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Nic Gill: Why 'slow and weak' Richie McCaw was still All Blacks freak

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

All Blacks head of performance Nic Gill has revealed fascinating insights about some of the players he has worked with during his 25 years involved in rugby.


It was under Graham Henry in the mid-noughties when the strength and conditioning specialist first went to work with the New Zealand national team, and he is still beavering away and is set to continue on into next year when Scott Robinson succeeds Ian Foster as head coach.

The leader of the health and performance team backing up Foster’s squad ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France has given an interview on the latest Rugby Pod where he has named the most freakish All Blacks players.

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He also revealed the current young gun whose potential most excites him, why he classes Rieko Ioane as currently the best athlete, and why he labels all-time great Richie McCaw as “slow and weak”. Here is how the compelling performance part of the interview unfolded:

Jim Hamilton: You have worked with the ultimate of the ultimate. Can you give a snapshot of some of the best athletes and the best players you have worked with from a strength and conditioning point of view where you are like, in the kindest term, this guy is a freak?


Nic Gill: There have been a few and for different reasons. Some players possess all the physical attributes that would allow them to be really good at anything except maybe marathon running but generally a lot of athletes, loose forwards, midfield backs or even outside backs, some of them can run like the wind, can step on a dime, they can go all day without slowing down and get them in the gym, with no effort they can move big, big loads.

Victor Vito was a bit of a freak. Big, lean, powerful, fit, reasonably fast for a big man, probably got a little bit slower over the last few years. Richie was slow and weak but man, he had a big engine and he has gone into endurance sports. Beauden Barrett is a bit of a weapon. He is in his early 30s now and is still running fast, but he has played being fast his whole career without doing any speed work, but he is extremely fit.


Who else springs to mind? Hosea Gear. We used to do horizontal jump testing and he was almost flying. I can’t remember the distance he would jump, it was a while ago, but a good three, four metres standing broad jump and there would be all this time in the air like what you used to see Michael Jordan do.

Brad Thorn wasn’t necessarily a freak in terms of what he would put out but just the fact that he had a very simple plan and he stayed the same strength and size for I don’t know, 20 years as a pro and never got hurt. In rugby, because it is a combat, collision sport, the most freaky thing for me is how the players that don’t get hurt over a long career they just put their body through who knows what. Some of those collisions are pretty massive and the freakiest thing is just how they get up and do it again for 10, 15 years, some guys just don’t get hurt. Blessed.

Andy Rowell: Are you seeing any young gun come through at the moment where you’re going, ‘I’m excited to work with this young kid?’

Gill: Fletcher Newell, our prop that came through last year, might have played nine or 10 Tests, young kid, 22, prop, I think he squatted 270 in January, a full range squat. So a strong, young boy. I shouldn’t say boy. A strong young man but with a big engine and that is really unheard of. Not many big boppers can move load as well as run well so yeah, he has got an exciting future ahead of him.


Hamilton: I look at some props and think they are the ultimate rugby athlete. Can you just give us a snapshot of some of the output of these players and maybe finish it out with who you think out of the 15 would be the best athlete?

Gill: The best athlete we have at the moment is Rieko Ioane. He’s a midfielder, think he weighs about 107 kilos, fastest guy on the team, can do a bronco and a yo-yo as good as anyone else who might be 80 or 90 kilos. And then in the gym he is extremely strong too. He is probably the supreme athlete if you are talking about size, power, speed, endurance. I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying it, he doesn’t have much of a step on him but then we are not talking about that being a form of athleticism. Nah, Rieko is pretty freakish.


I agree with you that props, they have always been a rare breed and they have always been a bit freakish in terms of their strength and the need to be big but the amount of work they can get through now, the footwork and even the skills some of the props have now, it’s very different to 10 years ago. Ten years ago you would try and leave props out of passing drills because they would just ruin it all the time whereas now they are a crucial part of any attack pattern, teams are using the right forwards as another person to draw and pass. They are definitely changing.

Andy Goode: You mentioned earlier, Richie McCaw probably the greatest ever All Black, you said he is weak and slow. I have never heard anyone talk about Richie like that which is amazing. Did you say that to his face and was he alright with it?

Gill: I never said it quite as bluntly as that when I said that to him but it didn’t need to be said because his mantra wasn’t about running fast for the first 10 minutes but just now slowing down the last 10 minutes and that is where his ability shone through. If you watch a lot of Tests where he had massive influence, it actually occurred in the last quarter of the game.

Everyone else is getting tired, everyone else is getting sore and he just didn’t stop. His speed at the end of a game was probably better than most but his ability to move 10 metres wasn’t flash. That’s a bit of an education for young players – you can have all the physical attributes but if you read the game a bit better you will be in the right spots without being fast so that was what he mastered as he got older.


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