Inside Wales' preparation for Ireland showdown
Within minutes of arriving into the Wales camp on Tuesday night, the buzz from head coach Warren Gatland and his coaching staff was palpable.
The training sessions earlier in the day had gone so well that as a reward the players were told that the rugby session, including the warm-up, on Thursday would be cut to just 30 minutes, following a rest day on Wednesday.
"We put a lot of the hard work in last week and the intensity on Tuesday was really good," said Gatland. "We did two minutes of 'bone-on-bone' on attack and defence. It was the first time we had done that, and you always need to be careful when you go live with 15 against 15 because of the risk of injuries.
"But the message to the players at the meeting before training was that if they nailed it, I was conscious of the work they had put in and would scale things back for the rest of the week in order to get some energy back into their legs. They nailed it. We were ready."
Getting a team into Test readiness for their Guinness Six Nations opener against Ireland in little over a week with a new coaching team in place might seem difficult. But after Telegraph Sport was given rare behind-the-scenes access to Wales's impressive training centre at the Vale Resort, a few miles west of Cardiff, the secret to Gatland's success became clear.
The first thing that is obvious is the standard of the facilities available to the Wales squad. It overshadows those of England at their Pennyhill Park base, despite the Rugby Football Union's financial status as the richest in the world.
Inside the Vale Resort hotel, the players can avail of their own restaurant (and chef), a recreational area with a pool table and dart board, as well as a bank of computers with individual icons to click on to study clips of their play and a meeting room.
The players consume an average of 8,000 calories per day just to maintain their weight. The coaches, according to Gatland, face the opposite problem, with the availability of food, snacks, and a couple of pints to wind down in the evening a challenge to their waistlines.
There are a total of three standard-size rugby training pitches – one of which is known as 'the Castle pitch' and is reserved for the senior team – including an international size 3G all-weather pitch.
Yet a lot of the work takes place on the 4G surface in the vast 70m x 40m indoor training arena, which eliminates any challenges from inclement conditions and allows the players to focus on their individual and unit skills.
"HERE IS WHERE WE BUILD OUR VICTORIES," is written in capital letters across on the side of the 'barn', with the same motivational message written in Welsh on the opposite side.
To occasionally spice up scrummaging sessions, enormous speakers blast out music for extra motivation, while massive white screens can be used to show analysis of the opposition.
The reception and corridors that lead through to Gatland's office are adorned by large photographs of the four Six Nations winning sides (including three Grand Slams) since 2008, a triumphant reminder of the success he enjoyed during his previous 11-year tenure as Wales head coach.
With the pitch at the centre, there are multiple rooms that can be accessed from it, including two cryotherapy units, which the players use after the morning training session. With temperatures dropping to -140 degrees Celsius, the contraction in blood vessels flushes out lactic acid, allowing the players to recover more quickly.
There are hot tubs and ice baths as well, as well as an anti-gravity running machine for use by those players coming back from injury as well as an array of treatment rooms.
Gatland's emphasis on togetherness within the squad ensure that injured players can do their rehabilitation work at the same time and near the squad, as they make use of the two massive gyms, one designated as a 'pathway gym', the second a 'high performance gym' which was installed in 2019 at the cost of £1 million ahead of Wales' last Grand Slam. A Tyson Fury slogan adorns the walls: "Don't ever doubt me when the chips are down, I will always deliver".
Across the way is an altitude chamber stacked with WattBikes, which allows the players to benefit from draining conditioning work equivalent to being at 6,000ft above sea level.
A nearby stairway leads to another massive training area with a wrestling mat where the players can do tackling and grappling drills under the supervision of Paul 'Bobby' Stridgeon, the Wales head of performance who wrestled for England in the Commonwealth Games.
'I want to create a "no-excuse" culture'
It is hard not to be impressed with the world class set-up, but Gatland insisted it was not just about seeking fine margins using the best facilities.
"I want to create a 'no-excuse' culture," he adds. "That means we provide everything the players need and quality coaching so that when we take the field, they know we have left no stone unturned."
