“Pre-season”. It’s supposedly a phrase which strikes fear into even the most hardended of professionals, and makes youngsters blanche and quail with fear.
To those of us outside the professional circle, it seems a mysterious, almost sado-masochistic time of year, when clubs find ever more bizarre ways to test the mental and physical fitness of their squads.
Training with the armed forces each year has become almost de rigeur for many Super League clubs, while others set new challenges.
In preparation for the 2016 season, Hull KR‘s squad was divided up into small, autonomous groups who were set of series of initiative and community challenges – doubtless, at least in part, the work of new director of rugby Jamie Peacock.
Other teams, like Leeds Rhinos, take off for warm weather camps in places like Florida or, in Castleford’s case, Lanzarote.
ST HELENS PRE-SEASON
But what is pre-season really about? Wakefield scrum-half Liam Finn sums it up as basically being about hard work.
“It’s about training hard and waiting for that time when it kicks off, and then we really get to find out whether the work we’ve done has been good enough, and relevant enough, to compete with the rest of Super League,” he told Love Rugby League.
“That’s what we’ll be judged on, at the end of the day, how we compete against the other 11 teams, and whether what we’ve been doing, and how much improvement we’ve made, is enough to have a significant impact on the league.”
LEEDS’ TRIP TO FLORIDA
Finn, 32, is reaching the veteran stage of his career. So is Huddersfield prop Eorl Crabtree, now 33 years of age.
The work for veteran players in pre-season can often come down to the specific injuries and needs that a player has developed over the course of his career.
The amount of time off that players are given before beginning a pre-season is also not as long as it seems, according to the Giants prop.
“You’re trying to get as fit and as strong as possible for the beginning of the season,” he said.
“You’ve got to work with the ball, and you’ve got to be understanding structures – there’s a lot to get in.
“Four weeks off isn’t a long time. I admit, personally that I would like a bit more off.
“But I would say that, because I’m a player and we want as much time off as possible!
“Different people focus on different aspects of training, and it is specific to you.
“For me, this year, I’ve been trying to put some a little bit more size on, because I lost a little bit too much last year.
“I know I’m a big guy, but I wasn’t particularly strong, and that disappointed me.
“I haven’t had any operations this year, so it’s got to the stage where I can start lifting a few more weights.
“The other side of that is that you have to work harder on the fitness and conditioning side because you need to remain as fit as possible.
“So there’s a fine balance, and finding that fine balance is very difficult.
“You have to work it out yourself, and as a club, as coaches, they have to work it out.
“You can’t have somebody just lifting weights all the time, and not doing any fitness. You’ve got to find that balance.”
Wakefield back rower Danny Kirmond expressed some surprise at the news that Crabtree might want to put some more size on, stating: “Bigger?! If Eorl gets any bigger there’s not much hope for the rest of us guys!”
But for Kirmond, maintaining the right balance in pre-season comes down to the individual taking professional responsibility for their diet and nutrition.
Family and friends can also sometimes find the nutritional needs of players somewhat baffling, to say the least, as well as their general lack of energy in the evenings.
“You have to look after yourself as a professional,” Kirmond said.
“It’s one of those things – people don’t believe how much you have to eat, and what you have to take in.
“But you’re putting so much out. Unless you’ve been in that situation of doing a pre-season you don’t really understand it.
“I know one person who doesn’t is my wife!
“I come home at the end of the day and I’ve got nothing left, and she’s wantingt to walk the dogs, and vac up and stuff like that.
“It’s a tough time, and, as a professional, that’s one of the things you’ve got to do is to make sure that your body is fuelled right, so that you’re able to put that size on, but at the same time, you’ve got to not put too much size on and keep your cardiovascular fitness high.”
PRE-SEASON GETS TOUGH FOR CAS
Crabtree concurs with Kirmond that maintaining a proper diet is tough, but it is something that professionals should not get too hung up about.
“It’s tough, actually, as a professional sportsman, because you’ve got to be on it all the time,” he said.
“You get a few weeks off, but even then you try and eat relatively healthily.
“Over Christmas it gets even more difficult, especially when you’ve got family and children.
“There’s boxes of chocolates everywhere.
“It is difficult. But, at the same time, you’ve got to enjoy it to a certain degree as well.
“We work so hard as professionals that we deserve to have a little bit.
“You can’t just be on it all the time.
“The same goes for the sport itself. If it’s something that you think about all the time then it will just grind you down.
“It’s like any job, sometimes you just need to get away from it.”
Perhaps that last statement is key to understanding the nature of pre-season. It’s a job, and for professional players probably the most important part of their job.
Get pre-season wrong, take shortcuts, dodge sessions and fail to fuel your body properly, and the chances are you will be out when it really matters during the season.
Get it right, and you are well on the road to glory.