Richie McCaw has been so damaged after some test matches that his blood tests revealed muscle damage on a par with a serious burns victim.
As professional rugby players get bigger, stronger and faster, so too must they work harder to survive the increasing strains on their frames.
The All Blacks have gone as far as to measure the levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme that leaks out of muscles when they are damaged.
Team strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill is the man charged with ensuring the All Blacks’ battered bodies are kept in shape during their end-of-year tour.
“Some of them are very sore for a good two or three days,” he says.
“We used to measure muscle damage either through blood or saliva and some of the numbers we used to get out of that were just phenomenal.
“Full burns victims would have similar readings. Just crazy stuff.”
Gill says loose forwards, especially opensides, props and midfielders, take the heaviest battering during a match. As a result, players are carefully monitored and managed through weights, fitness, massage and stretching to ensure their bodies are ready in a week’s time.
The team’s training times are strictly monitored by Gill and each individual’s weekly schedule is worked out on the “physical load” they carried during the most recent match.
“The load in a test is basically related to your position and what sort of game it was,” Gill says.
“Was it a physical match? Were there 50 scrums or were there five scrums and a lot of running? That’s all taken into account.”
Few players take more of a battering than McCaw, and the 28-year-old says maintaining his body is a delicate process.
“From week to week you have to understand that the first couple of days are about getting ready for next week. You can’t bash yourself about too much straight after a test.
“For me, on a tour like this, you aren’t trying to make gains, but just to keep the body ticking over.”
It’s here that McCaw goes slightly against the prevailing theories of professional trainers when it comes to lifting weights.
“Gilly and I probably disagree a little bit. Myself, fitness is my first thing. Strength-wise I’m certainly OK, but I’m definitely not the strongest [in the team].
“I picked up a few injuries when I was younger through doing weights and it sort of put me off a little bit. I tended to carry on not too bad just doing rehab stuff in the gym without trying to make huge gains.”
It’s not that McCaw dismisses weights. In fact he believes they are essential to survival at the top level. However, he believes players can place too great an emphasis on going to the gym.
“That’s probably through my own experience that I’m not so big on that. Fitness has been my sort of thing, and my argument to people who say you should be stronger is that, maybe the first five or 10 minutes when everyone’s fresh, it might be an advantage, but after 60 minutes when I’m still getting there and beating the other guys that’s when you have more of an influence.
“It depends on the player. In rugby a lot of it is instinct and how you play the game. A big, strong, fast man isn’t necessarily going to make a good rugby player.
“A good rugby player can get better by adding physical attributes, so that’s what I balance up.
“To be fresh on Saturday, if that means not doing so many weights early in the week, then that’s the decision you have to make.”
McCaw says the physical demands on rugby players grow exponentially as they advance up the grades.
“The couple of games we [All Blacks players] went back and played the Air New Zealand Cup this year it was a really noticeable step down in physicality.
“When you come back to tests it’s way back up there again. Especially at international level, there is no respite.”
Players’ bodies gets used to the weekly grind, but McCaw says people often don’t appreciate the challenges players face during a season.
“The thing people may not see out there is that sometimes guys are carrying little [injuries] and it makes you do things slightly differently.
“I think that’s a big reason why guys have form drops.
“It may not stop them playing or show up visibly, but it’s just that little bit of hesitancy or that explosive speed is off. There is a lot that goes on that you have to deal with.”
McCaw will deal with it all again against England on Sunday in his 79th test, and Gill’s repair work will begin as soon as the fulltime whistle sounds.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
The All Blacks’ physical training schedule in the buildup to the England test:
Sunday: Seven hours’ travel Milan to London. Pool recovery session and massage.
Monday: Recovery session – games, skills, competition and fun (one hour). Gym session – whole body (all players must complete on Monday or Tuesday unless injured).
Tuesday: Team training (120 minutes depending on workloads). Gym session – strength session.
Wednesday: Day off. Some players have media and sponsors commitments. Massage night.
Thursday: Sharp team training – 20-minute warmup, 60 minutes team, 20 minutes skills. Rests between exercises to maximise explosiveness. Gym – power session. Short length, 30-60 per cent of maximum weight moved as quickly as possible.
Friday: Gym – strength, stretch or “primer”. Captain’s run, haka practice.
Saturday: Optional light exercise. Walk-through five hours before kickoff.