New Zealand this weekend much of the focus has centred on athletes regaining the necessary physical conditioning to withstand the fierce collisions that await the next 10 weeks of local derbies.
Strength, power, speed, agility will be lauded in the opening weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and throughout the remainder of the tournament.
Of equal if not greater importance, however, is time spent on mental fitness. Emerging from isolated lockdowns into the intense public glare once again, never has this space held more relevance in the realms of performance.
• Liam Napier: Five rule tweaks that would improve Super Rugby Aotearoa
• Inside New Zealand Rugby's fight for survival - CEO Mark Robinson outlines 20 per cent wage cuts
• Liam Napier: The fallout from Raelene Castle's ugly Rugby Australia exit has just begun
"I really took the opportunity to learn more about myself," Hurricanes flanker Du'Plessis Kirifi, something of a new breed of athlete, says of his time in isolation. "Coming out of it, it makes you appreciate the relationships you have with people.
"We're moving into a space now where we see our minds as our biggest tool. Just like we work on our body in the gym and on the field, it's important more and more to work on our minds.
"Out on that field yeah it's physical, but there are some really high pressure situations and if your mind is not up to the task you're unable to rely on it to make the right decisions in split seconds.
"The more you're aware it needs to be worked on, the better position you're going to put yourself in those times to succeed."
Kirifi's perspective is shared by Black Ferns sevens star Ruby Tui, who underlines the need to be self-aware and identify potential issues bubbling within.
"I love the term mental fitness," Tui says. "For some people, for some reason, mental health can have negative connotations, or people are scared of it. For me, mental fitness is spot on because you do have to work on it just like physical fitness.
"People talk about big moments, big rugby games, or physical successes and they talk about the top two inches. I agree with that and the importance mental fitness has on performance levels too. How can I perform to my best if my brain isn't functioning properly?
"The saying 'a problem shared is a problem halved' is so true. Just saying something out loud can have such a positive impact on how someone is feeling."
Personal fitness testing records hogged headlines over the past month as New Zealand players returned to team training.
But for all the progress made on the mental side of the game since 2007, as the All Blacks addressed their mental demons to ultimately end the barren 24-year period without World Cup success, this space continues to be underestimated by those who regularly consume sport.
Within rugby, though, there is a growing appreciation that everything associated with mental fitness has a huge impact on the 80-minute window at the end of the week.
No one is an island. Everything within one's personal sphere affects their ability to perform.
These aspects have been central to NZ Rugby's HeadFirst programme, launched in 2017, which last year delivered 20 workshops, reaching 600 participants.
Mental fitness themes were further explored in the raw and real Being Men series that featured high profile players openly tackling issues such as healthy relationships, asking for help and getting through dark times.
Nehe Milner-Skudder, the 29-year-old former All Blacks winger plotting his return with the Highlanders after a horror run of shoulder injuries which have sidelined him for 18 months, is one player at the forefront of that series.
"Coming back from injuries, we have a pretty good plan in place around our physical rehab but personally I struggled mentally to come to terms with not being able to play, train, the disconnect from the team and something you love doing," Milner-Skudder says.
"We have thousands of thoughts each day and most of them are negative. It doesn't matter whether you're a builder, teacher or rugby player - that affects everyone.
"We're all happy to talk about things that are going great but it's having that same mindset and courage when things aren't going well. That way you can get help and find solutions that get through the tough times as well.
"If you haven't got your emotions or thoughts or how you look at yourself sorted, it will take its toll. You might get away with a couple of good games, but eventually it will catch up if you're not working in that space and being aware of your feelings."
Learning to step away from the rugby bubble – the scrutiny, expectations, pressure – and find enjoyment from other life interests helps to provide perspective and level out the inherent dangers attached to the euphoria of the arena. Identity solely constructed around rugby is not healthy.
"We're definitely in a privileged position and we invest a lot of time and energy into it but at the same time we need to have that switch and put on our other hats whether that's being a husband, brother, son, uncle – all these other positions that make up me as Nehe Milner-Skudder, not just me the rugby player and that's it.
