The smile on Ade Gardner’s face as I pull into Warrington Wolves’ training ground reminds me what I have agreed to put myself through. Professional sport is finally returning post-lockdown, but with that sort of normality comes packed schedules and extreme demands few elite sports stars will have ever experienced.
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Super League’s players are no exception. While footballers are used to three games in a week, and short turnarounds are par for the course throughout the cricketing summer, Super League is attempting to finish its remaining 22 rounds of the season – plus the Challenge Cup and play-offs – in only four months, starting on Sunday.
Rugby league is already one of the most physically demanding sports, but this is another level. To discover just how fit the players will need to be, Gardner has invited me to take part in some conditioning training. “I hope you’re ready,” Warrington’s head of performance chuckles.
“This is going to be unlike anything we’ve experienced before,” he adds. “We’re playing one game a week initially, but then the schedule gets hellacious quickly with lots of midweek games. It worries me what we’re going to have to subject these players to, and we don’t really know if the conditioning is going to get them ready for what’s to come.”
The numbers are frightening. Such is the litany of games still to get through – most Super League clubs have played five or six in 2020 – it is likely players will take part in, on average, only one full-contact training session for every match this year. That is around one third of the usual training sessions.
Gardner explains: “It’s recovery, recovery, recovery. We have to mitigate the extra risks that come with playing more games, and there are big risks. We’re ready for more injuries and that’s going to be a tough sell, admitting to players they’re going to get hurt more or the risks are greater. They’ll have to be fitter than ever.”
Gardner has selected Warrington’s prime fitness drill, the Bronco test, for me. The principles are simple enough: cones are placed 20, 40 and 60 metres away from the start. Run to the 20 and back, then the 40 and back, before out to the further cone and back. The catch: repeat it five times.
“You’ll be absolutely fine,” says Gardner when I explain I usually run between 30 and 40 miles a week, in a moment best described as being lulled into a false sense of security. “Five minutes is a pass: most of our players get that,” he says. The buzzer sounds, and as the laps get harder and harder, it is easy to imagine the sacrifices players are making for the good of the game.
It was five minutes and three seconds of pain. A fail. Mercifully, Gardner counts down the seconds to the five-minute mark as I turn the final cone and head for home. This is just a fraction of what Warrington’s players are going to have to endure to be ready for their first game back next weekend. To describe the required fitness levels as extreme would be an understatement.
“We’ve probably only got 30 proper training sessions for around that many games: that’s crazy,” Gardner says. “This is going to be brutal for them, but they have to buy into it.” He is relying on Warrington’s players having kept fit throughout the hiatus, adding: “They’re in trouble if they’ve let themselves go.”
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The return of Australia’s NRL has given Super League a chance to study its methodologies and approach, but it is clear the focus will be just as much on injury prevention as the rugby. “The coaches won’t like me, because I’m going to want to keep [the players] fit rather than on the field non-stop,” Gardner admits. “But I need to, or they’ll get hurt. Our daily schedule has been cut and we’d normally have three or four times more sessions with them in a normal pre-season. This is going to be tough.”
As I drag myself from the turf, I’m reminded this is only a fraction of what Super League players have to put themselves through. “These lads deserve our respect anyway, but by the time this season ends, they will have taken themselves to hell and back,” Gardner says. “They will get hurt. Sometimes, you wonder if people appreciate the risks they’re going to take to entertain people. But they’ll do it. They always do.”
Having come so close to a pass, Gardner asks if I would like to try the Bronco again. I politely decline: once was enough.