With only a Captain’s Run to go, today’s opposed session wrapped up the major preparations for the Eels opening round clash against the Panthers.
My training reports concluded in the week of the final trial at Penrith, but there’s a relevant question remaining that many people have asked of me – “You were full of praise for last pre-season and look what happened. How was this pre-season any different?”
The response is both easy and challenging to articulate. For the most part there are facts and examples to illustrate the differences between pre-seasons. I could also borrow from The Castle and simply write, “It’s the vibe”.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll skip the movie quote and stay with the tangible.
It’s worthwhile examining the personnel for this pre-season. Although Brad Arthur and Steve Murphy remain as Head Coach and Assistant Coach respectively, there have been changes right across the football department. Included in the changes from last pre-season we have:
Mark O’Neill – Head of Football
Mick Potter – NRL Development Coach
David Kidwell – Assistant Coach
Rip Taylor – Wenty Coach
Adrian Jimenez – Strength and Conditioning Coach/Head Trainer
Scott Fraser – now Head Physio
Brendan Inkster – new Rehab Coach
Alex Rooke – new Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach
Arthur has never delivered identical pre-seasons. The conditioning has varied each year and the skills and ball work have have been introduced at different points. Sometimes it’s been due to external factors (eg World Cup in 2017), otherwise it’s part of the season plan.
With the additional staff, Arthur seemed more omnipresent during the first half of the pre-season rather than attached to a specific drill. As Head Coach, he utilises the skills of his assistants. As the team increased the time spent in opposed sessions after the new year, BA became the dominant voice.
I haven’t dedicated much space to describing some of Steve Murphy’s attacking drills this year, and for good reason. The differences here must be kept under wraps. We’ll let the opposition discover more about those on match days. What hasn’t changed is Murf’s energy and positivity. I regard blokes like Murf and Joey as tremendous motivators.
There’s not much that I can offer about O’Neill at this stage. I’ve met him once and only spoke briefly. That said, his appointment has lightened the load on a number of staff, including the coaches. This immediately allowed more time to be dedicated to the business of coaching.
Kidwell and Jimenez joined the Eels during the 2018 season proper. Neither were part of the pre-season preparations for last year. Therefore, the coaching/training provided by both provide an immediate point of difference to the previous season.
Although Potter has taken on some of his NRL duties, Joey Grima (now the Elite Pathways Coaching Director) is still involved in some sessions, providing specialised skills coaching or officiating opposed sessions when available.
Mick Potter provides specialised coaching of the NRL squad, in addition to his work with development contract players or those transitioning to NRL level. There have been a few skill drills that I’ve seen him lead which looked new to my eye. To be fair, all of the coaches are normally expected to bring an innovation every year. It should be noted that Potter is in a newly created role and has his own method of delivery, so there’s immediately a difference from last year.
Though the padded wrestle room drills haven’t been open to the public, the time spent on defensive technique in the sand pit with Kidwell has been brutal to watch. Blood has been drawn, bragging rights from contests have been earned. Attitude, pure strength and technique have been equal parts winners.
Though the pit has been used in the past, I’d never seen it used in the manner it was. There certainly seemed to be a mission to take the players out of their comfort zone. When times got tough during some opposed sessions I’m sure I heard references to the pit called out.
Personally, I find it difficult to identify the coaching as attack/defence or forwards/backs as being solely the domain of a particular coach. All of the coaches have been involved in the pit work, as well as the attacking and defensive drills. In reality, that’s being a team.
Firstly a clarification. Adrian Jimenez has not replaced Lachlan Wilmot who remains the NRL Head of Performance and can be seen leading the squad through specific athletic development sessions, as well as the start of field sessions.
As reported above, Adrian joined the Eels during the 2018 season. He joined from the Panthers after previously enjoying a long and distinguished tenure with the Storm. Here’s an interview he did with Peter Leitch when he was working with the Kiwis. Although he had an impact upon his arrival at Old Saleyards, the true benefit of his methods would not be felt until he got a full pre-season with the Eels.
The work of Adrian, Alex and Lachlan has achieved a different level of fitness in the squad this pre-season.
The Eels pulled the wrong rein in 2018. Our 2017 success was based on a fit, lightweight and mobile pack. We played our best football when the game flowed with minimal stoppages. Keeping the ball in play would allow the Eels to finish over the top of bigger teams as they became fatigued. Our team prepared for the same game to exist in 2018.
Unfortunately it was not. Hello referees edict….
The impact of the “penaltyathon” of early 2018 took a heavy toll on our prospects. The game became stop/start. Every penalty became a rest period as teams elected to kick for goal. The bigger players became more effective in 2018 than they had in recent history.
By the time the pattern had been established, it was too late to change the body shapes of the Eels team.
