Matt Shaw’s day of hell at Huddersfield pre-season training

At some point in your life you’ve probably agreed to do something you later regret.

It could be a holiday with the in-laws, a night out with work colleagues, a goodwill gesture to your other half that is done with the greatest of intentions but when the time comes, is nothing other than a complete inconvenience.

For me, it was agreeing to do a day of pre-season training with Huddersfield Giants.

I must be the stupidest man in Rugby League. If I wasn’t, then why on earth would I, an unfit and overweight journalist go out of my way to sign up for a such a task? The closest I am to being an athlete is being a steady amateur table tennis player. Beyond that, the most strenuous exercise I partake in is rushing to the bar at the Acapulco nightclub in Halifax before the prices go up at 11pm.

I’d never done this before. Heck, I hadn’t even played for 12 years since my days as a kid at Elland. I was completely blind to the torture incoming.

But the first time I truly realised I’d messed up was when the club’s head of performance, Mark Andrews, rang me a few days before to talk me through the plans.

“I’m guessing you’re not going to be the fittest bloke so we’ve got you doing extras first,” Bumper said. Jeez, thanks.

“So your first session of the day is at 6:45.”

Obviously, I thought he was joking. I assumed it was some sort of initiation prank. But, just to be safe, I sent a text message to Oliver Roberts, the Giants’ Ireland international. To my horror, he confirmed that he was a part of said extras group.

So at 5:45 in the morning, with the messages of well-wishers saying it was a pleasure to know me fresh in my mind, I defrosted my car and headed to Brighouse to meet Ollie, who I carpooled with for the day.

“Ready to die mate?” It’s not the usual greeting but I packed my stuff in the car and we headed off to the gym anyway.

We arrive at the gym 15 minutes ahead of schedule and are the first ones there.

The rest of the group aren’t too far behind us, with the likes of Alex Mellor and Matty English soon coming through the doors.

We head upstairs to where Adam Megretton, the club’s strength and conditions assistant, is waiting with his laptop and the session plan. The players crowd round to see what’s being offered up.

It’s a short, ‘light’ session. A 20-minute continuous circuit, featuring eight different exercises.

I start with some lat pulldowns before doing some rope tricep pushdowns, even if I have to drop the weights as I follow English around.

Easy enough, but as the minutes pass by and lactic acid builds up, I find myself blowing and breaking a sweat while the rest of the boys look like they’re not out of second gear.

By the time Megretton calls time on the session, I’m dripping in sweat and my shoulders are aching. The rest look like they’ve done nothing.

Anyway, I’ve got over the first hurdle. Next up… another weights session! What? “This is the hard one,” Roberts explained to me when we got back in the car to head back to the club’s training centre.

So after a quick latte, we get to the training complex where I see Andrews, Luke Robinson and Simon Woolford for the first time.

“I heard you already skipped a session,” Woolford says jokingly – I was down to do a spinning class but tagged along with Ollie to the weights instead. I assure him I haven’t and explain I’d just done weights. He lets me off and Robbo gives me some Weetabix for breakfast.

The players who had done the spinning class were back and slowly, the rest of the group arrive. Matt Frawley is in for his first day with the club and I have a chat with him and Dale Ferguson among others.

“So, you’re here voluntarily?” Jordan Turner says in a surprised tone. When I tell him yes he simply responds: “Wow, you’re an idiot.”

The weights session is split into a couple of groups. The younger players head in first and I’m put in Group 2 with all the senior players.

We head to the mats to loosen up with some foam rollers before the players are handed their files outlining their activities for the day.

Chris Stewart, the strength and conditioning chief, welcomes me and informs me I’m in for a tough session.

First up are press ups with a 10kg plate on your back. However, once your nose touches the floor, you’ve got to hold your position for four seconds before slowly coming back up. The first one doesn’t seem so bad. Until I get back to the starting position and Chris tells me to get my nose six inches further than the last one. I manage that bit, but getting back to the starting position is done with huge difficulty.

The session is brutal but I’m supported through it by the boys. Ukuma Ta’ai, Ferguson and Roberts take me under their wing and show me how to do all the exercises with correct form. Sam Wood also spots me on the bench and practically does my final two reps as my bingo wings succumb to the weight. As I’m struggling to do one particular exercise I see Woolford chuckling from upstairs, but I’m not going to let that get me down.

It’s a good, tough session, but I’m feeling good. And it’s a good job too because next up is wrestle.

I throw on a Giants training top, cover myself in disinfectant and get ready to get to grips with these behemoths of men.

Bumper calls us in and tells us to get into pairs for the warm-up. I look for the smallest man I can find but before I know it there’s only one person left.
It’s Ukuma Ta’ai. Gulp.

