At ten PM on August 17 in Sydney, Australia, the All Blacks were in the changing rooms having just dispatched Australia 47-29. It was a ruthless display of clinical skill and fitness. Their work for the week was done, but for Nicolas Gill, the All Blacks’ Strength & Conditioning coach, the week was just beginning. The boys had seven days to get prepped and try to do it again.
“Test rugby is brutal”, he says. “Typically we’re playing against not only the fifteen most skilled players from each country, but also the fastest, fittest and strongest.” It’s a rigorous sport that requires a rigorous fitness and conditioning regime. “After any game we have an intensive recovery focus which starts from the moment the boys leave the field.”
Minutes after the game in Sydney the players were replacing lost fluids and calories, stretching, sitting in ice baths, and spinning on cycles to help their bodies recover from the pounding they’d just taken. This was all done before leaving the ground at 11.30pm to get a good night’s sleep.
After a game, Sunday is theoretically travel day, but if the schedule allows there’s a pool session and massage for the athletes while they continue to replace the fluids they lost the night before. On Monday training starts again, though the workload is carefully managed. During the week of the interview, the All Black’s three first-choice first-fives were doubtful starters for the next game in Wellington. That meant some extra work for Nic.
“When guys are injured we have a pretty basic philosophy of everything being geared towards returning to the field... All injured boys have a structured plan put in place that balances analysis, team needs, rehab, conditioning, strength work and a gradual return to rugby skills. Between Pete [Gallagher, physiotherapist], George [Duncan, muscle therapist] and myself, we work closely together to get the guys back on the park.”
Having to work with thirty players with different needs over seven days is a challenge, and it’s even more challenging given Nic doesn’t have an army of support staff or a home base. “I am a one man band and we operate from a different gym or field or hotel every single week”, he explains. Nic has to collaborate with the manager and coaches to ensure he can work with the players in a way that fits in with everyone’s schedule. ‘Working within the big machine’ is the most important part of his job.
There’s not much time for Nic to ponder the challenges he has to deal with, though - not when there’s a test match on the horizon. By Tuesday, full team training commences and the two hours on the training pitch are supplemented by two hours in the gym. Nic works with players on a case-by-case basis, especially if they’re nursing injuries. It’s a balancing act - some players are fine, others need careful treatment to avoid aggravating niggles. There’s no time for mucking about. The Tuesday session is an important one, so according to Nic, “...it’s time to push aside the tiredness and soreness and get on with it!”.
Wednesday is the quietest day and if they’ve played on Saturday, the players are usually given some time for rest and recuperation. If Nic were to use this rest day to take a breath and reflect on his time in the job, there’s a good chance his mind would drift back to October 2011, when the All Blacks won the World Cup. He has enjoyed many memorable moments in the job but the 2011 World Cup is his most cherished memory. “It’s still when I was most proud of what I do and who I do it with”, he says.
Wednesdays probably don’t include a great deal of rest, though - especially when there are injuries to assess, bodies to tweak and media commitments to deal with.
As comes with the territory, the expectations are high both within the All Blacks setup and from the public.
With the rest day out of the way, Thursday is strictly business and includes two full training runs, lifting in the gym, and some more work in the pool. It’s time to put the finishing touches on plans and preparation; the game is just over 48 hours away now.
While it’s a given that the players are two days away from putting a lifetime’s worth of skill on display, Nic is also in the same boat. The fruits of his doctorate and years of hard work at age group, provincial and Super Rugby level will be on display this Saturday night. How well will the All Blacks be travelling at the end of the game? Are they fit and fast enough to deliver a second dominant performance within a week?
Friday won't be too much help if he wants to squeeze more out of the players - it’s a little over 24 hours before kick-off and all the hardest preparation has been done. The team has a light run and then as Nic puts it, “...it’s time to put away the training shoes and get ready to rumble.” Nic won’t be playing tomorrow, but he’d have every right to feel nervous. He has had just seven days to prepare his charges, but he’s powerless when the whistle blows. It’s out of his hands now.
August 24, Wellington: in a notable exhibition of skill, athleticism and power, the All Blacks physically dominate Australia on the way to a 29-17 victory. They stoutly see off an improved Australian performance courtesy of eighty minutes of clinical rugby that showcases their outstanding strength and fitness.
The victory is a satisfying one for all the All Black coaching staff, not that Nic has much time to dwell on it. When the game is over, the crowd goes home and punters across New Zealand switch off their TVs and go to bed, but Nicolas Gill doesn’t have time for an early night. He has thirteen days to prepare for the physically imposing Argentinians, and there is plenty of work to do.