This season, the diets, gym sessions and conditioning work have been modified. The long distance and hill runs replaced by prolonged and repetitive shorter distances and a barrage of “Malcolms”.
With the notable exception of Junior Paulo who is unquestionably in the best shape of his career, the Eels will field a much larger team than last season, but one which the conditioning methods will ensure is extremely mobile.
Tim Mannah, Shaun Lane, Peni Terepo and Manu Ma’u are all noticeably bigger. Daniel Alvaro commenced last season at around 105kg. He will enter Round 1 at approximately 115kg. Tepai also sat around 105kg last year and struggled to maintain that weight. He will play at around 110kg this year.
Marata Niukore looks stronger than ever and
Big Brad Takairangi returns from his stint as a forward to add size to our newly recruited big wingers Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo. Even Gutho will start 5kgs heavier at 96kg. That’s a significant weight gain for a man correctly regarded as a fitness freak.
Will the Eels deliver a different brand of football on the back of the changes in size and conditioning? Time will tell.
Youth Brings A New Mindset
I’m a bit reluctant to use the term culture, basically because I’m not sure if it’s something which is easily defined within a rugby league club. If anything it carries negative connotations in this current climate.
The squad hit the ground running back in November. And in my opinion they did so on the back of the young Eels.
This season, Stefano Utoikamanu, Dylan Brown, Oregon Kaufusi, Ethan Parry, Haze Dunster, Salesi Fainga’a, Filia Utoikamanu and Kyle Schneider joined full time training. I’ll throw Maika Sivo into this mix as he’s very close to these boys and enjoying his elevation into an NRL squad.
It was a well-planned approach supported by a proactive group of 18-20 year old players with tight bonds.
The work for the young blokes began towards the latter part of the 2018 season. Weights and conditioning were undertaken at Saleyards before most people had woken for the day. There would be no surprises for these players before they arrived for their first session of pre-season.
But it wasn’t enough for this group. They maintained their own training regime, both individually and as a group, after the season concluded. They didn’t just plan to deal with the pre-season. They aimed to excel. And they did.
The work ethic has been strong and laid down a genuine challenge to the “old brigade”. Incredibly, Clint Gutherson was the target of their ambitions.
As the conditioning became competitive, it looked like the young guns had formed a strategy to take him down. Parry, Dunster, and Brown seemed to take turns in declaring him on, trying to wear him down. Schneider, Mahoney and Salmon were always just behind them, ready to strike. Indeed, both Mahoney and Salmon ended up heading the King in a couple of memorable runs.
Mind you, Gutho was no easy target. Dylan Brown has shared the story of trying to take Gutho during a sequence of runs in Armidale, only to collapse with exhaustion in the hot conditions.
On another note, the young players to join the squad last pre-season did not have as many peers joining them in their first pre-season. Reed Mahoney, Ray Stone and Greg Leleisiuao were elevated to the full time squad in November 2017. Throw in Jaeman Salmon from the Sharks and Dane Aukafolau in his second pre-season. It was a decent inclusion of youth but it paled in comparison to this year.
Having so many peers motivating and supporting each other through this pre-season unquestionably impacted the entire squad.
It’s All About Competing
The competitiveness hit a new level during this pre-season, with a highlight from every session. Some I mentioned during my reports, some I didn’t as I think it’s important that there are training moments that remain at Old Saleyards.
My personal highlights included:
* Young players pushing Gutho during every run
* Fergo and Junior finding the collisions and the words to remind Ethan Parry who he was up against
* Dylan Brown laughing in the pit as he rinsed the blood out of his mouth during a contact drill
* Gutho and Mannah leading in the backs and forwards runs, then going back to run with the back markers
* Fergo yelling out “how good is this!” as the team was asked to defend multiple sets during opposed work
* Tepai urging his team mates to find more as Jimenez demanded more “Malcolms” to finish a session.
You’ll note that these moments don’t include the spectacular, but rather highlight an attitude to compete and win which was prevalent throughout the last four months.
More than anything else, this is what I’ll be looking for throughout the season proper.
Players To Watch
* Pre-Season MVP – Clint Gutherson
Superlatives fail me. Professional, competitive, leader, fitness superfreak, joker. I could be completely wrong, but I see nothing in the King that says naturally gifted but I see everything in him that screams winner.
The team doesn’t revolve around him, and yet he’s central to everything. That statement almost seems nonsensical, but Gutho is the team’s battery, energising their efforts and setting standards. He always around the action, always barking orders.
* Most Influential – Blake Ferguson
I would never have believed that a winger could be such a good communicator and have such an influence on his team mates. Then Blake Ferguson arrived at Old Saleyards.
