The advantage of being a regular at Eels training throughout the pre-season is the insight it provides in individual and team preparations for the year. You get a sense of who’s putting their hand up for selection, and the type of footy that the team is likely to play.
This year, it’s become obvious that BA and his staff have developed a system and a squad of players that are all capable of executing the structures and game plans each week.
Evidence could be witnessed in the Maitland trial last weekend. With a multitude of changes kicking in throughout the second half, including key spine positions, there was no interruption to team cohesion in both attack and defence. Indeed, a number of players who had been omitted from many discussions about team selections provided a timely reminder of their NRL credentials against the Knights.
Is there a definitive 17 that Eels supporters could expect to be named for the opening round against Penrith?
I had hoped to find the answer to that question at Eels training today. The opposed session at Saleyards only clouded my thoughts as both the Gold and Blue teams found moments of excellence in a tight contest.
Here’s how it played out:
It was all hands on deck for the first time this year, with every player, bar Tim Mannah, involved in the match. (Mannah was required for today’s NRL launch.)
Tony Williams wore an orange shirt, which meant that he wasn’t involved in full contact. On the other hand, Siosaia Vave pulled on the Gold jersey, signalling his readiness to take a tackle.
The Gold team opened their account first, with Marata Niukore making full use of space on the right to launch himself into a 40 metre break. A couple of plays later Will Smith (playing in the halves) laid on the try which was duly converted.
The Blues replied soon after with quick hands inside the quarter creating the perfect opportunity for Bevan French to slice the Gold defence open.
Disappointingly, after crossing the line out wide, he was allowed to improve his position to ground the ball behind the posts. The conversion from Moses saw the scores levelled up.
Mitch Moses landed a penalty goal to complete the scoring for the half, with the play ebbing and flowing from this point but no team grabbing the ascendancy.
A superb heads up play from Will Smith requires mentioning.
The Blues were building momentum and pressure and forced a line drop out. It’s doubtful that the Golds could have held out the next set. Sensing the opportunity to find touch, a pinpoint accurate drop out from Wilbur crossed the sideline 30 metres out. Like he has done all throughout the pre-season, Smith kept himself involved throughout this contest.
A couple of early tries, firstly to Takairangi, and secondly to Edwards, seemed to be signalling that the Blues would kick away from the Golds. Taka had completed the first half in the Gold team at centre, but then switched to the Blue in the second stanza.
During this half, Smith also had a run with the Blues. He would feature in the next try as a beautiful ball from Nathan Brown found Smith running a great line to launch himself into the Gold half. And who was backing up to finish off the try – none other than the man who started it, Brown.
Kicking duties this half were assumed by Takairangi in an interesting role as second string kicker. Of course, Gutho and Moses are the first choice kickers, but it seems Taka has added the title of sharpshooter to a CV which already lists 40/20 expert as a demonstrated skill.
The opposed session concluded with an individual try to Marata Niukore. Receiving the ball out wide on the quarter line, the big forward/centre surged through the defence in an angled run that finished beside the posts.
Final score: Blue – 26 def Gold – 12
A Final Word
During the warm up and running mechanics at the start of the session, the players completed a series of sprints. Over the shorter distances, Jennings was on fire.
The interesting results came over 100 metres. Ray Stone appeared to win one race – or at least be in the top 3. In another race, Kane Evans seemed to lead the squad home.
Even bearing in mind that our front-on and end-on view did not make for the best vantage point to call a result, both players stood out in a group which primarily finished within only a few metres of each other.
It’s always brilliant to watch players bust a gut to give everything they’ve got.
Was this a perfect session?
There was a bit for the coaches to work on in both attack and defence. That’s to be expected at this time of the year. However, the forwards saw a bit of swapping between the two teams, and in the main, the team cohesion remained.
After the pre-season, the Maitland trial and now this week’s training, I’m convinced that there’ll be plenty of healthy discussion as the coaches go about finalising the team for round 1.
Team list Tuesday should make for interesting reading.