Raiders giants strip down for fresh season
Canberra's giant front row rotation has spent the off season getting trimmer and leaner, with the entire squad training far more in hot conditions in a bid to start 2014 more strongly and keep pace with the changing game.
Raiders prop Dave Shillington told NRL.com the new-look coaching staff had stripped a lot of weight of the forwards, "myself included", with the squad looking leaner and fitter than past years with conditioning being taken to another level.
Canberra got off to a horror start last year, going down 32-10 in Round 1 on a baking afternoon in Penrith, then losing 36-0 on another hot Sunday afternoon at the Gold Coast the following week.
Things don't get much easier in 2014 with the club starting off with away games in North Queensland and Newcastle, combined with rule changes aimed at speeding the game up with fewer breaks and potentially putting Canberra's enormous pack under even more strain.
"It's been a good strategy for us this year, they've been training us in the afternoons on the footy field all the time," Shillington said.
"Last year most field session were at nine in the morning. We got to Round 1 and 2 at the Gold Coast and in Sydney and temps were around 35-40 degrees or hotter – it knocked us around so much.
"But we've been doing this every day in the afternoon in 38 to 40 degree heat four to five days a week so hopefully we won't be knocked around so much in those few rounds, because Round 1 we go up to Townsville and play, the second one's in [Newcastle], we're going to have to be ready for the heat so hopefully we are."
Shillington said the new coaching setup under Ricky Stuart had been up front with the forwards at the beginning of pre-season about focusing more on fitness and mobility.
"The boys have been working hard towards that… every team's got a couple of big fellas in the team but our team's probably got four in the top squad and a few coming through – there's no shortage of big fellas around the place."
With Shillington, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Mark Nicholls and Shannon Boyd all stretching the tape to around 194cm or 6'4", and Dane Tilse standing at 200cm or 6'7", Canberra are not short on tall players.
"The key will be to have that balance and make sure we've got plenty of people willing to work hard and get that balance and mobility to offset the extra size we might have at times," Shillington said.
"That probably ties in with the focus on defence and ball control – if you are going to be dropping the ball and defending the big fellas are just going to get worn out."
He said the game had been getting faster over the past few years, and the players continue to get fitter and stronger.
"You just have to stay up with it and keep on top of it. Particularly this year it's going to be the case with the clock stopping, the reduction in scrums we'll be having, you have to get smaller and smaller every year but luckily for us they've been training us so hard they've stripped a few kilos off us. It's going to be good for the fans, they'll get a more entertaining finish to the game."
Tilse, one of the tallest men in the NRL, echoed Shillington's thoughts on the new training regime.
"We've got a big side but they've looked at getting us a bit more mobile and stripped the skin folds off us this year, the boys are all pretty lean actually, even though we're big frames hopefully we're a bit fitter," Tilse told NRL.com.
"We all know with the rule changes they've brought into the game to try and speed it up again, you need to be as fit as you can and get the best out of yourselves so that's what's happening with the skin folds and training hard fitness-wise."
One of the breakout stars of 2013, Italy World Cup hero Paul Vaughan, told NRL.com the Raiders had already begun training towards the new rule interpretations such as the quick tap restarts from 40/20s.
"I was telling the other front rowers I was a little bit filthy because we don't have the scrums so we can't get a breather!" he laughed.
"But other than that – I'm not too worried about the changes, it speeds the game up a little bit which is good."
Canberra's props backed the rule changes aimed at wiping out crusher and cannonball tackles, with Shillington describing the crackdown as a "no-brainer".
"There are plenty of ways to get hurt in this game and physicality to it as it is – we don't need any of that other stuff," Shillington said. "We're running flat strap into each other and trying to hurt each other that way, and there's a truckload of wrestling in there, we don't need people crushing each other's necks and diving at knees."
Tilse said while a third man getting involved in a tackle "definitely has a place in the game", it's "the one where they come in with excessive force at a bad angle to a bloke's knee they're trying to stamp out – which I think's a good thing."
Shillington said the competition for front row spots would bring out the best of the entire squad.
"Everyone talks about the Raiders having a great wealth of young talent that we need to nurture and hold onto and I think this year we're really doing that, there's a level playing field across the top 30 players at the club," he said.
"Ricky [Stuart is] giving everyone a go, some of the young guys are really taking that opportunity. It's also making the more experienced players maintain or increase their performances."