I trained with the All Blacks and lived to tell the tale
With an exclusive invite to an All Blacks training session, Donnchadh Boyle was put through his paces by some of the star Kiwi players
LIFE as a sports journalist is a parasitic existence, spent mostly wandering around after great men, seeking even the most banal sound-bite.
Generally, journalists and sportsmen are kept arm's length apart and it suits both parties. We don't want to be reminded that they are everything we wanted to be but failed miserably. You can only guess what players think, but they probably consider media events part of the gig, albeit a particularly distasteful part, perhaps something akin to pre-season training.
But every so often the pens are mixed. Somebody, somewhere decides the best way to ensure 'media engagement' is to remind us exactly how far down the food chain we are. 'Let's get the journalists training with the All Blacks, that'll blow their hair back'.
AIG are the All Blacks' sponsor, and having paid somewhere in the region of €50m to put their name on the jersey, they have the clout to make such a day happen.
And when the summons landed last week, details were vague. 'Train with the All Blacks, bring your boots.' The brief from the boss was clearer – come back with a citing or not at all.
The venue is a suitably plush health club in London. AIG's people are there to meet and greet. They sense the trepidation, "Don't worry, you're not on your own, there's other media downstairs getting changed."
Safety in numbers at least, I think. Until the other member of the media is revealed to be former star sprinter Iwan Thomas.
The ex-European champion once ran 400m in 44.36 seconds, good enough to take silver at last year's Olympics. He's heading for 40 now but still taking care of himself and still, inexplicably, bleaching his hair.
Powered by only an airport croissant, it is easy to regret watching the YouTube videos of the All Blacks in the gym, where they are squatting enough to make the barbell bend.
But there is no time for angst. With the branded training gear on, which was laid on under your personalised hook, Kieran Read walks in followed by the blinding light of a TV camera. BT Sport are there to capture Thomas' experience, and it lights up the room for only a second as the hulking frame of No 8 moves closer.
Read is World Player of the Year in waiting and arguably now even more important to the world champions than either Richie McCaw or Dan Carter. But he is impossibly polite, introducing himself as if a nobody. My name is a bit of a mouthful to him and almost as soon as training starts, I simply become 'Irish'.
He promises a tough session and there is no reason to doubt him. The previous day, an English newspaper had published the details of some sensitive information that had been inside their team room.
Putting a journalist through his (slow) paces might have been just the tonic. The vigorous warm-up has the low winter sun feeling unseasonably strong, and soon other All Blacks, pour on to the paddock. Scrum-half Aaron Smith, or Nugget as he's known, is there, zipping passes almost the entire width of the soccer field we train on. Simple passing drills get more complicated.
Passing to Read on the run off either hand as others shoot by, it isn't long before 'Irish' is cutting the ankles off the forward with passes that fall like a bird clipped by a windscreen.
Frank Halai, the wing who only made his Super 14 debut earlier this year, is on hand too. He graduated from the same school as Jonah Lomu, and as a giant wing there are obvious comparisons.
Sam Cane, the heir apparent to McCaw, gets involved and the session has picked up a notch in pace. Every drill involves a mental as well as physical side. Shuttle sprints are punctuated by a game of 'paper scissors rock' with the winner proceeding and the loser sent back to the start. Cane and Smith argue over who won their game, but the session moves along quickly.
Smith demonstrates the box kick and he is typically good. But Read is equally strong, knocking a grubber through the legs of Smith, who is standing at least 15 metres away.
The session ends and their media machine kicks into gear. In one corner, Read is putting Thomas through his paces, sending him on runs, doing retakes for the camera man, making sure every duty is fulfilled.
In the other, Israel Dagg is playing snap with possibly a showbiz journalist on a bench. The rest are signing autographs, posing for pictures and smiling.
Within 24 hours, they will have smited England in a ferocious contest, leaving Ireland as the final hurdle in their bid for a perfect 2013.
Read suggests that both sides face mental challenges this weekend. For the All Blacks, their struggle is to maintain their level of performance, while Ireland must seek to overcome the hold the All Blacks have on them, something Read can relate to.
"In Super rugby there are a few teams Crusaders have struggled against," he says.
"It comes down to mental ability and how you react. Our job as All Blacks is to try and reaffirm what little doubts they might have in their minds."
Thomas returns to the dressing-room, cameras in tow and blowing hard. "Big guys," he blurts out, breathlessly.
And soon the All Blacks are on the bus back to their hotel.
Distance has been restored. It's back to trailing after them.