Raiders hooker Matt McIlwrick in the gym. Photo: Graham Tidy
Ask Matt McIlwrick about Canberra's torrid pre-season and he uses words like ''fun'' and ''enjoyable''.
Getting flogged in stifling heat isn't most players' idea of a good time, but it's an approach that has sparked his transformation from rookie to pre-season pacesetter.
Still only 21 and with just four NRL games to his name, McIlwrick has clearly been the most impressive Raider on the training track.
Lock Shaun Fensom jokes his Kiwi genetics are the reason, but personal trainer McIlwrick has always prided himself on his fitness.
While most look forward to pre-season training in 30 degree-plus heat about as much as a trip to the dentist, Christchurch-born McIlwrick is loving every moment.
''I've focused on a lot of things this off-season like alcohol and food intake. Training's been very tough but also very enjoyable at the same time,'' McIlwrick said on Friday.
''Everyone's got their strengths and weaknesses, mine is fitness and it's something I try and excel in.
''If I can get on top of my fitness and get my body as right as possible then I can focus more on the small things that will make me a better player.
''We get flogged out there in the field … I've always loved it, being a personal trainer I suppose.''
McIlwrick clocked the fastest time in Canberra's 1200-metre time trials, and also topped the squats and skin-fold categories.
He was second only to veteran prop Brett White in bench press, and fourth in chin-ups.
His motivation hasn't come from wanting to hold his own with players such as David Shillington or Josh Dugan, but from his younger brother Jared.
The slightly built 18-year-old, part of Canberra's SG Ball squad last year, is the silent hero behind his elder sibling's metamorphosis.
''We get along pretty well and when we train together he always pushes me real hard,'' McIlwrick said. ''Even over the off-season we'd go to the uni to train a fair bit and he was well ahead, he can still run rings around me.''
McIlwrick has an ideal chance to entrench himself in Canberra's first squad given the continued uncertainty in its dummy-half ranks. Travis Waddell was released at the end of last season, while Glen Buttriss is yet to return to full training after suffering a setback in his recovery from ankle surgery.
''It's a good opportunity but in saying that I look up to Buttsy and [Shaun] Berrigan a lot, and I still have a lot to learn off those two,'' McIlwrick said. ''They've been tremendous helping with my ball playing. I used to just consider myself a runner and tackler but they've helped add a couple more dimensions to my game and I have to keep working on that.''
McIlwrick rates the start to pre-season as the toughest in his three years at the club. The Raiders are keen to get a fitness edge over their rivals to ensure they avoid the slow starts that have plagued them in recent seasons.
McIlwrick said the squad had responded well to new strength and conditioning coach Nigel Ashley-Jones, who he rates a tough but fair taskmaster. ''He's a pretty funny character and gets everyone laughing, but when it comes to fitness, you know who's boss,'' he said.