Tackling Sheffield Eagles stars proved a trying venture

Scrum on down:  Rachael Clegg grapples with a much bigger and tougher opponent.
Scrum on down: Rachael Clegg grapples with a much bigger and tougher opponent.
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THE Sheffield Eagles are on the edge of fulfilling their dream – to be promoted to the Superleague. Star reporter Rachael Clegg joins them for a gruelling training session and finds out what they’re all about.

it IS 7.40pm on a Wednesday. Most of us will be settling down for the evening but over at Don Valley Stadium, it’s a very different story.

Here, two dozen men sweat and toil in preparation for one of sport’s most brutal, tactical, physically-demanding games – rugby league.

Training is equally tough: men lift 140kg weights and then practice sit-ups while holding a 20kg weight in the air.

But this is what the Eagles do, three times a week to ensure that all the members are match-fit.

Nick Ward, head of performance and strength and conditioning coach, whose clients have included Sheffield Wednesday and the British disabled ski team, has been working with the Eagles for two years.

He says: “We train three times a week from 5.30pm onwards. These players are really committed – some are professional, others are working during the day, but their commitment is second to none.

“This is not a hugely-paid sport, but these men are willing to give it their all because they want the team to be back in the Superleague again.”

The Eagles’ prospects are looking good. The team reformed in 2000 and since then it has gone from strength to strength – rising from the bottom league to the Co-operative Championship, the league below the Superleague.

The Eagles are now the second-best team outside of the Superleague.

But while close, attaining that special spot in the top league requires work.

Nick says: “They are training really hard and the training programme is designed so they build strength while getting the cardiovascular exercise.

“The idea is to maximise muscle power but also practicse on controlling movement and focus on exercises that resemble the demands of the game.”

This focus on strength, according to Nick, is reflective of the demands of the game.

“Strength underpins speed and tackling on the pitch,” he says.

It is not just about weights and running, however. Nick works closely with Sheffield Hallam’s Sports Department and even uses GPs to figure out what can be improved on.

He says: “It’s not something we can afford, but we have worked with academic institutions to help them with their research.”

But entering the Superleague is not just about being physically competitive.

The team also has to show it is financially sound and has support from the local community.

Tim Bergin, the team’s winger, said: “If we got into the Superleague it would have a massive impact on the city.

“Commercially, it would bring in revenue and the prestige would raise the profile of rugby in South Yorkshire, but what we need more than anything is the support of the local community – that counts towards being a Superleague team.”

Tim says rugby is a family-friendly sport, in spite of its brutality on the pitch.

He says: “The atmosphere is good, it’s not hostile and there is a lot of action to watch. The players always sign autographs and chat to the fans afterwards too – you don’t really get that with football.”

As the saying goes, football is the gentleman’s game for ruffians and rugby is the ruffiians’ game for gentlemen.

Tim says: “We always shake hands after a match, even though we’re totally rough with each other on the pitch.”

I couldn’t bend my knees without pain

NEVER before have I felt so physically tested as I did after trying a handful of Sheffield Eagles’ exercises from their training session.

For three days I couldn’t bend my knees without pain, nor could I stretch my legs.

Yet I did only a fraction of what the Eagles do in an average session – and they do it three times a week. At least.

The team’s ‘conditioner’/trainer, Nick Ward, doesn’t suffer fools either. “Come on then,” he said. “I’ll give you a lighter weight, but you have to have your arms outstretched pointing upwards and keep them there while you do the sit-ups.”

It’s a tough call.

My arms naturally want to help me get up off the floor, but the idea is to work the core muscles as much as possible.

After a handful of these he says: “Now go – sprint as fast as you can to the wall and back. Three times.”

And then, just as I think it’s all over, he hands me a weight and asks me to do the ‘wood chop’, a sideways movement in which you carry a weight and swing it the other side of your body, as if making a ‘chopping’ motion. It pulls on the waist and bum – a sensation I’m happy to forego.

“Now do all that again,” he says.

Needless to say, I’m shattered, yet the players around me continue – seemingly without any effort.

Next up I’m on the pitch. Thankfully, Nick gives me some time to rest and watch the Eagles practise.

But I soon learn why he’s allowed me to have a rest.

“Come on then, try a tackle,” he says. Before I know it I’m crashing into a six-foot man and scrabbling for a ball. It’s an action that’s far more strategic than one would think.

“You need to use you shoulders to push me back,” he says.

And, like the training itself, it’s complex, extremely hard work, physically-demanding and brutal on the body. From now on, I’ll not take a rugby match for granted again.

14 years since Rugby League Challenge Cup glory

The Sheffield Eagles were founded in 1984 and joined the Second Division.

The first Eagles league game was on September 2, 1984, when they beat Rochdale Hornets 29-10.

In 1998, The Eagles beat Leigh, Egremont, Castleford and Salford and then – most famously at Wembley Stadium – Wigan, clinching the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

In 1999, Sheffield Eagles merged with Huddersfield Giants in a bid to solve financial problems but it was a bad move – the merged teams did not last the season.

In 2000, the Eagles reformed and since then, the club has gone from strength to strength.