From Day One, Fergo hasn’t stopped talking. From mentoring younger players to barking at his inside men in attack, his impact has already been significant. I am convinced that he was highly influential in the Roosters success last year, and it wasn’t just from his running metres.
* Break Out Year – Tepai Moeroa and Junior Paulo
It was difficult to separate Tepai and Junior in this category. Both look to be in the strongest and fittest shapes of their careers. Tepai will be bigger, Junior will be a svelte 125kg. Both are still young. Junior is 25 years old whereas Tepai is just 23.
Tepai seems to have found a confidence and maturity during this pre-season. Despite his increased size, he’s surprised me with his pace during sprints.
I asked Adrian Jimenez whether he sets different conditioning KPIs for someone of Junior’s size. He shook his head and replied that he would make Junior carry his size better than any other big man in the NRL. Watching him train, I reckon it will be mission accomplished.
* Most Improved – Dylan Brown
If Clint Gutherson did not exist, Dylan would have earned my MVP. Instead he earns my most improved. Not because he started from a low base, because my high opinion of his talents has been no secret. However, he has grown from a Flegg player with a couple of ISP games under his belt to an NRL squad member who regularly earns applause from his team mates. It’s that simple.
* Most Anticipated – Maika Sivo
After playing for Fiji in the Under 20s Rugby World Cup, Sivo has been on a rugby league odyssey which has taken him through four levels of senior rugby league. Country group footy, Sydney Shield, Ron Massey and ISP have provided his league education. He arrived at Parramatta recovering from a shoulder operation, worked through months of rehab, impressed in opposed sessions and trials, and now debuts in the NRL in the opening round.
Maika (my-cah) is big, fast and has a good feel for the game. Hold onto your hats!
* Watch For a Debut – Ethan Parry
Both Stefano Utoikamanu and Haze Dunster were in the running to be nominated here, but injuries have slightly derailed the start of their seasons
Parry is competitive, confident and tough. His frame is the prototype for an outside back in the NRL and he took full advantage of his opportunities during the trials. Will he have to wait till after June 30 to debut?
* The Unknown
Andrew Davey is a mystery to most and a signing that left many wondering who he is. I’ll be following his development playing for Wenty with great interest. He’s quite fast for his size and runs terrific lines. The big back rower has broken the defence line quite a few times during opposed sessions. He could just be a late blooming diamond in the rough.
* Lower Grade Watch – Salesi Fainga’a and Kyle Schneider
Anyone at Panthers Stadium two weeks ago who were unfamiliar with Salesi saw him announce his presence with an eye catching display in the Canterbury Cup trial. Big defensive hits, powerhouse running and deft ball skills are the hallmarks of the big Fijian’s game. Get to Ringrose this year and watch his development.
There has been no Eels dummy half in recent seasons with Kyle Schneider’s skill set. This is not a criticism of those players, but a reflection of Schneider as a game manager and leader. His two brief trial appearances have delivered a 40/20 in each match. He’ll be likely to spend most of 2019 in Flegg as he adds muscle to his frame after missing much of 2018 with a shoulder injury. A genuine player of the future.
In recent seasons, criticism has been levelled at the Eels leadership outside of Gutherson and Mannah. It can’t just fall on two players to drive the team, as evidenced by the leadership groups at other clubs.
This pre-season has seen the arrival of two players who’ve added leadership – Ferguson and Paulo. The influence of Ferguson has already been detailed, but the mentoring of the young players has also been taken on by Junior.
Gowie has always been a gifted communicator and an intelligent analyst of the game. For mine he has taken ownership of leading the fringe players, and stepped up beyond his role in previous years.
Looking to the future, Tepai has held up his hand as a senior player during this pre-season. I believe that this could take his own game to another level, hence my prediction of a breakout year.
A Final Word And Message Of Thanks
Parramatta supporters are in a privileged position. Though training times aren’t advertised, there are no locks preventing people from watching field sessions. From our perspective, we’ve been made to feel welcome every day that we’ve attended.
To all the staff and players who’ve taken the time to speak with us, we are especially grateful.
There has been a huge constant during this era under the coaching of Brad Arthur, and that’s honesty. There just isn’t any bullshit. Anyone who’s had the opportunity to speak with any of the staff will relate to that. We’ve been the beneficiaries of that over many years of watching the team train.
I’m not on my own when it comes to the anticipation surrounding the young players commencing their NRL journey. The Cumberland Throw have been watching their progress since their Junior Rep days, and we’ve got to know them over this time. Many have a background working with the Giant Steps School. Our club is in good hands both on and off the field with these young men.
Finally, thank you to everyone who’s read and replied to my reports throughout this pre-season. Your comments often shape my observations and are greatly appreciated.
Here’s to an exciting 2019 season.