Pre-season 2018 has now officially ended.
Friday’s captain’s run drew a line in the sand between general training and match specific preparation. After this week, the Eels get down to the business of preparing for Round 1 opponents, the Penrith Panthers.
Back on November 10, I reported on the first week of pre-season training. The Rugby League World Cup was playing havoc with the availability of players for their clubs and only 10 players returned to that first week at Old Saleyards.
There was no hiding in the group as the staff outnumbered the players! One of those staff was the new Head of Athletic Performance, Lachlan Wilmot. He and his staff, Nathan and Josh, began the journey of introducing running mechanics and its associated drills to the players. A new method of conditioning also became a key component of the sessions.
Since those early weeks, we’ve witnessed the training progress from the demanding conditioning, to a conclusion of footy preparation. Every pre-season for every team is tough. For the Eels, it’s been unlike any I’ve witnessed.
Here’s my report on the performances over the pre-season:
Lachlan Wilmot and his staff have been arguably the best signatures for the Eels this year. Without question, the players are in superb physical condition, and many appear to have changed their body shape. This is especially true of the forwards, and props like Danny Alvaro and Tim Mannah have been among the leaders in endurance work.
The sports science aspect aims to maximise performance across the entire season, rather than just having them as fit as they can be to kick-start the year.
It also involves developing core strengths and balance for moments in the game when players are in a less than ideal position to respond with power. The technical aspects and associated drills also have an element of “pre-habilitation” – lessening the likelihood of particular injuries.
Balancing the physical workload across each day, and across the week is of paramount importance. Planning the workload for the season proper then becomes significant to ensure than performance across the year remains high. The hills at Lake Gillawarna were a weekly feature through the early part of the pre-season, but they were balanced with lighter days.
Rugby league is a demanding sport and players have to respond to the physical and psychological challenges of a long season – firstly to qualify for finals, then to be in their best condition during the big games. Even during this pre-season, the conditioning work changed in February as the season opener became closer.
I have the utmost confidence that the supporters will witness an extremely fit and energised Eels team in 2018.
First and foremost, the Eels are blessed with the guru of skills coaches in Joey Grima. Joey has that gift of being able to break down a particular rugby league skill into its basic elements and then develop a range of drills to enhance a player’s execution.
Sometimes you can watch Joey and wonder what on earth lifting a weighted tin of baby formula would do, why a player would need to bounce a tennis ball on a football, or how kneeling and passing a ball under you legs would ever be beneficial. A quick explanation from the man himself and you inevitably respond with “ahhhh”.
Every player in the team, no matter the position, is expected to be able to use the football. So yes, the basics of catching out in front and passing correctly require drilling. Certain players might demonstrate the potential for advanced skills. The coaching will open up those opportunities to learn.
With Peter Gentle having moved to the Rabbitohs, Brad Arthur added forwards coach to his role as Head Coach. Steve Murphy continues his role as backs coach (and probably chief motivator – the man is energy personified). The advantage of having a skills coach on the roster is that Joey Grima can also take groups of forwards or backs for position specific drills.
As the pre-season progressed, and BA, Murf and Joey drilled Parra’s plays, you could see the skills development come to the fore. Even opposed sessions demonstrated that the squad were executing what was being coached.
The staff have worked like a well oiled machine. I only witnessed the field sessions, but even then there were multiple activities happening simultaneously – rehab, conditioning, skills, individual, group.
Perhaps BA’s greatest strength is the faith that he has in his staff. It means that coaching is a genuine team effort.
This week I rated the effort and execution of the players and came up with my 3,2,1 for the pre-season. It takes into account effort and application in condition and skills drills, as well as execution in opposed sessions.
Coincidentally, I asked for a rating from my colleague at training – Parrathruandthru, and he provided an identical 3, 2, 1. Here it is:
3: Will Smith
Will was in rehab throughout all of last year’s pre-season.
Talk to anyone involved in the game and they’ll vouch for the important impact that pre-seasons have on the development of players. Smith could turn out to be the prime example.
From conditioning, to skills, Smith has caught the eye. His versatility in covering everything from 1 to 7 (plus 9) in the opposed sessions has been impressive. I remain convinced that BA will try to find a spot for him somewhere in the 17.
2: Daniel Alvaro
Arguably the poster boy for effort and application. Polar has always been renowned for having an outstanding attitude towards his preparation. If anything, his conditioning efforts have risen to another level this year – all the more remarkable when you consider his involvement in the RLWC.
During 2017, Danny discovered his aggressive streak, and didn’t that make an impact! This season you might see a few more strings added to his bow, including field goal specialist.
1: Reed Mahoney
This was his first NRL pre-season and he went from strength to strength. Always pushing to lead in conditioning, doing extra skills work, slotting into different roles during opposed sessions – the young bloke has made people sit up and take notice.
