Mick Cronin’s toe-poke!
Just when you thought you could lock in the Eels bench spots for their Top 17, the action heated up at this morning’s training.
In what was, for me, an unexpected opposed session, Stefano Utoikamanu and Kane Evans took the battle up a notch in performances that left our spectator group in no doubt that statements were being made.
After facing the challenge from Oregon Kaufusi last week, all praise must go to Evans for leaving little in the tank today.
From the sprint and strength runs, to the defensive contact, the tall prop demanded attention.
Day one of this week’s training unfolded like this:
The squad drilled hit ups, offloads, and backline spreads for about 15 minutes. Watching the team rehearse these plays, you can see that every player has a role to play, whether it be actually handling the ball or simply being a body in motion. The ball skills of the squad are also noticeable during such drills.
Over a sixty metre course, the squad looked to hit close to top pace for around 40 metres. Amongst the middle forwards, Kane Evans was a standout. He has an unusual running style, but at top pace there would be few who’d go close to matching him. One who was trying his best to do so was RCG – he’s deceptively fast.
Marata Niukore looked to be the fastest in his group – mostly edge forwards. No doubt this throws back to his days as a centre.
In the outside backs, Fergo smashed the others off the park. He hits top speed very quickly and it looks effortless.
The referees were again in attendance to control the session. It was Blue (NRL) vs Gold (CC) with some forwards interchanging between the two.
Like last week, the contact was heavy – I’d estimate it to be at about 80% of NRL level impact, though how you back off by about 20% is a good question!
The pace of the hit ups caught the eye as much as the contact. In some opposed sessions, it’s not unusual for a hit up to ease into the defence. As was the case last Wednesday, if the forwards charge onto the ball with venom, the defence has no option but to hit hard.
Today, Stefano Utoikamanu carried the ball with serious intent. A couple of his carries left defenders strewn behind him, with Harry Duggan looking the worse for wear after a big collision.
Kane Evans left his mark on a few players in both attack and defence. It would come as no surprise to anybody in attendance that he’s featuring heavily in this report.
As you’d expect, the Blue team found the ascendancy in the contest, and registered three tries. The first was scored by Taka after a play down the right edge. The second was registered by Matterson after a tap back by Fergo off a kick.
The final try was classy to watch. A shift to the left around halfway saw Gutho inject himself into the line, before the ball found Lane in space. He then linked with Dylan Brown on the the inside which was followed by another inside pass to Mahoney who jinked and weaved his way to cross under the posts.
Despite the contest through the middle, the player who most impressed me during the opposed was Mitch Moses. Though he was doing what you’d expect a top grade half to do in such a session, there was a genuine “presence” about his work.
During the morning, the players were split into position groups and completed runs of approximately 120 to 180 metres. The middle forwards were doing the shorter distances, with the outside backs running the furthest.
It looked like the players were expected to run at around three-quarter pace. Once more, Evans was outstanding in his group. Even when he was forced to start behind the others, he’d surge through the pack to lead them home. I’ll also give a tick to Oregon Kaufusi and Sam Hughes for their consistent efforts.
It goes without saying that Gutho left the other backs in his wake – their task made more difficult by his new streamlined appearance. There are those who believe that the King is one of the slower fullbacks in the Premiership. Whilst he’s not blessed with exceptional pace, his advantage is the capacity to maintain top pace over a longer distance. When he gets into space, it’s generally only the noted hot-steppers (see Xerri and Ponga) who will run him down.
It’s becoming very apparent that the Eels are well served with middle forwards. Besides apparent lock-ins like Junior, RCG, Niukore, Alvaro and Paulo, others such as Evans, Kaufusi and Utoikamanu are pushing their claims. Young middles like Hollis, Hughes and Duggan haven’t looked out of place during this preseason, whilst Gower, Terepo and Davey would all like to push for a berth in 2020.
Gower might be in his final season, and Utoikamanu has a contract with the Tigers for 2021, but I’d be surprised to see too much recruitment action for middles in the next couple of years. The challenge might well be the retention!