Welcome to the final edition of my pre-season training reports. Though I’ll still do my best to get to Eels training, the specificity of their work prior to matches makes it inappropriate to provide detailed accounts of their preparation.
To that end, the Eels are now in regular season mode.
It’s all about the Bulldogs – no surprise considering the opener kicks off in less than seven days. In this latest session, instructions for attack and defence related to their opposition next Thursday night.
I won’t lie, when training gets this specific, “F” words abound. Training, then match days, become both fascinating and frustrating to observe. There’s sometimes an internal fist pump during premiership games when I watch the team seamlessly transfer their preparations to the stadium. On other occasions the audible “F Bomb” escapes from my lips as I see no semblance between training track plans and game day execution.
That’s footy isn’t it!
So, one week out from the Bulldogs, it was game faces on at training.
The interaction between Brad Arthur and the players was exactly like watching that FoxLeague inner sanctum vision, but without the best bits being left on the editing floor. The reason that so many players speak openly about the difference that BA makes to their game was again in evidence.
It seemed impossible to hide the game faces of assistant coaches Murphy, Kidwell and Carr. We hear plenty of stories about the players being ready to put the preseason behind them and get stuck into the footy. There’s little doubt the coaches feel the same.
If watching Joey Johns mentor players this preseason had been a personal highlight, then seeing him lift in intensity in game preparation mode was a next level insight. And after his time with the NRL players concluded, he was still there working with the Jersey Flegg spine.
In addition to Joey’s presence, leadership facilitator Kurt Wrigley and defence specialist Jason were also part of this session. Can you sense that the season is about to kick off? Shout out to Jason for taking the time to answer a couple of my questions.
On the field itself, training provided an insight as to how the Eels will play the Dogs.
And that’s about all that can be reported as far as preparation is concerned.
So with the preseason now over, it’s time to wrap my reports up by putting the last four months into a few categories.
* New Facilities
Not so long ago, the Eels field sessions were held at Richie Benaud Oval, with a range of other venues used for aspects such as gym work, team meetings, and physio.
The establishment of the Old Saleyards HQ was like a quantum leap for the players by moving almost every aspect of their training to one venue. However, the reality was that it lagged behind modern facilities like Penrith and Brisbane, and the football administration was operating out of the old Masonic Club – and sharing the premises with a Greek Church.
As a work in progress, Kellyville is already in another galaxy to the past. There are four fields within the facility – compared to two at Saleyards – and the modular building puts football administration and player facilities under the one roof. The dressing sheds provide the modern amenities that professional players should expect, and the gym is considerably larger than its Saleyards counterpart.
It’s hard to believe, but in about 5 years this new Eels Headquarters will look completely different. The modular building will be removed after the permanent Centre of Excellence is constructed. A match venue, including grandstand will be built, with this becoming a home base for Junior Rep and the lower grade matches.
This preseason was just the beginning.
* New Staffing
Ryan Carr arrived at the Eels via Souths, Cronulla, Canberra and Featherstone. The 31 year old has taken on the full time role of Eels Canterbury Cup Coach and NRL Skills Coach.
Like fellow coaches Steve Murphy and David Kidwell, his coaching seems to extend beyond specific roles. The coaches work as a team, pitching in to assist each other whenever anyone is leading a particular drill.
Whilst previous Wenty coach, Rip Taylor, was only involved in a part time capacity, Carr is present at every training session.
Carr demonstrates coaching which belies his youth. He’s younger than Eels senior players David Gower and Michael Jennings, but seems to balance approachability with the authoritarian aspect of being a coach. As an example, I’ve watched him address a player about a careless mistake and then immediately remind him of the things he’s doing well to keep him positively focussed on the next play.
On a side note, when Murf introduced me to Ryan Carr, it came up in conversation that when Carr was the Cowboys NYC captain, both Murf and BA would have been coaching against him as Titans and Storm NYC coaches respectively.
Andrew Johns assumed his specialist halves and spine coaching role back in early December. His duties extend from NRL mentoring to working with emerging pathways players. Whilst I’ve avoided reporting on the specifics of his tuition, I can reassure Eels supporters that his involvement will have an impact on what our team produces. It’s been an education to watch him in action.
