It’s starting to feel like the season proper. Training has become more targeted as the team prepares for a specific opponent. And though I’ll continue to front up at Kellyville, my pre-season training reports are coming close to an end.
The players possibly feel differently, but the last four months have passed relatively quickly.
Old Saleyards ceased operation as Eels HQ when the Football and Administration operations became one big happy family at their new Kellyville home.
The full time squad endured the pre-Christmas physical grind, and then the new year contest for positions brought fierce opposed sessions and big collisions to the training fields. Oregon Kaufusi’s contract was extended and Stefano Utoikamanu’s 2021 departure to the Tigers was confirmed.
The upgrades continued – Stefano and Rhys Davies to Top 30 for 2020, Watson Heleta and Kyle Schneider to Development Contracts, and Jai Field pushing to be a late addition. Unfortunately confirmation of the playing fate of Maika Sivo is yet to be announced.
The majority of the NRL squad have built up match fitness via the Nines and the second Canterbury Cup trial. Essentially, it’s getting to the pointy end of the pre-season.
Which brings us to Saturday’s final trial – the special Sapphire Coast Community edition of Parra’s clash with Penrith. As a consequence, training took on more of a regular season appearance.
The Eels conducted two field sessions this week – an evening session on Monday and a morning run on Wednesday. With the team travelling south on Thursday, that only leaves the Friday Captain’s Run before the team take on the Riff.
Defence seemed to be the major focus of both days. In response to the trial against the Rabbitohs, maybe that’s something that supporters would have expected. I have the feeling that fine tuning the defence was already part of the plan.
So what did that look like?
It included contrived defensive sets on different parts of the field, against a variety of attacking shapes, through to defending against a range of kicks. It was followed through to completing a kick return set with the ball in hand then returning pressure via the kick chase and tackle.
Some of the contrived scenarios involved adjusting to less than ideal situations for the defence – for example certain players caught at marker or the numbers being at a disadvantage.
Marker movement and line speed was drilled as was communication, both in the line and in the tackle. Communication remains critical in the tackle, as the players have to quickly organise who peels off first and whether they are moving to the left or the right.
Both sessions also contained brief periods of opposed work, giving the attack and defence practise in a game flow situation. Rather than identify some of the NRL stars for their performances, I’d prefer to mention Johnny Fonua, Haze Dunster and Jai Field for strong efforts in attack. Fonua was sharp at centre – further demonstrating his versatility – and Dunster is finding improved consistency in his footy. Field is one out of the box with his pace. He made a clean line break for the Gold team, and it was all brought about by a deceptive step followed by amazing acceleration.
Joey Johns also featured on both days. It was fascinating to watch him work with players outside the spine. He moved around behind the attacking line, providing individual advice for players about positioning, lines and timing.
As for the overall form of the squad’s training, I’m going to leave that unsaid. They’ve now got the trial to help hone their combinations.
The Eels have named the following squad for that trial:
Daniel Alvaro, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Haze Dunster, Kane Evans, Blake Ferguson, Jai Field, John Fonua, David Gower, Clint Gutherson, George Jennings, Michael Jennings, Oregon Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Reed Mahoney, Ryan Matterson, Mitch Moses, Marata Niukore, Ethan Parry, Junior Paulo, Jaeman Salmon, Maika Sivo, Will Smith, Ray Stone, Peni Terepo, Stefano Utoikamanu
The notable omissions are Waqa Blake, Brad Takairangi, Rhys Davies and Andrew Davey. Players such as Sam Hughes, Kyle Schneider and Dave Hollis will prepare with the Flegg team.
With 27 players named, we can probably expect the likely NRL Round 1 team to play between 40 to 50 minutes, with other players to get some game time towards the last 20 to 30 minutes.
It’s difficult to accurately gauge a team’s performance under such unlimited interchange conditions. The coaches will have a list of KPIs that they’ll be looking for, whilst having a look at a few extra players.
I’m going to surprise and tip a Panthers victory in this trial. It doesn’t concern me to tip this way as I believe that a few of our team will be better for this run. Just quietly, I’m also happy to be wrong!
Images courtesy of Eels media