Thankfully, it turns out Ta’ai is the gentlest of Giants you could ever wish to come across. He eases me into the session with some light contacts before gently stepping up the ferocity.

But there’s absolutely no hiding place soon. The first drill is one on one defence. Each player is tasked with making four tackles, two on either shoulder, before turning the ball carrier on their back.

After getting a feel for it I take in my first carry at Adam Walne. I charge in and BANG, I’m hit so hard the ball pops out of my grasp. There’s a combination of gasps and laughs before I’m encouraged to run again, and this time, I manage to keep hold.

After a few more carries Bumper instructs everyone to turn the intensity of carries up from 70% to 90%. Excuse me? You mean that wasn’t the real thing?

A bit of fear creeps in. Because it’s my turn to defend. Before I do, we’re pulled in and given a demonstration on wrestle techniques. As the rest of the players answer questions and nod their heads, I’m absolutely lost. It’s like they’re speaking in a different language. The complexity behind the art of defending is absolutely mind-blowing.

I have no time to worry about the intricacies, all I’m bothered about is making sure I don’t get flattened. Lee Gaskell is the first before Paul Clough hurtles down the mats. The next is Colton Roche, who runs at me so hard that upon collision my head starts ringing and I get a shocking headache. Bizarrely, Woolford asks me almost immediately if I’ve got a headache yet. “You’ll get used to that.”

As the session develops, the tackling gets more and more technical. I decided that rather than make the rest look bad, I’ll just carry the ball in. The only issue is that tackles become two on one and then four on one. Mentally preparing myself to run at Turner, Roche, Clough and Ta’ai is one of the toughest things I’d have to do.

Not that I should be worried, Ta’ai has got me covered. After every carry I take in, he makes a beeline for me to make sure I’m ok. His constant encouragement and advice definitely help me get through. He’s a man of few words, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most respected members in the Giants camp. The rest of the group are great too, they’ve taken me in as one of their own and they’re supporting me every step of the way.

Just when I think we’re done, there’s one final exercise. We’re in groups of four, each player wrestles with the other three back-to-back-to-back. I give it as much as I’ve got against Walne first, but I’m absolutely exhausted. Before I know it, Clough has wrapped me up, got my arms and won’t let go.

“Keep those elbows tight Matty,” shouts Bumper. I’m trying, but it’s too late.

Out on my feet, the whistle goes and I get to grips with Ta’ai straight away. My elbows are so tight they’re digging into my ribs, there’s no way I’m letting him lock my arms up.

Within three seconds I’ve succumbed. The challenge now is to get my arms back in the correct position. But there’s no point, I’m getting thrown around like a doll, my lifeless limbs flailing in the air as I’m picked apart. Finally, the ordeal ends. I’m beaten. I’m absolutely knackered.

After a spot of lunch I’m told I’m needed in the gym for dice rolls. I have no idea what that means. I’m dragged to the front. To cut a long story short, there are forfeits if you break certain rules, and I’d left a cup out on a table. Schoolboy error. Seb Ikahihifo and Ukuma are also in the firing line for going to the wrong venue for the spinning class and young Academy player Jon Luke Kirby is also pulled up.

Each number of the dice is a different forfeit. Most are horrible fitness-related challenges but rolling number one will result in an afternoon cleaning Luke Robinson’s car. To the group, it is seen as the worst possible outcome. For me, it means no burpees or squats, so I’m all for it.

Seb and Ukuma both roll a one. The place erupts. Kirby rolls a three, burpees and medicine ball throws. My turn. It’s a one. Everyone goes mad. I’m chuffed to bits! That is until I’m told about the state of the car. Apparently, there are things growing in the footwells. I’ve still not cleaned his car, but I’m sure the time will come.

Next up is the part I’m dreading. Conditioning. I’m already aching a bit anyway, I don’t need to get flogged again.

But sure enough, we had to go to a 3G pitch in the bitter cold and crack on. After general stretching we split into two groups. From there, we’re told to split into two.

“I’ll go with Matt,” shouts Alex Mellor straight away. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s taken a liking to me or just wants an easy session.

Anyway, it turns out fairly pointless, as the session sees us go between two pairs of cones 20 metres apart doing various exercises, such as lunges, heel flicks and so on.

Now comes the tough part. I’d been warned beforehand that this would ‘**** me up’, which scared me given I already felt like that.

The goal was simple. Run ten metres, run back. Run 20 metres, back, and so on until we went to the 50 and back. That doesn’t sound so hard, right?

