|Under Armour Series: Wales v Australia|
|Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 10 November Kick-off: 17:20 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Two, S4C, BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, the BBC Sport website and app.|
Elite sports team often have a veil of secrecy around their set-ups. You hear about team rooms, cryotherapy chambers and altitude rooms, but rarely – if ever – get a chance to enter the inner sanctum.
However on the latest Rugby Union Weekly podcast, we were invited behind-the-scenes in the Wales camp, before Saturday’s pivotal Test match against Australia in Cardiff.
With hooker Ken Owens as our tour guide, we were given exclusive insight into the Centre of Excellence, a world-class facility designed to prepare the players for the rigours of Test rugby.
Sporting a broken nose – something regularly referenced by his sympathetic team-mates – Owens is up against it from the start, as fly-half Dan Biggar yanks down his shorts before scampering off to lunch.
“He has been spending too much time with James Haskell up at Northampton,” Owens mutters before regaining his composure.
After watching a unit session from the balcony, with head coach Warren Gatland taking a hands-on role, we wander into ‘The Barn’, an indoor training facility equipped with a 3G pitch.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones and kicking coach Neil Jenkins are deep in conversation, while head of strength and conditioning Paul Stridgeon and podcast co-host Ugo Monye share an intimate embrace, recalling their friendship from the Lions tour of South Africa in 2009.
“We got a lot closer back in 2009!” Stridgeon quips.
“Paul brings the energy and keeps pushing you hard,” adds Owens. “He’s a great addition to our management, an all round good bloke, and he’s learning Welsh as well.”
Who’s in charge of the music?
From ‘The Barn’ we go into the gym, where some of the backroom staff, led by the granite-chested Huw Bennett, have taken the opportunity to shift some tin of their own with some 1990s R&B an unusual soundtrack: “No-one really is taking ownership of the music,” Owens laments.
The gym is next door to the Altitude Room: “It takes the oxygen out of the room and makes your body work a lot harder. You are training at a higher level, and it’s a lot tougher to be in here than at the stadium,” Owens explains.
As we walk back across The Barn, full-back Leigh Halfpenny does a quick session on a bike – in between stints in the Cryotherapy Chamber – while scrum-half Aled Davies spends half an hour practising his passing as he works his way back to match sharpness.
“As a professional rugby player you take pride in what you are doing, and you know what you need to do to be right for the Saturday – whether that is extra recovery or extra skill work,” Owens says.
Because of his stitched-up nose, Owens has escaped cryotherapy for the day – where temperatures plummet to minus 130 degrees – although Alun Wyn Jones and Rhys Patchell have not been so lucky. We bump into both men as they emerge from the frosty chamber in masks, gloves, long socks and clogs.
“The whole process of the Cryotherapy is to take the blood from the extremities of the body to the core, so when you come out more red blood cells flow round the body,” adds Owens.
“It’s not dangerous, it’s about being smart. I have seen a couple of instances when boys have perhaps rushed it and not been quite dry enough and had a little bit of surface burning. But it is not too serious. It is worth it, it definitely helps.”
Who fancies a trip to the pub?
Following lunch in the team room, with protein ice cream a welcome dessert for Monye, George North and Jonathan Davies stop by to join us on the podcast. Both men seem re-energised and relaxed on their return to Wales colours.
Davies discusses his next try celebration, after mimicking WWE great John Cena following his score against Scotland, while North opens up on how settled he feels back in Wales after his stint in England with Northampton.
Our final stop is to watch the afternoon training session on the outdoor pitch, where the extended Wales squad go through their drills on an identical surface to the Principality Stadium – from the dimensions to the Desso grass.
Wales’ long-standing team manager Alan ‘Thumper’ Phillips offers us a cup of tea, as defence guru Shaun Edwards prepares some light defensive drills. With us being there on a Monday and Tuesday being the designated ‘defence day’, Edwards resembles a caged animal. It feels like the calm before the storm.
On Monday evening the players and management headed as a group to a local pub for dinner and a bit of team-bonding, before the intensity and pressure ramps up throughout the week as the match gets closer.
Wales’ record against the Wallabies is dreadful – 13 defeats in a row – but on the evidence of our day in camp, Gatland and his men won’t be leaving anything to chance in Cardiff this weekend.