“Well I’ll tell you what, I’m definitely going to have to work on my fitness. It’s a different kind of fitness. Watching it on TV is definitely a lot different than actually doing it in real life."
The man behind the words is Leicester Tigers hooker Tatafu Polata-Nau. Tatafu has been capped 82 times for the Australian international rugby union team over the past 13 years. He’s speaking to us, however, at a STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® training camp, moments after relieving a large piece of wood of half its weight with a razor-sharp axe.
"The dedication that’s required to be a top athlete now is immense"
If you’re unfamiliar with STIHL TIMBERSPORTS®, it’s basically professional, competitive woodchopping, competed at the highest level between some of the most ferocious, physically-fit athletes in the world.
Competitors go head to head in a race to make their way through a piece of wood in a variety of disciplines, using tools ranging from two-metre saws to axes and chainsaws.
If the image of a 251lbs Aussie rugby player standing on top of a log of wood, frantically smashing a racing axe between his feet sounds rather intense, that’s because it is.
Thankfully, the appropriate safety measures are all there. Tatafu is wearing aluminium foot and leg guards which as well as doubling up as the lower half of a Robocop costume, are protecting his feet and shins should his aim falter.
More important yet are the people surrounding him. As well as his fellow Leicester Tigers, Greg Bateman, Valentino Mapapalangi and Chris Baumann, on the floor is Spike Milton, the Global Sports Director for STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® and a former British Champion of 10 years.
Along with Spike are fellow British wood-chopping legends Andrew “Taff" Evans and Rob Owens, and current Team GB number three, Glen Penlington. They’re here to run the camp. And they’re running the camp to promote the upcoming STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® World Championships - the biggest event on the woodchopping calendar - which will take place at the Echo Arena in Liverpool on Friday the 19th and Saturday the 20th of October 2018.
The World Championships will see the best choppers in the world, from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and more, descend on Liverpool to try and beat each other to the chop.
Limex Images/Andreas Schaad
Friday’s event will be the team relay, where national teams of four take on the disciplines of the Stock Saw, Underhand Chop, Single Buck and Standing Block Chop in a relay format.
The Stock Saw involves taking off a couple of cookies with a STIHL chainsaw. The Underhand Chop is what we’ve just been watching Tatafu take on. The Single Buck involves taking a circle of wood off a log with a two-metre cross-cut saw, and the Standing Block is exactly what it says on the tin. The last man on each team sets about an upright block of wood standing in front of them with a racing axe.
Whichever team makes it through all four disciplines first wins.
The individual event the next day sees the world’s top 12 athletes take on each of these disciplines, and two more, by themselves. If the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS®’ Champions Trophy last year in Hamburg was anything to go by, explosive is too weak a word.
“One of the oldest industries in the world is cutting down timber and I think all human beings have a natural affinity with wood," Spike Milton tells us.
“The great thing about STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® is that it’s a real extreme sport. We’re using chainsaws, hot saws, sharp axes, racing cross cuts, and the athlete has changed now too. It’s more of a professional athlete.
“To be an all-rounder you have to train hard, have great mechanics and a great attitude. The dedication that’s required to be a top athlete now is immense.
“For anyone who hasn’t experienced Timbersports, to have it in Liverpool, in the Echo Arena... for those who have never seen it before it will blow your mind. I’m expecting some world records."
For reference, it took us an exhausting three minutes to get a circle of wood cut off the block in the Single Buck. The best of the day from our training camp was closer to the two minute mark. The world record is nine seconds.
It took two Leicester Tigers approximately five or so minutes to get through one block of wood in the Underhand Chop. The world record is just over 12 seconds.
Watching Glen Penlington in action puts the task at hand into perspective.
The technique and strength is clear to see as Glen powers through demonstration logs in about a quarter of a minute, talking us through them as he goes, before we try our best to get to grips with the axing. When we do complete the Underhand Chop, a couple of popped blisters are our reward.
“When I was a few years old my dad started wood chopping so I sort of grew up with it from then," Glen laughs.
“Then when I was 18 I went over to a competition in Germany and I was lucky enough to win over there. Since then I’ve managed to get into the British team for STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® and work my way up.
“When you tell people about the sport they normally don’t know what it is but I think it’s one of those sports that sounds good and looks even better."
Glen is set to compete in the team relay event at the World Championships, but is hoping he can go one better and earn selection for the individual event on the Saturday as well.
"The home crowd advantage is going to be massive"
“It’s going to be great," he says. “It’s really going to promote the sport in this country. For myself, hopefully I can find myself still in the British team and then win that British title and be the individual representative. The home crowd advantage is going to be massive."
After attempting just the Single Buck and Underhand Chop in the training camp we can only imagine the sheer determination, energy and intensity of performance needed to complete six of these disciplines in one sitting.
The Underhand Chop left our hands recovering for days, the Single Buck near-enough tore our lungs out, but perhaps the main redeeming factor was the fact that the Leicester Tigers found it just as challenging. Well. Maybe not just as challenging, but you get the idea.
The athletes from Europe, Oceania and North America that come to compete in the Echo Arena in October will be exactly that - top level athletes, competing in a showcase that requires an incredibly unique and specific set of skills.
And because of that, what happens in Liverpool on the 19th and 20th of October will be quite unlike any other sporting event that will take place in the UK for quite some time.