NEW Zealand hooker James Penman says his first pre-season at Plymouth Albion has been the hardest but most enjoyable he has ever had.
The 26-year-old initially joined Albion from Cambridge as an emergency front-row loan signing for the final three matches of last term.
But, despite Plymouth’s relegation from the Championship, Penman had seen enough in the few weeks he was at Brickfields to decide his long-term future rested in Devon.
He penned a permanent deal with the club in the summer and has no regrets, despite the ‘tough’ pre-season.
“It’s been really, really tough, but I think I am probably in the best shape of my life,” said the Kiwi. “I am feeling a lot better for it.
“This is probably one of the most enjoyable pre-seasons I’ve had, even though it has been the hardest.”
He added: “It is a really exciting time to be at the club. Obviously it was disappointing we dropped down, but it is an opportunity for a fresh start.
“There’s a lot of young boys come in and have injected their enthusiasm and their excitement. That reminds us ‘older’ guys why we are still playing. It has helped revive our love for the game a bit more.”
Penman, who is from North Harbour in Auckland, admitted he and his girlfriend fell in love with Plymouth straight away.
“I had been up to Rotherham and Nottingham to have a look, but it just was not really for me,” he said.
“Once we’d experienced Plymouth for a month we decided it was the place we wanted to come. It reminded us of home.
“It is good to be by the sea again and everyone down here is much more relaxed. It is a really comfortable environment.”
Penman only arrived in the UK last November, signing initially for Cambridge and making 15 starts for them in National Two South.
“Back in October I was looking at coming over here and my coach back home, Joe Ward, knew Craig Newby, who was head coach at Cambridge and they were looking for forwards to boost their side,” said Penman. “I was looking for a new challenge and new experience, so jumped at the chance. Then I moved on to here.”
Most of Penman’s games at Cambridge came at prop, but he joined Albion as a hooker.
He said: “I see myself as a hooker, who can play prop if I have to.
“I originally started playing senior rugby as an open-side flanker, but then moved to hooker. I then thought I would try and learn prop to add another string to my bow.”
Penman admitted the chance to work with former England hooker Dawe was another draw in signing for Albion.
“That was another reason why I wanted to stay in Plymouth,” said Penman. “Graham has so much experience and so many little tricks of the trade that I can pick up over time.
“Everything is good here. The boys are great – we are starting to build a really good environment – and my partner also enjoys it down here. It just feels right really.”
Penman will be soon joined in Plymouth by a friend of his, New Zealand basketball international BJ Anthony, who has signed for the Raiders.
But the time Anthony arrives in the city, Albion will be about to play their first league match of the 2015/16 campaign against Richmond.
This weekend the club begin their pre-season programme away at Championship side Jersey.
“The boys are starting to get a bit more focussed and there is a bit more acid in the contact,” said Penman.
Albion will inform the 24 players who have been selected to travel to St Peter on Monday night.
Key backs Marc Koteczky and Matt Shepherd are definitely out of the trip due to injury and holiday.