Six Nations 2019: Wales energised by special training camp in Nice
|Six Nations: Italy v Wales|
|Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Saturday, 9 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on S4C, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.|
Sunsets in Nice are spectacular; delicate lilac skies resting on the glistening azures of the Mediterranean Sea.
These are views befitting the inherent glamour of the French Riviera, a playground for the wealthy since the British upper classes descended in the 18th century, and an area of imposing natural beauty.
It is more than a little incongruous, then, when on a gloriously sunlit late afternoon in February, the Nice coastline is dominated by the sight of 31 hulking Wales rugby players emerging from the sea in their underwear.
It is an arresting image, which raises the interest of the locals and tourists who gather round to have a better look, some taking photographs.
They are more accustomed to seeing sports cars and expensively dressed socialites on the Promenade des Anglais – but their new guests are here to work.
Wales are on a week-long training camp in Nice, in between their opening Six Nations victory over France in Paris last Friday night and their next match in Italy on Saturday.
The squad have just been training at the nearby Stade Nicois so, after a gruelling workout, they have been summoned to undress on the pebble beach and dive into the sea.
It is worth remembering this is February and, despite the mild temperature a few degrees higher than what the players are used to in Cardiff, the residents here are still in their heavy coats and scarves.
“Objectively speaking, it is freezing,” one says as she glances at the latest burly Wales forward to trudge past, drops of sea water falling from his broad shoulders.
The dip in the sea is to help with recovery – according to the strength and conditioning staff – because these gargantuan bodies are still feeling the effects of Friday’s win in Paris.
It also appears to be good for morale, as Wales’ players tease and cajole each other in the Mediterranean water.
“It’s very reminiscent of Llandudno so I feel at home,” jokes forwards coach Robin McBryde, who also has a little swim.
“It’s been good to recuperate after a tough match last Friday night. You couldn’t ask for better surroundings.
“But we have to be aware not to slip into holiday mode. We’ve got some hard work to do before Italy.”
Wales training sessions are renowned for their intensity under the watchful eye of head coach Warren Gatland.
He ensures they are short, focused and demanding – physically and mentally – yet even this hardy New Zealander seems to have mellowed in these clement surroundings.
When his players are sat in their hotel lobby conducting interviews with the Welsh media here, a grinning Gatland stands outside by the window, pulling silly faces to distract his amused players.
It all feels rather different to the usual humdrum order at their headquarters near Cardiff.
Players have more freedom on their days off here, going for a coffee on the promenade or, in the case of centre Hadleigh Parkes and half-backs Gareth Davies and Gareth Anscombe, they rent a few bikes and ride to the city’s old port.
“It’s nice to relax,” says Parkes.
“And the coaches let you be your own man in your downtime, there’s a lot of trust there. It’s nice to have that.”
A victory always helps the atmosphere, though you get the impression this really is a squad and a backroom staff at ease.
Wing George North, scorer of two tries against France, spends his day off catching up with friend and Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas at his flat in Monaco, a relatively short drive away.
North and hooker Ken Owens then spend some of their other free time helping coach Stade Nicois’ youth teams.
The stress and pressure of a Six Nations campaign has seldom felt so far away.
“It’s a nice change of scenery. It’s good to get away from Wales for a bit, get a good training camp in,” Owens says.
“Building up to the World Cup, the management wanted to get the players used to having to move from one place to the next, travelling.
“It’s been a good couple of days, chilling out a bit but also getting some decent training in and get some vitamin D, which was a bit of a shock to the system because it’s a lot warmer than it is at home.”
If Wales reach the World Cup final in Japan in the autumn, they will be away from home for two months.
Gatland and his coaches thought it a worthwhile exercise, therefore, to keep the squad out on the road between their matches in France and Italy.
“I live in Toulon, around an hour and a quarter from here,” says strength and conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon.
“I came here in 2014 and did three years at Toulon. Because my family are happy here and the kids are at school and, as you can see with the weather, it’s hard to get them back.
“It seems like it was me [who suggested the training camp here] – and it seems a good idea because it was close to me – but it was actually Gats’ idea.
“And when he said it, I thought ‘happy days!'”
Stridgeon, known as Bobby by the players and other coaches, is the man who maybe more than anybody else keeps morale high within the squad.
A former wrestler who represented England at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, he now has an impressive rugby coaching CV which includes the British and Irish Lions, Wasps and England.
Wherever he has been, since his days with Wasps in 2002, Stridgeon has organised his own man-of-the-match award known as the ‘Bobby Cup’, which might be awarded to a member of staff or a player, and is always much talked about within the camp.
“It’s more important than the team meeting,” says Stridgeon, a bundle of energy who can barely complete a sentence without cracking a joke.
That is his default mode whatever the circumstances, but it is indicative of this training camp’s success that others in the Wales set-up have been swept away by a sense of joy and enthusiasm.
Players and staff will now be putting to one side their thoughts of strolls along Promenade des Anglais and café au lait in the sun – because the serious work is upon them again with Saturday’s match in Rome.
But these sun-kissed days in Nice have energised the squad and, if this food for the soul can help inspire Six Nations and World Cup glory, the French Riviera will hold a special significance for Welsh rugby.