An English Rugby Team’s Training Castle

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Photographs by Thomas Breathnach

The loyal fans that punch the air in triumph when Bath’s stalwart winger Matt Banahan muscles his way across the tryline can trace their team’s resurgence – set to electronic beats and pint-fueled yowls – to an 18th century manor in sleepy Somerset. When billionaire businessman Bruce Craig bought the then-middling club, which is set to capture this year’s Amlin Challenge Cup, one of European rugby’s top prizes, he bussed the players here and announced that the tony, stony surround would be the club’s new home base.

To drive up Farleigh House’s winding, meadow-flanked driveway is to buy into the hype. The Gothic revival edifice emerges suddenly from behind the rolling hillocks; its towered and turreted façade showing Bath stone teeth. This real-life Wayne Manor comes complete with an armoury and has been retrofitted to be as high-spec as it is intimidating.

David Flatman, the ex-Bath and England International player, serves as Farleigh’s Alfred. “The lads tend to park their motors out back,” he jokes, emerging from a Jaguar XFR. “It keeps things looking a little less flashy.” The hidden pack of Beamers and Range Rovers would only serve to make this training ground more banal. Plenty of teams have money; very few have a state-of-the-art gym that used to be a chapel.

Echoes of bench-press grunts and thudding kettlebells issue from the main floor, where a bloat of players and strength and conditioning coaches are pawing their way through an early morning training session. Along with five days of field training, players typically put in three heavy-weight gym sessions per week, aided by what Flatman refers to as “instruments of punishments”: plate-laden prowlers and hefty tractor tires for the Strongman relays held on the manicured grounds outside. As for cardio – these guys cover 20 times as much ground during a game as the average NFL player – players follow individualized training plans, using low-impact SkiErg machines and fighting in no-holds-barred MMA matches in the gym’s combat cell. The unholy chamber sits in the building’s northern atrium and has padded walls lest someone accidentally bump their head while clawing their way out of a submission lock.

“The guys battle it out here by sparring or grappling,” explains Flatman. “The winner fights on. It all keeps testosterone levels and egos in check.”

Whether bruised from combative scrum-drills or off-the-cuff jiu-jitsu, recovery is as crucial to rugby players as preparation. Across the courtyard from the gym is Farleigh’s physio facility, kitted out with massage tables and cyrotherapy ice-baths. Inside, 19-year-old Tom Ellis from the Bath Rugby Academy is mid-way through a Pilates session. “He’s 6’4” and 17 stone [235 lbs] but still needs to work on his core to get stronger,” Flatman explains. With 40 elite team-mates battling for the 15 man-line up, competition is stiff. Some of the toughest guys on the squad include Alafoti “The Samoan Strongman” Fa’osiliva and Semesa Rokoduguni, a tank soldier for the British army, who at 207 lbs, is something of a weapon himself.

Unsurprisingly, all this badass bulk and brute force needs some pretty serious re-fuelling. In the manor’s kitchen, more players sit around rustic benches, digging into full English breakfasts. With 5000 calories to pack-in each day, they need to start early. “The guys actually avoid carbs likes rice or pasta and we always try and find a natural alternative to supplements when it comes to diet,” Flatman says. In fact, almost everything chowed at Farleigh is organic; that ethos is just part of the old-school mentality. Flatman is in the process of looking for pig so the rugby team can self-cater hog roasts on site.

Above the dining hall, at the top of a magnificent ornate staircase, perches the brain of the operation, an analytics hub that’s reminiscent of a Hogwarts classroom crowded with iMacs. It’s here that players log-in to monitor their weekly training stats and where coaches hash out strategy. “All the boys gather here,” explains Flatman, “they’ll piss into a bottle and if they’re too dehydrated they don’t get to train, if they’ve not met their weight targets, they join the ‘Fat Club’ and do extra cardio.” It may look genteel, but life on the manor is tough. There is, after all, a trophy at stake.

More information: Bath Rugby play their home games at the “Rec” grounds in the heart of the Somerset city. The final of the Amlin Challenge Cup is to be held in the Cardiff Arms Park in Wales on May 23rd.

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