The mantra of Gatland's previous tenure was that Wales, if nothing else, would work harder than any of their opponents and while they remain one of the few teams left doing double training sessions to replicate match-day intensity, he is open to reducing the workload after reviewing the data at the end of the day.
"I want training sessions where the players have to execute skills when fatigued and under pressure," he added. "We did a lot of conditioning and physicality work in the first week and at the end of the week we had one or two bumps and bruises but what stood out for me was that before our session on Tuesday, a 100 per cent of our squad were fit and available for selection.
"The key is to keep the sessions short and sharp so that you don't fatigue the muscles the way you might do if they were out there for an hour or 90 minutes."
Getting the players in the right physical condition is only half the battle. Given the limited playing resources compared to rivals like England, making sure his players are mentally ready for the white heat of a Six Nations match is equally important.
This is where Gatland's man management skills excel. In the bar of Vale Resort, members of his coaching staff's family are included as they wind down at the end of the day. His emphasis on making sure his players are happy away from the pitch have also been well documented.
Another big advantage for the Wales players is that most are able to return home on Tuesday nights to break up the week before returning on Thursday mornings.
Some of the man management comes in a subtle form. In the team meeting room, players receive a presentation about plans for the day ahead and areas that they will be working on. Gatland says they build in up to 50 minutes of administration work during the week in the daily briefings to save time.
'Secret' admin work helps to save time
"We don't need to have lots of meetings because secretly we are getting the admin stuff done each morning without the players realising, we are doing it," he added.
"The main team area is a massive open plan conference room, a mix of recreational areas, a coffee hub, the restaurant and work station, where the players would first assemble around 7.45am for breakfast and treatment.
"I feel it is important to have it open plan, the biggest room we could find. A lot of teams have lots of separate rooms but the players can split off into small groups. We want to keep everyone together. This is the hub and this is where they all come to."
Supporters who have watched the various video diaries of Lions tours would also recognise the social activities.
"We have got a darts tournament – we have actually got a couple of good players – and a pool tournament going on at the minute. The players set up various committees – one each for entertainment, laundry, fines, joke of the day and food. We want everyone involved and it is similar to the Lions."
The sense of inclusion and brotherhood is a common thread in the approach to coaching too.
Each player is assigned a line coach to discuss their progress and go through analysis work and discuss feedback, with Gatland available to personally address any major issues or concerns.
The tone of the entire operation is set from the top and Gatland's first job was to ensure that his new coaching team, including former Sale defence coach Mike Forshaw and new attack coach Alex King, quickly bonded when they first came together.
"In the first few days I was a bit worried about how it was going to work but it went a lot better than expected," he added. "We are in a good place at the moment."
His masterstroke came on Monday night when the coaching team assembled in what is called the 'war room', which features a boardroom table and chairs with the walls adorned with planning charts, stats and analysis, to pick the team to face Ireland on Saturday.
"The five of us sat down and I asked each of them to pick their 23," added Gatland. "Then I put my 23 up and we had a really good debate and I probably changed two or three players because of differences in opinion.
"Sometimes I would have a bit more influence, but I think it was important, particularly given that this is the first game together that the coaches feel that their opinions from what they see are important. Even though it is portrayed as 'Gatland's team', I promise you that they get a big say too. Obviously, I get the final say but I have always taken a consultative approach."
The messaging to the players is also consistent, with Gatland focusing on clarity and simplicity at the start of this second tenure, with the intent to add layers in the months leading up to the World Cup in September.
"As I said, we want to have Test match intensity to our sessions so for example we might do 12 line-outs and if they mess one up, they don't get to do it again. I want them to know it matters and have that pressure and then see how they react when things don't go to plan.
"It is really important not to overload the players with too much information as we don't want to clog up their minds," he added. "We can't cover everything yet and so need to be simple with our messages, we give them three or four points that have been our main focus for the week in key areas so when they take the field, they all have a clear idea of the game plan that if we do execute well, we will perform."