Rugby fitness trainers are seldom happy with the preparation time they are given to whip their charges into shape, but Sharks and Springbok fitness guru Kevin Stevenson reckons that this year the Natalians have had a close-to-ideal build-up to the season.
"For the first time in years we have had most of the squad available for pre-season training because we had so few Springbok representatives on the end-of-year tour," says Stevenson. "We had only four guys away with the Boks - Deon Carstens, Butch James, Brent Russell and AJ Venter.
The previous year we had 14 guys away on various tours and so we struggled a bit to get a fitness foundation for the new season."
Not so this year. Stevenson, a former army PT instructor, has been able to get stuck into the Sharks, working them vigorously in twice-daily sessions which included some murderous speed work in the cane fields of Mount Edgecombe.
But there has been far more to the training than stamina work.
"Because we have had virtually all the squad available we were able to establish a strong fitness base and from there we have moved on to specialised training. We have been able to concentrate on individual weaknesses, both from a physical and rugby point of view. For example, some guys have had to work on improving speed and agility, others on strength. From a rugby point of view we have worked on things like improving the ability to pass equally well from both sides."
Technical advisor Ian McIntosh has cracked the whip at 90-minute power/endurance sessions on the scrumming machine and has worked closely with the youngsters on the technical aspects of scrumming.
The hard work put in by the Sharks was evident when some of the Durban players stood out at Springbok fitness testing sessions in Cape Town last month.
"Stefan Terblanche was the fittest Bok," says Stevenson. "He stood out in speed/agility and speed/endurance tests. His power-to-weight ratio - determined by bench pressing - was excellent.
"Andre Snyman was another to shine. He is in great shape. This is the best physical condition he has been in since breaking his ankles three years ago."
Stevenson also sang the praises of new Sharks recruit Luke Watson, the young flank from Port Elizabeth.
"He is the fittest of the Sharks forwards. His power-to-weight ratio is phenomenal. In tests he bench-pressed 1.6 times his body weight and did the most consecutive pull-ups - 29."
The results of the fitness testing done in Cape Town has been compared to the results of similar tests done on Australia's Super 12 players. The comparison showed that fitness-wise there is little between the players from the two countries.
Interestingly, comparisons have shown that South Africa's backs are, on average, quicker than Australia's Rugby League backs.