Times Series chief reporter Chris Hewett travelled to Saracens' new stadium on Friday for a training session with the club's strength and conditioning coach.
The result was a serious appreciation of the dedication of top-level athletes...
When England rugby player Chris Ashton tells you, ‘don’t worry, you’ll be fine’, you like to think he’s speaking the truth.
But less than ten minutes into a training session with Saracens’ strength and conditioning coach Andy Edwards, I feel like I’m about to die.
I play quite a lot of sport, mostly football, tennis and cricket, so I had envisaged a good hour of push-ups, shuttle runs and strength drills before I was on my backside.
But in truth, my heart rate had considerably increased during the light warm-up and by the time we got down to business with what Andy described as a “serious conditioning drill”, I was sucking in air faster than a top-of-the-range Dyson.
Saracens had kindly invited me and a handful of other journalists down to Allianz Park to ‘train like a Saracen’ and watch the first team during their final pre-match preparations before they take on the Worcester Warriors on Sunday.
The starting squad of 22 quickly went to work showing us how it should be done, with some lightening quick full-pitch sessions mimicking the passing and rucking of a real match.
Andy explained: “We get a lot of the conditioning done pre-season. That is when gains are really made. Match preparation is all about playing rugby.
“Getting down onto the artificial pitch to train is important – the players want to feel comfortable on the surface and it aids our preparation and adds to our edge on matchdays.”
After a quick change and a nod to the incoming players, it was our turn. As we walked out, I passed international wing Ashton and said hello before declaring: “Check this out Chris, we’re going to do what you’ve been doing, just maybe not quite as well.”
He looked unconvinced at even my reserved prediction, but smiled and gave me those words of encouragement nonetheless, and I was feeling confident as we strode out on to the artificial turf.
It wasn’t until the end of the first touch-tackling drill though that one of the participants admitted he played high-level rugby down in Richmond on a weekly basis - I wasn’t going to be topping this class.
Mid-range was suddenly the aim, until another admitted he was an international fencer – ‘best just try not to embarrass myself’, I thought.
Andy took us through a range of professional rugby drills aimed at boosting the fitness and agility of high performance athletes.
We paired up and got involved in some one-on-ones, competing to get past one another across ten-metre and 50-metre distances.
Wrestling even formed part of the session – apparently a good way of getting the heart racing and building strength.
Fortunately I was paired with Emer from the Evening Standard. ‘She doesn’t look like she would hurt me’, I thought, plus she was perhaps a foot shorter than my lanky frame.
Unfortunately I think she beat me twice.
The session finished with the gruelling conditioning drill – shuttle runs from a laying start with a few no-holds-barred tackles of the rugby bag thrown in.
By the time we had finished, there was not enough oxygen in the stadium to keep me on my feet.
There is a very serious side to all this though, one that has boosted Saracens to the top of the Aviva Premiership and earned them three play-off qualifications, including one championship victory, since the 2009/10 season.
Andy said: “There is a seriously strong work ethic in the squad that we have built up over the last few years – you come in and work hard or you will be shown the door - that has happened in the past with players.
“We use GPS to look at how far the players are running on the pitch, as well as their acceleration and deceleration, and use heart system monitors to make sure they are working at their optimum level – they are key tools to our training.
“We want to train harder than any team we will come up against and that is one of the mottos we work on at this club.”
Fortunately for me, I can go back to my day job, but the afternoon was not complete without a few conversion attempts from the 22-yard line.
I got three out of three…maybe Chris Ashton was right after all.