Reed showed the benefit of an NRL pre-season with an impressive ISP trial against the Bears. Last year’s NYC rake is a genuine prospect.
I’ve been asked recently as to why I hadn’t focussed on French in my reports. The answer is simple – he has been consistently good.
In past years, he’s produced a wealth of flashy plays at training. Now, there’s no troughs from which he’s peaked. It’s a reduced margin between his best and his worst, (maybe “not best” is a better term than worst) and that margin is heading north.
Of particular importance is the way Bevan has found his voice. You can hear him barking orders from fullback. He’s always had a confidence about his ability – now he’s confident that he belongs in this team.
One of the elder statesmen in the squad, the co-captain has led by example and by instruction. He embraced every aspect of training and placed himself near the top in performance. Similarly, he delivered his own messages of expectations as a leader. You just expect this stuff from a thorough professional like Tim.
The quiet achiever – believe it or not, that’s been Kenny. The woohoos, and the clowning have been replaced by a senior player focussed on his work, and barking out reminders during opposed sessions. He’s in the best physical shape of his career.
He’s earned the starting 9 jersey this weekend with his consistently high standards. Kaysa Pritchard has been given every opportunity to advance his claims, and produced some highlights with his explosiveness out of dummy half. It’s testimony to the quality of King’s dedication to conditioning, and his superb service and work around the ruck, that he retained the top job.
Clint Gutherson and Jaeman Salmon
The master and the apprentice. So much rehab, and ridiculous amounts of running. I’ve got to give these two a rap for not letting their heads do them in. Both have now transitioned into opposed work, but there’s still a way to go yet.
I Could Go On
The combination of Mitch Moses and Corey Norman continued to thrive during summer. I could easily nominate Norman for his effort during skills and conditioning but it just comes to easy to him! Moses is just a gun half and a great organiser.
Michael Jennings and Jarryd Hayne both returned to training late, but have excelled during opposed sessions. Each has completed additional fitness work. Jennings is a Rolls Royce at centre and Hayne is looking very fit. In fact, if I was rating the last three weeks, Hayne would feature in the 3,2,1.
The battle between the wingers – Josh Hoffman and Kirisome Auva’a has not yet resolved, with both getting a run in the trial. I’ve really noticed Hoff’s combination with Hayne, and there’s no denying how well Somi carries the footy on kick returns.
Brad Takairangi has earned a starting role in this week’s trial via his impressive opposed sessions, whilst Suaia Matagi has clinched a bench spot after previously playing in the Ringrose trial. Takairangi seems to have easily adjusted to a forwards role and has the ball skills to trouble the defence out wide. Like Takaz, Suaia has been one of the better performers in his opposed work and possesses some of the fastest hands in the club.
Nathan Brown is in impressive condition, which bodes well for his continuation of last year’s form. He just looks ready to rip in. Manu Ma’u barely missed a beat after his late return from RLWC and seems to have found an extra gear in his pace. He’s run some awesome lines during opposed work.
Tepai Moeroa appears to be stronger again this year, and his early pre-season work was impressive. He’s even been more of a talker on the field. A recent niggle saw him spend a bit of time in the rehab group and this may account for his bench role in the trial. Beau Scott was another to return late to pre-season, but from his first session he placed in the top half of the group in his conditioning. Beau’s professionalism is a fine example to the younger members of the squad.
Kane Evans had a hampered start to the pre-season with wrist and calf injuries, but it’s been action stations in recent weeks. His pace as a prop is stunning. A comment one day by Lachlan Wilmot summed up David Gower – “a bloke your age shouldn’t look that good”. Gowie is in great shape because he just rips in. And he was easily the best on field at the Ringrose trial.
Peni Terepo was another of the Eels squad to return late due to RLWC duties. The early conditioning sessions were a tough ask for the prop, but he’s now put himself well in the mix for selection. Kaysa Pritchard would easily be one of the fastest in the squad over 40 metres and is doing everything in his power to regain the top hooking job.
Siosaia Vave and Tony Williams have spent the pre-season in rehab. Williams injury from 2017 was well documented and his efforts have seen him strip considerable kilos off a frame that is still the largest in the club. Although he didn’t begin the year in rehab, Vave has spent the majority of his time there. Like Williams, all of the kilometres put into his legs has seen him drop weight.
I’ve dedicated an entire post to squad members such as Ray Stone, Dane Aukafolau, Nathan Davis, George Jennings, Greg Leleisiuao and Marata Niukore. You can find it here.
That’s your pre-season Eels supporters.
It’s been a tough one for the players, but I’m sure you’ll notice its impact in the performances this year.
I’ve enjoyed providing the training reports for TCT. From this point onwards, we’re into the 2018 season. Bring it on!