We’ve now completed the pre-Christmas component of the preseason and things are just beginning to take shape. The return of Michael Jennings and Clint Gutherson to training in the last week or so means that the currently contracted players are all finally back on deck.
This staggered appearance of the squad has been the result of a busy post season representative schedule, something that supporters will have to accept if the club continues to enjoy more successful campaigns.
When the players return to training in early January, there’ll still be significant conditioning for the first month, and though it will remain a very important aspect of training into February and then the season proper, I expect to see a greater emphasis on footy. Combinations will be honed, and the full team opposed sessions that were not possible during most of the pre-Christmas period will feature more frequently.
A quick note on my reports is worthwhile before we dig any deeper.
The training reports on TCT will rarely mention players in rehab. This is because most of the players will, at some stage, spend very short periods of time out of the main group for conditioning purposes. Minor niggles are a part of any physical training, and players might need to have kilometres put into them in individual programs – eg on bikes, on rowing machines or on specific running courses under the watchful eyes of trainers and physios.
If players are returning from significant injury or surgery, reporting on this is the domain of the club. If the club or the player has documented a current injury, I might then refer to their return via rehab.
And so to a quick assessment of where some players are at, and after taking the crystal ball out of storage, there’ll be a prediction or two about individuals and likely teams.
The Younger Brigade
As can be noted in photos, Dave Hollis and Sam Hughes are massive units. When you see these young blokes training amongst NRL professionals, it’s easy to forget that they were part of the SG Ball team in 2019. As such, this is their first full time preseason, as it is for Johnny Fonua and Harry Duggan, and all have impressed with their capacity to meet the conditioning demands.
Kyle Schneider is in his second NRL preseason, and has physically transformed over the past twelve months. Ten to twelve kilos have been added to his frame, but he’s still pushing into the top five in the more demanding conditioning tasks.
I’m expecting Kyle to start in what should be an incredibly impressive Flegg pack. With a front row of Hollis, Schneider and Hughes, a back row of Tasipale and Clements, and Duggan at lock, coach Dean Feeney has a terrific engine room to work with. Others such as Tepu-Smith, Colovatti, Betham-Misa, Tohi, Mataele and Small might also push their claims (to be fair, I’m probably not giving recognition to everyone who’s earned a shot) but to have full time squad members available will be a huge benefit.
Throw in a back line that’s likely to see Arthur, Murray, Loizou, Nohra, Komolafe, Russell, Naiduki, Tuimavave-Gerrard, Tuipulotu, Penisini, Tuigamala and Chappell all aiming for spots, and Eels supporters will have some future talent to cast the eye over in the four rounds at Bankwest that will be staging three grades of football.
Will any of the younger full time brigade push into Canterbury Cup during 2020?
We are most likely to see this in the back half of the season when the club starts considering those worthy of full time or development contracts for the following season. From a talent and physicality perspective, it’s most likely that the four members of the preseason squad – Hollis, Hughes, Schneider and Duggan will fall into this category.
Canterbury Cup Predictions and NRL Debuts
I shan’t be examining the second tier contracted players today. I’ve seen a few of them at Cup training, but for this post I’ll focus on the full time squad.
The Reggie’s team should regularly include Fonua, Dunster, Parry, George Jennings, Smith, Salmon, Lamb, and Davies* in the backs. The pack is likely to feature Kaufusi, Stone*, Utoikamanu, Gower, Davey and Terepo. (* could come under consideration for the dummy half role or for the 14 jersey in NRL).
I’ll predict both Davies and Davey to be next to make a top grade debut. Davies is currently on a Development deal, so that would need to be upgraded. Similarly, I would be comfortable listing Utoikamanu, though he also is a Development player and would need an upgrade to debut before June 30.
Were an injury to occur in the NRL outside backs, Parry might get another call up. If the injury occurred in the halves or centres, Salmon is ready to step into the mix. There could also be a reshuffle, with the versatility of Takairangi and Matterson covering those positions.
NRL Team List
I don’t think we’ll see too many surprises, so I’m prepared to nominate a starting 13 even at this early stage.
Gutho, Sivo, Jenko, Blake, Fergo, D Brown, Moses, Paulo, Mahoney, RCG, Matto, Lane, N Brown. That seems fairly straight forward. Last season’s regular starters have already looked the goods at training, leaving little doubt that it’s up to others to do something special to force a change.
Matterson will be a huge addition on the right, and his combination with Moses could even be more lethal than Manu Ma’u. RCG has had no issues settling in and I’ve been impressed with the directness of his runs during opposed sessions.
Most of the bench takes care of itself – Polar, Niukore and Evans. Niukore and Evans both created impact in the middle in 2019 and Alvaro is back to his mobile best.
The 14 jersey becomes the most contentious. Takairangi could land this, or he could even push Evans out. The Cook Islands and Kiwi international can cover for the forwards and backs off the bench and has proven this versatility in the past. He might even start the year in the centres, depending on the date of Blake’s return from injury.
Stone and Davies could also come into calculations. Arthur has demonstrated that he prefers to rest Mahoney if possible during games, and has used Gutherson on either side of half time. However, this is not ideal as it weakens the fullback role.
So at this stage, I’ll nominate a team list Tuesday 21 players
Team: Gutherson, Sivo, M. Jennings, Blake, Ferguson, D Brown, Moses, Paulo, Mahoney, Campbell-Gillard, Matterson, Lane, N Brown.
Interchange: Takairangi, Alvaro, Niukore, Evans, Stone, Kaufusi, Davey, Davies
The Surprise Packets
Currently, the front runner in this category is Rhys Davies. The former part-timer has rocketed into calculations with fitness levels that have pushed Gutherson to find another gear.
Pitched against Davies in the battle for 14, Ray Stone has also surprised on the training track. The tough as nails forward looks to have found a couple of yards in pace, and his passing game looks far more natural than in previous seasons. But don’t worry, attackers will still feel the sting in his shots.
Next cab off the rank is Andrew Davey. This Queenslander could well be the next David Gower.
Don’t get me wrong, Gowie will have himself in peak condition for when he’s called on – and you just know that will likely happen. But he will also have a mentor role with the young forwards at Cup level, and that could yet be his greatest value in 2020.
Now in his second full time preseason, 28 year old Davey finally looks to be on the verge of an NRL debut. Regarded as one of the better players in the Q Cup to not have played NRL, the 195cm tall back rower has maturity and leadership qualities on his side – unique assets for someone lacking top grade experience. He has the size to also play as a middle forward and may just get the call up ahead of Gower.
Finally, I’m going to include Oregon Kaufusi in this category. Oregon possibly weighed in a little heavier than his ideal weight in 2019, but he still impressed in his top grade appearances. This year, the young prop looks somewhat “cut” – and let’s use this image from training to explain that description.
Having just extended his contract with the Eels, Oggy seems destined to feature in the NRL this season. I believe he would have jumped Peni Terepo in the pecking order, so he’s potentially next cab off the rank as a middle forward when injury strikes.
Preseason training should resume around January 6.
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Bring on 2020.