Rookie Penrith hooker Mitch Kenny is a poster boy for young players taking on the challenge of their first NRL pre-season as coaches and trainers use sand hills and military-style camps to develop mental strength.
The Panthers and Sharks squads both hit the notorious sand hills of Wanda Beach last weekend, Warriors players did a hill running session at Auckland’s Monte Cecelia Park and the Sydney Roosters' younger stars recently attended an intense four-day camp in Queenstown.
The likes of Siosiua Taukeiaho, Isaac Liu and Zane Tetevano enhanced their reputations after a similar camp with the Roosters in 2016, while Kenny emerged from nowhere during the last pre-season to force his way into Penrith’s NRL squad.
Clubs who failed to make the top eight last season, and most of those who got into the playoffs, have identified mental toughness and resilience as areas they need to improve and are trying to instil those characteristics in their players during pre-season.
While the game is now high tech, with sports scientists monitoring GPS data and nutritionists offering dietary advice, many clubs are incorporating old-school training methods.
The Bulldogs recently posted vision of a pre-season work-out from the 1970s, which featured some players doing push-ups and star jumps in thongs or with no footwear at all. Thankfully, these methods will never return.
Canterbury's pre-season in the 1970s
"There’s a lot of different forms of bonding but stuff that go on in those army camps or those hard sessions on the hills between you and a mate is hard to describe to someone else," Penrith physical performance manager Hayden Knowles said.
"I guess you can call it old school but there are some fundamentals of our game that will never change, like how you catch the ball or how you pass the ball, and it’s the same with having a team of blokes who will keep working hard for each other and have that mental toughness.
"In another 100 years there will still be guys running up those hills to test who is going to give up or not."
The surprise trip to the beach for Penrith players was the culmination of three weeks of heavy training before a three-day break. "Then we’ll start again," Knowles said.
Warriors players were also taken to Mt Roskill for a pre-season hit-out last week in which assistant coach Todd Payten and head of performance Craig Twentyman put them through a gruelling workout of running hills, boxing and an outdoor gym session.
"There is no real science in terms of why we run the hills, it was just about how we handle adversity, how we handle the pressure and the effort behind that," Payten told the club’s website.
"They had a bit of reliability on each other to get through as a group, you had to stand up for your mate besides you and as it turned out under fatigue and with a bit of pressure there was a little bit of tension in that session.
"When they are buggered and they are in that dark place some harsh things can be said. It is nothing personal, we just expect the best from each other. It is a cliché but you are only as strong as your weakest link."
Some players disappoint in pre-season, while others emerge unexpectedly, as Kenny did at Penrith last time around.
The 21-year-old rake wasn’t even considered among the 36 players in Penrith’s NRL squad or with a development contacted but he impressed coach Ivan Cleary and was promoted to their top 30 squad before making the first of 12 consecutive appearances against Parramatta in May.
Sione Katoa (Bulldogs) and Wade Egan (Warriors) were Penrith’s preferred hooking options at the start of the year but they will line up for new clubs in 2020, while Kenny is set to benefit from the return of Fiji hooker Api Koroisau from Manly.
"Mitch was like a part-time player, we just used to get him in for a couple of days and the first impression was ‘how hard does this kid work’," Knowles said.
"You wouldn’t say he was the most naturally skilful player but he just came in and had that work ethic you want in your team. He worked so hard that we had to find a spot for him somehow.
"He is a great example of how there is still an opportunity for a bloke on those sand hills days or on those days where coaches are looking for nothing but character. There may not be any science about it but you are looking for character and someone like Mitch Kenny to pop his head up.
"His life changed and he is now a full-time player. He will make a career out of the game now, just from those couple of weeks before last Christmas."
Roosters rookies Billy Smith, Lindsay Collins and Kyle Flanagan are also set to benefit from a four-day camp in Queenstown with coach Trent Robinson and his staff in which they had to swim in freezing waters, complete an obstacle course and survive on little sleep.
It was the fourth year the Roosters have taken young players to Queenstown and Knowles attended the first camp in 2016 while he was working for the club before moving to Penrith with Cleary last year.
Sharks take on the sand hills
"You see character traits that come out in players doing things like that," Knowles said.
"When I did the camp in Queenstown with the Roosters guys like Siosiua Taukeiho, Isaac Liu and Zane Tetevano – all these warrior-like players – just appeared and earned so much respect from their teammates.
"Even though the world is getting a little bit scientific you try to use the science to help you work harder."