"Those highs and lows that come with being a rugby player become even greater if you tie everything back to rugby being the be-all and end-all."
At the elite level, athletes usually have access to professional help. During lockdown efforts were made to spread these messages to the community game, with Milner-Skudder and Kirifi hosting webinars attended by club players and coaches.
"We need to keep supporting our grassroots because that's where everyday Kiwis are. People who play for their clubs are tradies – they're working from 9-5 and coming together on a Tuesday-Thursday because they love the game.
"If you can provide some wraparound support in a mental wellbeing way then not only can they enjoy rugby but they can come away with skills that will transfer to other parts of their lives as well."
Working on mental fitness looks differently to different people. For some it involves journaling and reflection. Others meditate or go for walks. Generally taking time and space to acknowledge feelings that are not apparent otherwise helps to identify challenges before they become all-consuming dark paths.
Checking in on those around you, providing outlets where they can be open without fear of being judged or misconstrued, is equally vital.
"We talk about people speaking up and reminding them that it's 'Okay to not be Okay' and to reach out for support. On the other side of that is being able to receive it and hold that safe space.
"That's a massive work on for us as men in particular. There's the whole stigma of not wanting to talk and be vulnerable because we haven't been given enough examples or we don't know what that looks like.
"There are so many young boys that are coming in now with that awareness and understanding that the courage you show on the rugby field looks a bit different off the field. That's being brave enough to share how you're really feeling when things aren't going to plan.
"When I was their age there was not much awareness or education. I definitely wouldn't have been holding myself the way they are now."
Kirifi is one of those next gen role models, though the 23-year-old freely admits mental fitness was a concept he completely bypassed when starting his professional career. His catalyst for change came in late 2017 while with the Wellington Lions squad.
"I just couldn't stop thinking about playing badly and that fear of failing and letting down my teammates took over my mind. For the next couple of games I played poorly to the point I got dropped.
"That was a key moment for me. Physically if someone were to look from the outside in no one would doubt me but my mind wasn't right."
The realisation he was doubting himself in key moments made Kirifi realise he wasn't as mentally strong as he needed to be.
"I put a line in the sand around that time. That was the wake-up call for me. After that I decided to aggressively work on my mental skills and strength.
"It's really easy to say 'that's not an issue for me' so it was good to identify it. From there I'd diligently spend time jotting down my thoughts around how different things made me feel or how I felt in different situations. I actively seek out those times to test out my brain and put myself in those high-pressure situations to see how I went. As time moved on, I found myself dealing with them better and better.
"We all know the stats – New Zealand is one of the highest in the world for teen suicide, especially Polynesian and Maori.
"All of us younger boys understand the importance of being on top of our minds and sharing our experiences with one another so if they are under pressure or going through tough times they're not experiencing it alone.
"In the past it was more suppress your emotions and let your actions do the talking. There is a change going on. From the top down you've got All Blacks all the way to clubs where there is a real focus on making sure everyone's wellbeing is getting ticked over as well."
Emerging from lockdown, which he spent alone, Kirifi made more of an effort to rekindle relationships with those around him and hopes everyone involved in the game will do the same.
"You can say 'hey bro, I'm going through some stuff do you mind if we grab a coffee and have a yarn?' That conversation doesn't need to be the deepest most vulnerable ever but just knowing you've got people around you who you can lean on is so liberating and reassuring, especially when you're going through tough times.
"Three years ago going through the same thing you probably felt like there was no one to talk to because it was frowned upon or seen as a weakness.
"That holistic approach to being better every day in every single area of my life has really helped my rugby. I'm happy with where I'm at, but there's plenty of work to do and that's exciting for me and for rugby in terms of this mental fitness space."
The definition of being at the peak of your athletic powers is changing. No longer is it physical alone.
Where to find help
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
Need to talk?
Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202