Trent Elkin returned to the Eels staff after the sudden and unexpected departure of Adrian Jimenez. Cuzzy Jimenez was a hard task master during his short stay at Old Saleyards, and Elkin is no less demanding of the players.
What I found enlightening about Elkin was the way he built the players into their preseason conditioning. Rather than flogging the players from Day 1, each session under his control was a step up from the previous – all whilst juggling the individual requirements of players as they made their staggered return to training. Ultimately, the players were eventually tasked with arguably the toughest sessions I’ve ever witnessed.
The other major staffing change was Brendan Inkster. Brendan has featured on official Eels media this preseason discussing aspects of training. Though BJ joined Parra prior to the 2019 season, he was elevated to Head of Athletic Performance role for 2020 following the departure of Lachlan Wilmot.
* New Stars
The recruitment of Ryan Matterson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard could just be the essential ingredient in that ever changing recipe of the Eels premiership aspirations.
For now all signs are very positive.
From day 1 of training, Matto demonstrated his leadership qualities. It was obvious to an observer such as I. It must have been equally apparent to the full time squad as they voted for him to be part of the leadership group.
His combination with Moses on the right side of the field has developed through the preseason. Unfortunately, he’s had less time with Waqa Blake who’s spent most of this time in rehab. Give that a bit more time to click into gear.
RCG faced some conditioning challenges when he first started training. Coming back from rehab, he was a bit behind some others, but didn’t he fix that quick smart!
The big fella looks in superb condition, and as was evidenced in the two trials, (not to mention what’s been happening on the training track) and he’s geared up to lead the charge through the middle of the ruck, with little concern about previous jaw injuries. Alongside Junior Paulo and Nathan Brown, Parra’s starting middles will be bending a fair share of defence lines during 2020.
More On Joey and BA
Speaking on Channel Nine, Andrew Johns said this about Mitch Moses:
“He has all the bullets and wants to fire them in the first 20 minutes.
If he doesn’t see the scoreboard ticking over, he gets quite anxious. If anything, he needs to pull it back and have more game management.”
Those familiar with Brad Arthur’s coaching of Moses know that this is not a sudden revelation. Arthur has long praised the courage and skill set of Moses, whilst at the same time identifying game management and patience as an aspect to improve.
Furthermore, this involvement with Johns is not the first time that Arthur has sought the mentoring of a famous specialist for his spine. BA has previously called on Brett Kimmorley, and Arthur explained to me that players can benefit from hearing a different voice, even if some of the messages are the same. He also added that it didn’t hurt if it was a player who had achieved everything in the game.
The difference with Johns is that he has committed to being a part of the Eels staff for the season. He’s been there for a couple of sessions every week during this preseason, and his coaching has been incorporated into the skills base of the individual players as well as the team’s preparation for the 2020 Premiership.
* Pre-season MVP – Mitch Moses
Though not in the Gutho category for fitness, Moses is not too far behind. He’s one of the fastest in the club, and utilised his pace in making quite a few long distance breaks (and tries) during the opposed sessions.
His strength improved during 2019, and he appears to have taken it up another notch leading into the new year. He approaches collisions (attack and defence) fearlessly and is a dominant voice at training. He’s often deep in conversation with Arthur at the end of training sessions and has taken genuine ownership of the team.
Close behind is Reed Mahoney. I’ve referenced numerous times that he’s last from the field at virtually every session as he works on different aspects of his game after others have long finished. His dedication is exemplary.
* Conditioning Stars
Gutherson remains the King, though Rhys Davies provided early moments of challenge for that mantle. However, every time it looked like a player was ready to take him on, Gutho found another gear to emphasise what that gold standard looked like.
The majority of the players are probably worthy of a mention for their conditioning efforts. That said, Dunster, Schneider, Moses, Smith, Alvaro, Davies and Fonua deserve a shout out for consistently placing themselves near the front of the pack. I’ll also acknowledge the improved fitness of RCG, Junior and big Oregon and the dedication of Waqa Blake during his rehab process.
* Who To Watch?
It stands out like the proverbial dog’s wheels that I’m tipping Moses and RCG for big seasons.
Outside of the obvious two, I’m tipping a break out year for Marata Niukore. There’s been times during opposed sessions when his charges have left me feeling sorry for the defenders.
Marata is big, mobile and skilled (see that pass in the trial). Whether he’s used in the middle or on the edges, he’ll pose a threat for most teams to shut down.
