I was thinking of beginning this report with an anecdote about today’s weather. This would involve a recount of how the gales blew over the observation stand at Old Saleyards, so the filming had to be captured from on top of a van.
Then I considered how to best describe such an unexpected session. So I waited. I really didn’t want to overplay what I watched. So I waited some more.
It’s strange that such an atypical session would cause me such angst in writing my post. After all, when there’s something different to record, there’s usually a bit more enthusiasm to be found in the composition process.
But I was having trouble – mostly because it was difficult to not talk it up. So again I waited.
Finally, what I wanted to communicate took shape. I’ll make no predictions from today’s training, I won’t rate particular players as certainties to make a team that won’t be named for over three months.
But I will make this overall subjective call – a comparison against previous seasons.
Put simply – this was the most intense early pre-season opposed session that I’ve ever witnessed.
Big call? It’s a call that can’t be ignored.
Perhaps it’s the impact of the unexpected on an observer, because what transpired today wasn’t what I would have predicted. Perhaps it’s indicative of players looking to impress. Maybe, like an NRL clash, they were playing to instruction.
Whatever the case, here’s how I saw it:
Contact – Forwards
I arrived in time to watch some of the forwards’ contact drills in the Saleyards sandpit. It was highly competitive as the big blokes gave everything to win each contest.
Firstly, the players were tackling a partner carrying a football. It seemed like the goal was to both wrap up the footy and wrestle the ball carrier to the ground.
In the next drill, the footballs were removed as it became a stand up grapple challenge. With two or three pairs simultaneously in battle, it was hard to know which contest to watch.
As someone was declared the winner they were immediately faced with the next player charging in to the pit.
The surprise packet for me was Ray Stone. At one stage he and junior Paulo were locked in a wrestle that must have lasted around 3 minutes – a long time in these types of drills.
In the final drill, the pairs began on the ground, with each player trying to gain ascendancy by getting their opponent onto their back.
By the time it was done there was probably more sand on the players than there was in the pit.
It would soon be time for the main show.
Blue vs Red
A full contact opposed session under the control of NRL referees isn’t out of the ordinary for pre-season training. It is when we’re talking about November.
The arrival of Gavin Reynolds, Ben Cummins, Adam Gee and Russell Smith (I think I’ve identified them correctly) signalled that today’s training would be an opposed session. Anyone feeling sick with the “No Footy Blues” would have received a dose of what the doctor prescribed.
Part way through the 2018 season, the Eels shifted away from a rotation of current referees and instead called on the services of ex-NRL referee, Sean Hampstead, as a regular opposed session official. I’m not sure what the plan will be for this coming year.
Before the match began, Mick Potter briefed the referees on the goals of the session.
As per any opposed work, the Eels were split into two teams. Today it was Blue vs Red.
Anybody who’s watched rugby league up close, or away from the masking noise of a large crowd, would be familiar with the sound of big contact. There was plenty of this today as each pack of forwards aimed for supremacy.
To be blunt, the intensity was a complete surprise. And when a collision delivered a result like a turnover of possession, the players celebrated as they would in a match.
Ray Stone filled in at dummy half for the Blue team as Kyle Schneider had rolled his ankle earlier in the morning. It was a minor injury that required the typical rest, elevation and ice, and he should be back at work next week. Stone was up against Reed Mahoney in the Red shirt.
Norman and Brown were the halves for the Blues, with Moses and Salmon controlling the Reds.
Will Smith played centre for the Blue team and was on fire. He broke into the clear for a long distance try to French, provided another assist for the Blues second try before scoring one himself.
Second phase play was up a notch. Tim Mannah provided a ball for a long Ray Stone break in the lead up to Smith providing the assist for the Blues second try. Junior Paulo also delivered a memorable offload as he monstered his way through a tackle.
The offloads and support play through the forwards were countered by some heavy collisions. Stone and Evans delivered a couple of rippers.
But it wasn’t just big hits. Desperation defence also shut down a couple of dangerous plays. There was one that really stood out. Although I couldn’t identify the defender (mostly because it looked certain for a line break to happen and Salesi Fainga’a was immediately looming in support) Dylan Brown weaved and then accelerated into a hole only to be brought down by a brilliant tackle.
Dropped ball seemed to be minimal, not at all what I expected in the windy conditions. The ball was shifted on the back of the forwards laying a platform. However, it was not the reckless abandon of a game of touch or drop off. The mixture of structure and second phase was typical of an NRL match.
And the outcome that gives me the greatest joy to report – the Eels won the penalty count!
There were some sore footballers after today’s hit-out, and any smiles were well-earned. It wasn’t the ideal day to be hitting the sideline ice bath but plenty did.
Even as I complete this report many hours later, I’m still stunned by the intensity of the contest. I’d like to provide more details on individuals, but to be honest, the clash in the forwards overshadowed anything else I could report.
In a show of club unity, players from all grades will be coming together for a massive conditioning session at a western Sydney venue on Saturday morning. A few of the players mentioned this to us after today’s training. It’s encouraging to have something akin to the old Jack Gibson days when three grades would train as one.