Wouldn't we all love to be blessed with the superb talent, ability, determination, energy, fitness and self-discipline that our professional NRL players possess in droves? They lead glamorous lives, don't they, and isn't their work their passion? After a season of between 26 and 30 weeks, followed by a stunning celebration on Mad Monday, and if they are lucky an end of season trip to an outstanding exotic location, isn't their work pretty well over until the next year?
You can't beat the excitement of finals time, and that is certainly the case this year. Rarely has there been a season with three to four legitimate premiership contenders – let alone another three to four dark horses making up the eight. Finals time can, however, mean something else entirely to players whose teams don't make the cut.
The reality is that if you include the time it takes to recover from a gruelling season, and the time it takes to prepare for the next one, most of our players are left with a very short annual break. The elation of making the final eight, and the thrill of finals time, just pushes back for another few weeks the very serious business of the off-season – for most players, that is getting their bodies right.
To ardent and adoring fans, a player's grievous or niggling injury is something that we factor in cautiously when deliberating over footy tips, or think about nervously as we prepare to watch our team on game day. We all remember with some sympathy West Tigers and the Warriors at various times this season having a majority of their starting line-ups on the injured list, but injuries basically come and go, the odd amazing new talent emerges, and our focus moves on.
Unfortunately our hospital wards have their fair share of stars as guests at this time of year, when those problems that could be played through, or deferred, are finally patched up. Post-operative therapies are intense, and lead on to long courses of physio and work in the gym.
Raiders hooker Glenn Buttriss sat at the Raiders’ Presentation Night in a sling after wasting no time having his shoulder operated on – and he's not alone. Stalwarts who carry nagging – and sometimes more serious injuries – all year spend much of the 'holiday period' getting their bodies right for pre-season. We might see an Instagram post of a Las Vegas trip – or beach snaps on Facebook by some of our favourite players – and think again how dazzling and desirable their existence must be. But these postcard-esque snapshots social media provides us are just a very small part of how most NRL stars spend their ‘holidays’.
In fact there’s a bit of serious and not-so-serious evidence of how committed our stars are to the priority of getting the body right. An ‘unconfirmed’ story often does the rounds about one NRL player who had to have post-season knee surgery right before an overseas beach holiday. The trip had already been booked and cancelling would have cost a lot of money. On the first day the player’s girlfriend dutifully rolled him onto the beach in a wheelchair – before hitting the surf herself. Two hours later she returned to find the love of her life with third degree burns because he couldn’t roll himself out of the sand to find shade… glamorous, huh?
At the Panthers, players are on contract until grand final weekend – regardless of whether or not they make the finals. So school visits, community forums, junior clinics and charity work all continue for a lot of our stars long after the final whistle blows on the field. The players emphasise, however, that these activities are not a problem or burden during the Premiership rounds or off-season, just an added enjoyable and rewarding dimension to their roles as ambassadors of our great game.
Adam MacDougall was lucky to make the finals for much of his career – but says either way players don’t get a lot of time off. Even a couple of free weeks at the end of the year don’t really provide opportunities to fully let your hair (Sorry Mad Dog – I had to) down and indulge.
Says Adam: “You need to rock back up at pre-season training in really good shape – so it’s not even that relaxing being away – if you come back and you aren’t fit it’s almost disrespectful to your teammates. All your actions on holiday have consequences that can be felt in season – your spot is up for grabs. Our bodies are our professions so we always need to look after them…”
So spare a thought for those not involved in this weekend’s gripping clashes. Whilst some might be watching the action from the stands enjoying a beer with friends, many will be watching bandaged, battered and bruised as they begin the long journey to fitness for season 2014.