No pain, no game ... veteran prop Brent Kite, with tractor tyre, shows his younger Manly teammates the way at a training camp on the central coast during the week. Photo: Anthony Johnson
There was a method to the madness as Manly's top 25 players exhausted the last of their energy reserves in the maddening heat and humidity by continually squatting and then, in one explosive movement, turning tractor tyres end over end or whipping ropes so thick they could secure a battleship to a wharf.
The Sea Eagles, like the NRL's other 15 clubs, are slaving to build the foundation for the fitness that will sustain their players throughout next year. The pursuit for the perfect off-season is relentless and everyone, from superstars to fringe first-graders, have left puddles of perspiration and massacred countless calories via the challenges which have included assaulting the Kurnell sandhills or being conscripted to military-style boot camps.
Manly coach Geoff Toovey, considered perhaps the toughest individual to have worn his club's colours, described summer as a crucial time because it set the foundation for the next premiership campaign. "At this time of year the point is to get the players' fitness up," he said. "We build a base, get their skills up too and get their bodies into shape for the season proper because once it kicks off you only have [a minimal amount of ] time to tweak them along the way. They maintain [during the season] what they're building now." And that was why the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran, Anthony Watmough and George Rose were huffing and puffing at the Competitive Edge training camp in the landmark old milking shed at Wyong.
It seemed, at first, such a serene place with forests of tall trees, the pristine Wyong Creek where a colony of wild platypuses thrive and the cackle of kookaburras. However, within minutes of being exposed to some old-fashioned drills, this setting straight out of a Banjo Paterson ballad, resembled an abattoir as the players were engulfed by the dreaded red mist as fatigue and stress gripped them. It was exactly what the Sea Eagles' strength and fitness coach, Don Singe, wanted. As someone who learnt the meaning of discipline in the New Zealand military he watched to see how the class of 2013 reacted to being pushed into a mental state he described as "dark and hairy".
"We know what everyone is physically capable of," he said of the club's roster. "But they're doing drills designed to take the players' systems by surprise and the test quickly becomes how they deal with that little window of stress. That's what we look for; what we want to see. It's actually the beauty of doing those things."
And it is a serious business because as Singe pointed out, the experiences each players gained from being placed in a distressed state helped to ensure they could conquer the tough times they'd face during a match.
"Rugby league is essentially about an unwavering line of men defending ground that has to be covered," he said. "It means you can't have gaps or variations in the line. You just want a straight line and the ability to keep that line straight comes down to every player's ability to move explosively and powerfully off it [and together]. Mentally and physically it's 80 minutes of absolute focus, and that's what this training provides. As opposed to conventional weight training or field training the type of drills we did with [Competitive Edge's] Hayden Knowles and Tapu Opetaia, and then an obstacle course, led the players into a dark, hairy place real quick.
''I think the beauty of the relationship with football is how an individual deals with that situation, how he handles it amongst his team members and how he comes out of it the other end. The younger guys are exceptional. They really are fit and strong individuals. The difference is you really can see, and it's not a negative, how the more campaigned players' experience comes through. They know what it's like to go to these dark places and they know they can come out the other end. The younger guys give you everything, they're the guys who'll drop to the ground because they want to give you everything they've got, but they're just not sure of the threshold. The more experienced guys push themselves to the limit but they're smart enough to realise they're no good to the [defensive] line if they're on the ground face-down - they use their experience to keep the other guys up and keep the strength of that line."
Toovey, who couldn't stifle an ''aaarghh'' when asked for his thoughts on his rookie year as a top-grade coach, said he hoped the pain of his team's inglorious departure from the grand final race - courtesy of a ramrod Melbourne in the preliminary final - and the challenges from Wyong would galvanise the squad to overcome similar situations.
"It was a good year for us, 2012," he said. "I know some might say to not win the premiership means it wasn't successful … but under the circumstances [which included 2011 grand final winning coach Des Hasler leaving for Canterbury] it was a good effort by our players. We finished one win away from the grand final and in that sense it was good, but to finish the way we did [crushed 40-12 in a mistake-riddled effort against Melbourne], it took the wind out of our sails. We had a debrief to work out what happened and no one could put their finger on it … we had no major injury problems, the build-up to the game was perfect. I think the boys would like to forget it.
"But, I think that'll be good for us this year; knowing if you don't turn up to play you'll get your pants pulled down."
Singe said something that he and the club's coaching staff wanted to instil in the younger players was an understanding of their importance as links in what needed to be an unbreakable chain. "My time in the military instilled the value that an individual's effort leads to the team effort," he said. "As corny as it sounds it was simply a case to be at your very best because if you're not we're all in the crap … I do some mentoring and consulting to the NSW Police and they have the same attitude there, the SWAT guys, they thrive on excellence. I've always been impressed by the absolute respect between the armed forces, the elite police units and the NRL teams because while they have different outcomes they all know what "it" is. Once men and women share that you feel an affinity."
And, as in any field, Singe said the NRL has benchmarks and he cited Melbourne's ability to master stress and fatigue as peerless. ''In the NRL the teams are all as strong and as fit and fast and powerful as each other," he said. "The difference is, and the Melbourne Storm is the perfect example, who can hold their mental focus together longest? They're one team that do and I admire that. I make no bones about it, that's the mental benchmark I will strive to have my men reach. There is no embarrassment in saying that, they're a great side and a great example of mental fortitude when the going gets tough. But, make no bones about this: Geoff will bring that to Manly. He's such a competitor, such an honest person and he won't settle for anything less than that.
"He wants speed, power and impact from the players because that's what he's about. He's a tough taskmaster but he's respected … his one rule is 'do your job'. Don't do your job and he will visit you … " Toovey described the time at the camp as an eye-opener that gave a true indication of how his team was travelling.