Folkes headed a new era of physical fitness in rugby league

The news that Bulldogs' legend Steve Folkes had died of a suspected heart attack came as an enormous shock to many in the rugby league community. Folkes spent his career taking the utmost care of his most valuable asset, his physical fitness. He played the game hard, during some of its hardest years, but he played the game with a level of fitness almost unprecedented at the time.

Rugby league changed during the 1980s, at the dawn of a new era of full-time professionalism. As it became more obvious that any edge in fitness was a big advantage over rivals, players stopped gathering after training to down a few beers and a cigarette or two. Some even adopted strict diets and put in extra hours on the paddock and in the weights room to improve their on-field performances.

Among the leaders in this new era was Bulldogs second-row forward Folkes. At 178 cm and 85 kilograms Folkes wasn't the most imposing physical specimen to pack into the rough and tumble of a 1980s scrum, but when he ran onto the field there wasn't a player better prepared or physically fitter than the Canterbury-Bankstown junior.

Folkes would go on to prove the benefits of the extra attention to detail in his preparation, with a stellar club and representative career. He played in six grand finals with the Bulldogs, winning four of those, while representing New South Wales and Australia with distinction.

It was an ethos he would take with him into his coaching career. As head coach of the Bulldogs from 1998, with fitness enforcer Billy Johnstone in his corner, Folkes was notorious for the punishing pre-season schedules he would put his players through. In 2004 he was at the helm for the Bulldogs' most recent premiership victory.

Folkes went on to share his strength and conditioning knowledge far and wide; from the West Indian cricket team, to the Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra Dragons and more recently as coach of Australia's Jillaroos. He knew that a fitness edge was something readily attainable by anyone willing to put in the effort.

Then the news today, the shock of it. Heart attacks are surely what awaits the couch-bound, unhealthier specimens among us. We all look to improve our diet and exercise regimes to avoid such a fate. It knocks the wind out of you to hear that a rugby league giant and a strength and conditioning fanatic has died so suddenly.

In the tributes that have flowed through social media, many shared the shock and sadness that they felt at the news.