NRL.com's Jack Brady joined Newcastle for a day of pre-season training, being put through his paces in some punishing hills sessions. He shares his experiences here.
There's no point lying about it, I went to some pretty dark places.
For the love of NRL.com, I trained with the Newcastle Knights on Tuesday morning – a hills session at Newcastle's glorious King Edward Park.
But it was anything but glorious.
While most Newcastle players were travelling along nicely, I was trying to prevent my vital organs from failing.
In quite disturbing signs for myself, club captain Kurt Gidley wouldn't have blown out a candle throughout the horrific hills session while others like Jake Mamo, Jarrod Mullen and Nathan Ross looked like they were going for a Sunday stroll.
This wasn't a [K]nightmare I had to face on the day alone though.
It had been haunting me for the week leading into my date with destiny... which could've quite easily been my demise.
The idea of me training with a first grade team had been one that had floated around for a while.
Little did I know it would come to fruition, of all days, when Newcastle completed their notoriously hard King Edward Park session.
Initially devastated at news of the confirmation, I soon realised that I needed to do some sort of training to keep me from heading to an early grave.
Refusing to go down without a fight, I strapped on my six-year-old joggers and went for my first run since who knows when.
Quickly realising my old joggers weren't helping my cause after making my calves feel like they were getting stabbed, I went all out and bought a brand new pair of Nikes.
If I did go down, I was at least going to go down in style.
In my pre-pre-season training I occasionally ran up a hill on aptly-named Knight Street, which made me laugh – a welcomed change from the tears I spilled beforehand.
After battling ridiculous temperatures and getting plenty of kilometres in the legs over a week of "rigorous" training, I felt confident enough within myself to give it a red hot crack.
After departing the family home for what could have easily been the final time, I told my mum I'd "call her from the hospital", and I was on my way.
I was ready to prove the doubters wrong and earn an NRL contract...
Just kidding, I was just happy to keep living.
The Training Session
I arrived at training around 7.30am. Thinking I'd get there early to make a good impression, I was still easily the last person to arrive.
Bad first impressions aside, I went down and introduced myself to the coaching staff including head coach Rick Stone and assistant Danny Buderus.
Not too long afterwards the players and I were addressed by Stone – the session had begun.
After a quick warm-up, the forwards ventured up the hill to begin the deadly side of the session while the backs and journalists stuck with a few skill-based activities on even ground.
Hoping to get through without a hindrance, all was going well despite being hampered by a slight quadriceps twinge.
Luckily no-one noticed but I did have to deal with it for the torturous hills session which was fast approaching.
After throwing a few forward passes, getting caught out by defenders and running out of the boundaries on one occasion, business picked up as the skills finished.
The hills were upon us. To describe what we went through, performance director Col Sanctuary explained.
"Rugby league is all about repeat efforts," Sanctuary said. "We had a set time, as you found out, and when you put a time over a certain distance that's where you get the intensity from.
"The 15-second efforts and the 10-second efforts we did is where you manipulate the amount of work the guys do and how hard they do it."
While he is a lovely bloke, Sanctuary was hardly a sanctuary I could draw upon for help when the going got tough, though he kept me going with positive comments throughout my struggle.
Grouped with brothers Pat and Chanel Mata'utia, we underwent, along with everyone else, six longer 15-second runs and four shorter 10-second sprints – all uphill.
All was going well until I was informed we had to do more – all up another 10 times varying in distance and duration.
All of a sudden, putting John Hunter Hospital on speed dial beforehand didn't seem like a terrible idea after all.
Every muscle in my legs was screaming at me to stop while halfback Tyrone Roberts encouraged me to keep going (which I was and still am grateful for) which ultimately left me in two minds.
Questions like "I'm not an NRL player am I?" and "What the hell am I doing to myself?" ran through my head. But ego and pride came into play as well.
Thankfully positive thoughts like "Keep going champ" and "Do it for the website" helped me keep training, though I fell behind the Mata'utia boys on more than one occasion.
Beyond happy by the time the final run had arrived, the smile was quickly wiped off my face when Roberts, Chad Redman and Jaelen Feeney pushed me to a sprint uphill on a long distance run. God love them.
When the hills were all over and after a quick conditioning session down at Newcastle Beach, where to my delight I beat Marvin Filipo in what could only be described as a game of OzTag around two poles without a football, we were done.
I had survived. Just.
The whole point of this exercise was to get a perspective of what the average NRL player does to get themselves match-fit for our enjoyment over the course of a season.
It's the reason why they get paid the big bucks. I couldn't fathom or imagine having to go through what I did on Tuesday six days a week as Newcastle do currently.
It was tough, and as I write, ice is strapped around my leg. It makes you realise why even the most innocuous injuries occur in the NRL.
Sanctuary summed up the hardships his squad have to go through.
"You jumped in today with the boys and saw where they are at," Sanctuary said.
"You worked with the two Mata'utias in the hills session. You underestimate the [players] sometimes, with the size of them, and what they're capable of doing but they have been quite impressive.
"The likes of Joe Tapine, who is a young guy coming through, was really impressive. Nathan Ross... he's a real character and also a good influence on the group but apart from the usual suspects like Gidley and so forth you have Robbie Rochow who is good across the board."
But what about me? How did I travel?
After telling legendary Newcastle scribe Barry Toohey that I did "well in the first set" but wasn't quite sure what group I was in after that, Sanctuary gave me a positive appraisal despite being far and away the worst trainer at the session.
"For a first-up effort, without doing anything before it with us, you were good," Sanctuary said.
"You kept up nicely with the first set of runs, and as you were going to do, you fell away a little bit but you did everything in the session which was really good to see."
While it was a confidence booster, it is no comparison to what NRL players have to do week-in, week-out in preparation for and during a season.
If nothing else, I've earned a greater appreciation for what every player competition-wide is doing for not only themselves but for their members and fans.
NRL.com would like to thank the Newcastle Knights for their cooperation and inform other NRL clubs that Jack is willing and able to take whatever you can throw at him.