After debuting in 2018, he’s now ready to make a big statement.
The Hard Luck Story
* Watson Heleta
Watson arrived at Kellyville on a train and trial arrangement after parting ways with the Wests Tigers.
He immediately created an impression with strong performances at centre and wing in opposed sessions. Watson was even my pick for player of the session after a stand out “game” on the wing in the Blue team.
You never read about that in my reports as he was not contracted at that stage and I couldn’t put him on the radar.
Built not unlike Greg Leleisiuao, though not quite as stocky, Watson’s efforts rightfully earned a development deal and he was pencilled in for the Perth Nines. Unfortunately a jaw injury in the first trial at Ringrose has put him out of action for an extended period. I wish him well in his recovery.
* Haze Dunster.
Haze has been one of the most consistent performers in conditioning sessions, but since the new year he’s found another gear in his football. He’s vastly improved the physicality of his carries into contact, adding to the step that he possessed just before the line.
Whilst it’s difficult to see Haze usurping any of the Eels back five, he’s certainly improved his stocks for a first grade debut should injury strike.
I’m also going to add Johnny Fonua in this category.
Johnny has always provided moments of brilliance during his journey through the Eels pathways. He’s covered literally every position across the back line and I’ve never quite determined what his best position should be. With it seeming so difficult to pinpoint where he was best suited, it would not have surprised if he never got a shot at senior footy. But in his first preseason Fonua fronted up fit and ready to take advantage of full time training – and he’s causing a few people to take notice of what he has to offer.
Why You Should Get To Bankwest Stadium Early
During 2020, four rounds will feature three grades of footy.
Based on the trials and training, there’s plenty of talent in the Flegg team to warrant an early arrival.
The front row of Hughes, Schneider and Hollis is a massive advantage for this team. Each of these players has enjoyed a strong NRL preseason, and could easily be playing Canterbury Cup. That said, I believe that uniting at Jersey Flegg level before progressing could prove beneficial.
Unfortunately Harry Duggan has had an injury set back in the latter part of the preseason. Tasi James has had a couple of enormous trials and Harry might have a battle to dislodge him from a starting position.
In a team with talent across the park, SG Ball eligible backs Shaun Russell, Jake Arthur and Sam Loizou are also worth monitoring.
In the Canterbury Cup, we’ll follow the progress of new signing Jai Field with interest as well as tracking the path of Dunster, Fonua and Davey to potential NRL debuts.
More on Canterbury Cup and Jersey Flegg on TCT later.
My Round One Team Prediction
Gutherson, Ferguson, Jennings, Blake, Sivo, D Brown, Moses, N Brown, Matterson, Lane, Paulo, Mahoney, Campbell-Gillard.
Bench: Stone, Niukore, Evans, Kaufusi (Polar and Taka might yet force their way in)
A Favourite Moment
I could rattle off a number of favourite footy moments – Ray Stone firing up big time after a collision, being close up to hear and observe interactions as BA delivered a skills session, spectacular plays from Moses and Brown, Sivo in full flight, or Matto sharing a story with visiting students. The list goes on.
However, yesterday provided a late entry.
A cerebral palsy, disability rugby league player joined Eels training. He had been invited by Joey Johns to participate in his mentoring of the halves. So as Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown ran through their paces with Johns, so too did this young man.
No fanfare. Just rugby league training.
And yet, that’s what makes our code so special.
The Final Word
Please throw all team trial form away. What I’ve come to learn is that few teams show any of their hands during these matches. Few plays are attempted, just basic shapes in attack. I probably read a bit more into the defensive systems, but even then you know that the players don’t always bust a lung making the type of effort on effort that you see in Premiership matches. You also don’t see defensive combinations when players are taking the field alongside lower grade players that they don’t know as well as their regular team mate.
And so the season begins.
A massive thank you to all of the Parramatta Eels staff and players who’ve taken the time to speak with Parrathruandthru and myself during this preseason.
Every year, I try to pick up a little bit of extra knowledge about the wonderful game of rugby league and the club we follow, so having the opportunity to watch, ask, listen and learn is greatly appreciated.
Most importantly, thank you to the readers of TCT for your feedback and your replies to the training posts.
Season 2020 of the NRL is upon us.
Simply. The. Best.
Images courtesy of Eels media and the NRL