I didn’t think it seemed too bad, but here’s the catch. We had to do it three times and from the minute we started the first one, the next lap would start three minutes later.

So off we go, and it’s not long until I’m lagging behind. I’m not losing any ground getting to the marks, but then when we have to turn back, I seem to lose a few metres every time.

By the time I’m closing in on the 30, there’s a gap between myself and the rest. I don’t feel too tired but the rest are just too quick. The first time I feel tired is when I head for the 50. Bumper shouts some words of encouragement as I make the long run, and my heart sinks. Adam O’Brien is scorching down the home straight like he’s just got on the field. I get to the mark, turn round, and see all but a few stragglers filling their lungs back up.

But anyway, I’ve done the first one. I don’t feel so bad. I’ve got just over a minute to sort myself out.

But after what only feels like 10 seconds, we’re off again. This time, everyone seems quicker and I seem slower. This time, I’m tired by the time I get back from the 20, and the leading pack are practically at the 30. My legs are feeling heavy by now. The years of jaffa cakes and jagerbombs are doing me in big time.

When I practically stumble to the 50, everyone is already finished. I’m jogging, but I feel pathetic. I’m making myself look stupid. Thankfully, the players, even if they think that, aren’t showing it. I’m getting words of encouragement in the distance. It feels great, but in the back of my head I know I’ve got to do this again.

And I’ve only got 50 seconds recovery. Can I give up? It goes through my head, but I can’t, can I? The lads, again, are great, they come and check up on me and tell me to keep moving. All I want to do is lean on the fence. But I have no time. We’re off again. I’ve not recovered at all and everyone is flying away from me.

My legs are so heavy, to the point that if you pricked my legs I feel lactic acid would seep out. As I trot back from the 30 I’ve got my eyes on O’Brien. He’s miles ahead of anyone and he’s catching me up. He’s practically at the 40. I cannot let him catch me. I try and power through but I’m gone. I can see Simon Woolford glaring at me as I pathetically lumber towards the 40, as I turn, O’Brien is getting closer. I can’t let him get to the end before I’m heading back to the 50. I trundle back and make it there before him. Result. It was a moral victory.

Problem being, my last remaining energy had gone into that, and I still have 100 metres to go. Everyone else is on their way back too. I’m jogging, but I might as well be walking. I turn on the 50 to see everyone watching me. An awful feeling, but to be honest, I should probably be pleased with myself for completing it. Upon return, there are back pats and low fives aplenty.

“You can go back and tell everyone how tough these boys have it now,” says Bumper. He’s not kidding.

The group go and do some attacking structure thereafter as I watch on while panting. I cannot describe how sore my legs are. They genuinely, genuinely hurt.
Chris Stewart comes over to check on me. “You’ll be pleased to know we’ve only got one more of them to do.” WHAT?! My heart sinks. The pain has only just started. Thankfully, knowing I wasn’t so tired after the first one before, I know I can go all out and try to keep up.

The other plus point is that I have about 40 minutes to recover. So I watch and observe with Frawley and Tom Holmes, two of the injured players, who have a bit of fun at me in good taste. During the session, Ukuma feels a slight strain in his leg and pulls out. Instead, he’s told to go some boxing against Seb, who is also injured.

Let me, tell you, I have never, EVER seen anything like that in my life. Ukuma is throwing punches for 40 minutes without breaking a sweat. He’s punching so hard that it looks like more of a workout for poor Seb, who has the gloves on. What a specimen. Even Holmes and Frawley are flabbergasted at what’s they’re seeing.

So after the ball session is done, we’re lined up again.

“I don’t want anyone pacing themselves here, I want you to go flat out,” barks Stewart. No problem. I can do that, one last big effort.

So off we go. I’m going for it. I only start to fall behind slightly at the 30 this time, but by the time I’m heading towards the 50 I’ve done myself in. I’ve gone way too hard too soon. By the time I’ve finished, I’m just as far behind as I was before.

But hey, I’ve done it. Time for the hot tub.

“One minute to go.”

I turn round in horror. Everyone is preparing to do it again.

“I thought we were only doing it once this time!” I shout at Ollie Roberts with a tinge of desperation in my voice.

“No, one more round of three you idiot!”

This is BAD. I’ve absolutely done myself in and I’ve got to do it twice more. I feel like I was betrayed, lied to. I’m well and truly up **** creek.

“GO.” A word I had learned to dread. And the rest are off again. Mentally, more than physically, I’ve lost it. I’d put that much focus on doing it once that my head is blagged. I’m telling myself I can’t do it, and that makes my legs and ankles ache all that much more. I’m still stewing about it by the time I’ve finished. I’m miles behind again but I was so angry that I was having to go round again that it took my mind off the pain.

