BBC - Bryn Palmer: 'Bobby' keeps the Lions in mint condition

The English National Rugby squad, known simply as The Lions have embraced most of the challenges they have encountered on this South Africa tour head on.

The on-field ones might have escalated this week, but away from the rugby there remains one that no squad member fancies, despite encouragement from the coaches.

Forwards coach Warren Gatland and defence guru Shaun Edwards have both offered tempting bets to any player who can 'bring down' the squad's physical conditioner Paul Stridgeon, a former freestyle wrestler who competed for England at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

At 5ft 8in and 76kg (12 stone) he is a good deal smaller and lighter than all of them and dwarfed by the "big beasts" in the party, but is proud of the fact that no rugby player has ever got the better of him.
This may have something to what happened to the Lions' assistant forwards coach Graham Rowntree, the former Leicester and England prop, when Stridgeon started working for the Rugby Football Union last summer.

"Graham took on the challenge when I first started with England, and I killed him in front of all the lads," he recalled. "They enjoyed that."

Other front-row titans such as ex-All Black Craig Dowd, the former Wasps forwards coach, and Phil Vickery have also tried their luck before, without success.

"Warren and Shaun keep trying to get the players to have a go. We've been offering them good odds, minimum bet ?200. I've thrown down the gauntlet and a few fancy their chances, but no-one has accepted yet. It's disappointing."

Stridgeon, 29 on Sunday, is not one for bemoaning his lot though, far from it.

Nicknamed "Bobby", amongst other things, after the Adam Sandler character in a 1998 film "The Water Boy", his energy, enthusiasm and sense of fun have made him a popular figure among the entire squad.
"He is the perfect bloke to have on tour," says Scotland hooker Ross Ford. "He's a livewire, always bouncing about, up to mischief, getting the boys in trouble. He keeps everybody going, there is never a dull moment."

One of Stridgeon's party tricks is being able to clamber up any pole or road sign and hold himself out parallel to the floor, with his feet in the air.
"He tries to break it out wherever possible to impress the boys," notes Ford, sounding suitably impressed.

Joe Worsley, who remembers Stridgeon as "an absolute legend" during his five years at Wasps, stresses his character merely underlines his professionalism.

"I didn't realise how much I missed him until this tour," said the England flanker. "But he is not just good craic, he also knows his stuff. On the professional side of things, he is brilliant, always saying the right things."

Every morning before breakfast, Stridgeon and the Lions' Head of Physical Conditioning, Craig White, check the weight of every player, and ask them three questions: 1) How they slept, 2) What their energy levels are like, and 3) How sore their muscles are.

"They give us a score from one to five for each one, one being bad, five being good, it all goes into the computer and we monitor it," Stridgeon explains. "If the scores fall gradually or someone reports a couple of twos, we can flag things up."

The sprightly duo supervise gym and pool sessions, as well as the physical side at training, and attend to each player's individual needs depending on their post-match recovery, response to injuries and readiness for matches.

Each evening at 9pm he and White meet with the squad's two doctors, James Robson and Gary O'Driscoll, and three physios - Prav Mathema, Phil Pask and Bob Stewart, plus masseur Richard Wegrzyk - to discuss player issues and plan for the next day.

"It is tough, hard work, a case of making sure no-one slips through the net," says Stridgeon, who shows no signs of slowing down with the finish line in sight.

"It is just my natural persona," he says. "It is a long old tour to be sat there being miserable isn't it? You need a bit of banter and I feel as a conditioner I have got to be the one to pick the boys up when they are down. You have to be an energiser, and I think that is partly why I was brought on this trip. Craig is the same."



The two go back a long way.

Stridgeon, 29 on Sunday, got into wrestling when he went along with his grandfather to Riley's gym in Wigan at the age of six, and started competing as 10-year-old.

From the age of 12, his weights programme was looked after by White, another Wiganer held in the highest regard after his work with the Irish Rugby Union, Wasps, Leicester, the 2005 Lions and now the Welsh Rugby Union.

Stridgeon completed a sports science degree and then concentrated on wrestling full-time for a year, with the aid of Lottery funding, leading up to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, where he competed in the 60kg freestyle category.

Once it was over though he opted to leave the sport, accepting an offer from White, who was joining Wasps, to become his assistant.

"I could have carried on wrestling, skimping and saving for a living, but it was just too good an opportunity," Stridgeon said.

He spent five years at Wasps, playing a key role alongside White in keeping the squad fresh enough to peak for the end-of-season Premiership play-offs. Three successive titles under Warren Gatland, plus the Heineken Cup in 2004, were their rewards.

When White moved on to Leicester, Stridgeon spent nine months working with Warrington rugby league club before joining the RFU last year, working with members of England's elite player squads.

Just as Ian McGeechan is fond of pointing out how certain players prosper in the Lions environment, the same appears to apply within their management team.

"We are very busy and don't have much time for other stuff but work is enjoyable enough for me," Stridgeon adds.

"It is a really special thing to be part of, a great bunch of lads, great group of coaches, awesome. I have really enjoyed it.

"It has been all I hoped for and more, and reminds you how lucky you are. I keep saying to everyone, 'we are living the dream, because we are'.

BBC - Bryn Palmer: 'Bobby' keeps the Lions in mint condition