Blue Blood… Red Heart

1 December 2011

With the Varsity Rugby match fast approaching, Sports Editor Olivia Lee takes a look at how the Blues are preparing. Pete Martin is the unfortunate punchbag.

Field Training…

When I arrive there’s a lot of shouting and naked torsos. It’s like I dreamt it, except one of them is wearing a bobble hat, and most are sporting ‘Movember’ moustaches that make them look like a cross between Borat and Hulk Hogan.

The rugby Blues seem an enigmatic bunch. Half of them are practically middle-aged (over 25) and frankly, they care far too much about their health. I mean, they’re not supposed to eat cheese. That’s not normal.

But I found myself wondering what it takes to be a Blue. How much of their life is dominated by sport? How strict is their diet? Is it actually possible to enjoy fitness training?

So I decided to find how their training works. I took my friend Pete along, thinking that maybe someone who actually knows how to play rugby would be helpful. Besides which, I wasn’t in the mood to be hospitalised by partaking in the action myself.

Despite expecting the team to be unenthusiastic about letting me observe them, they appeared positively gleeful at the prospect of introducing a wide-eyed newbie to their team practices. They also seemed determined to get their own faces in every single picture. Certain people in particular (Tom O’Toole) focussed a little more on the camera than the rugby.

On this particular day the training consisted of some defensive organisation work followed by a vicious fitness session. There’s a lot of shouting and encouragement going on. It’s all very intense.

I ask about some of the drills they run. Apparently if you make three mistakes in a training session, you have to run laps, sprints and then pick each other up and squat each other. I genuinely cannot tell if they’re joking.

There is another drill that involves jumping over someone’s head, then going through their legs and tackling them, and repeating this (presumably until someone either quits or dies).

Finally, it’s time for Pete to get involved, starting off with a scrum. Pete says he doesn’t feel like they were going easy on him, but had they really gone for it, they probably would have crumpled his shoulders, the forwards weighing about 40kg more than him.

Equally, when it comes to a line-out, Pete feels like the guys are still giving him an easy ride, but says ‘they definitely seem to know exactly what they’re doing.‘

After the line-out, the boys try some mauling and rucking (mauling when the ball is off the ground). This is where Pete can really start to feel the difference between college and uni rugby. Afterwards he says: ‘I was shattered by the end but it’s pretty obvious they could have kept going for hours.’

When it comes to being tackled by a Blue, Pete describes it as feeling like having a small bull run into you, adding: ‘they’re a lot heavier than the average guy, so they hit you with more force.’

It’s not just the technical side that the boys want to show Pete. He is introduced to the ‘buttslap’ by Kristian Cook. Frankly both of them seemed to enjoy it too much, but apparently it’s a necessary part of rugby life. I’m too scared to ask if I could get involved. To be honest I don’t think girls are really welcome in this exercise. I ask Pete how it feels. ‘Very sensual.’ Excellent.

Finally it comes to some kind of practice-ending ritual that involves flipping over a colossal tyre. Pete has to do two flips just to prove he’s in shape, even if he does look slightly like a constipated Shrek.

Gym Training…

After field training, it’s time for me to watch what happens in the weight room.

I imagined it would be a continuous sweat session, kind of like Olivia Newton-John’s Physical video. But it’s not like that at all. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and wandering around, and suddenly they throw the weight of a small cow onto their shoulders and start squatting. Then after 3-5 squats they stop. It’s all very surreal.

I ask the captain why they train that way, and apparently there is science behind it.

Muscles are made up of two types of fibres, ‘fast twitch’ and ‘slow twitch’ fibres.

This type of anaerobic training, where there are short bursts of intense energy, is aimed at the fast twitch fibres, which produce smaller amounts of energy, but do it very quickly and need a long time to regenerate.

This is the kind of fibre that’s in use, for example, sprinting for a try or jumping to catch the ball.

And I think that’s enough science for one day.

The gym training mainly consists of classical weight work: squatting with weight, bench presses, bicep curls nothing too fancy or surprising. All in all there’s only around six different exercises going on.

Forwards, who have to be stronger for scrumming, apparently aim for around 180kg for squat reps and leg work, whereas the Backs, who run with the ball more, tend to work with around half that. Arms wise, it’s about 50-60kg. I try picking up the bar that one of the guys is using and console myself with the thought I will never need to lift anything heavier than a suitcase.

Pete throws himself into the weights practices, being something of a gym buff himself. When it comes to the arms, he thinks he’s done pretty well, though he would still place himself at the weaker end of the team.

Leg-wise, the Blues are in a different league as far as Pete is concerned:

“Most of the guys are working with the kind of weights I could never even think about using for legs.”

Once in a while one of the boys will do a one armed press up or some chin-ups, but there isn’t anything particularly exciting. Except one exercise, demonstrated by captain Matt Guinness King, which makes his veins bulge in such a way that I fear he will at some point morph into the Hulk and smash my camera.

To be honest, if you imagine the Hulk as smaller, and less green, with a Canadian accent and ever so slightly more talkative, you’ve got a pretty good picture of Matt’s general demeanour. That being said, he does seem at his most animated in the gym. In fact, all of them seem more cheerful than is natural, but I guess that’s what separates the men from the boys.

Of course, there is more to the training than the physical side. As one of the boys tells me, ‘everyone can play rugby here, but it’s just a case of being able to perform when the pressure is on.’

So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that some of their training takes place away from the field, in the gloomier rooms of the rugby club.

Often, the training sessions after matches will start with watching a video of the match and picking it apart.

In recent weeks they have also had visits from a sports psychologist. According to Matt this is all about learning how to get into the ‘zone’ or ‘flow’. The boys learn how to deal with anxiety, adversity, and unexpected events in the lead up to the biggest match of the year. Let’s hope it pays off.

Image: Olivia Lee