But this time, I’m well and truly done. I make eye contact with a few of the players and I know they know I’m a broken man. Five or six of them come over and speak to me but none of it is going in.

The only thing I manage to hear is O’Brien.

“Right lads, I want you to give absolutely everything here. We’re doing this as a team, you’re doing this for every single other person. Nobody gives less than everything they’ve got.”

I just feel guilty. All I’m bothered about is finding an excuse not to do the last one. But I’m so close to finishing. I’ve got to.
With about 20 seconds left. Woolford speaks up.

“The minute you’re finished, head up there to finish off.” He points to the far end of the field. What sort of sick joke is that?

As soon as he’s done, we’re starting again. And everyone is going flat out. I’m so far behind I’m not even eating their dust. O’Brien is still running at a pace Mo Farah would be proud of. He’s comfortably the fittest in the team. I’m struggling to maintain a pace that would see me win the mascot race.

I turn back for the 50 with O’Brien metres from finishing. Most of the rest are 20 metres off by the time I’ve still got 100 to go. I just keep my head down, trying to force my legs to keep going. As I get to the final point and look back to the finishing line, everyone is jogging to the other side of the pitch. As the finishing line draws closer, a real sense of pride hits me. I’ve actually done it. As I get over the line, Bumper checks up on me. I’m alive. That’s about it.

But before I’ve hardly got a foot over the line I hear Woolford shout at me. “Come on Matty, bring it in.” I mean, this is another 100 metres I’ve got to go here. I can’t decide if he’s taking the **** or is a heartless b******.

Anyway, when I get there, we get a debrief. I’m too tired to listen. I’m more bothered about getting my breath back.

Finally, FINALLY, we’re told we’re done. I am well and truly done in. We head back to the changing rooms and everyone takes great delight in the fact I’m walking like John Wayne. O’Brien, who I’d actually played against back as a teenager, comes over and we have a laugh, talking about some of the old games and how he’s possibly improved a bit more than I have in that time.

It’s time to head to recovery now, which is the pool. Now in my mind, I’m thinking hot tub and sauna. Why wouldn’t I? As I’m getting changed, I get pain in my ribs. It feels like my ribcage has disintegrated or popped into the pits of my stomach. I can’t stand up straight without being in major agony. It takes a good ten minutes to sort out.

Anyway, as we head to the car, I’m briefed about the pool session. Here we go. We’re doing recovery, what is there for me to know?

Well, recovery for a Rugby League player, apparently, entails doing 10 lengths of a 20 metres pool underwater. Starting to think this is barbaric. A charity needs setting up like the NSPCC but for poor athletes who are flogged to death.

So anyway, in the pool I get.

“There’s no way you’ll do this,” Bumper says to me. But I didn’t get handed my Kellogs Platinum Swimming Award as a ten-year-old for no reason. I actually smash the first length. I get to the end, turn round with a smug look on my face and Bumper has his fists in the air, probably in complete astonishment. Even the players are shocked.

I manage to do all ten, too. Some of the players aren’t capable. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

Finally, I get my dip in the hot tub, and it’s time for home. It’s 4 PM by this point. Effectively, a nine-hour day. I’ll have to revisit my thinking that players start their day at 10 and are on Fortnite by 2.

I say my goodbyes and my thanks. Bumper invites me to join them again on Saturday. Apparently, on a scale of 1-10, today’s session was a 7, where Saturday will be a 10. I politely decline.

In the days that followed, I could barely walk. Standing up and sitting down became a difficult task, my neck ached every time I turned one way or another.

Washing my hair hurt. I had bruises everywhere. I was sore in places I didn’t know it was possible to be sore. It wasn’t until Monday, three full days of recovery, that I was back to normal. The Saturday was hellacious.

To end on a serious note, I learned a great deal. But beyond anything, I developed the most incredible level of respect for any person who has taken this job on as a profession. What I went through was one of the most gruelling days I’ve ever experienced, and these guys turn up and do it day in, day out for almost 20 years of a career. With that comes incredible mental challenges and physical strains that can alter the rest of their life.

But the bond they share is incredible. Maybe it’s just the Giants, but they truly are a band of brothers. A brotherhood, if you like. And for that one day, they welcomed me into that. It was a special feeling knowing they were willing to do that.

It’s easy for any of us to think professional athletes are living the dream. Hey, to an extent, they are. But their level of commitment, the amount they sacrifice and the pain they are willing to endure is beyond anything I could ever even attempt to replicate.

For that, they will forever have my utmost respect.

First published in Rugby League World magazine.

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