Another pre-season has come and gone.
Not a typical one, mind you, but no NRL club has been an island in this regard. COVID didn’t just wreak havoc with last season, because the late conclusion resulted in minimal time on the training paddock before Christmas. And when it came to Origin players, the return date was January.
It will be interesting to see how teams begin the season under the new rules. They’ll be tackling a faster game on the back of a shortened pre-season.
Then again, is it a benefit for the players to have an abbreviated preparation this season? I can’t help but think that the ball being in play for longer minutes will take its toll. Managing the training load around that will be critical.
As far as the Eels are concerned, the players reported for their first day in better condition than ever before. Players were recording times close to, or bettering, PBs. Professional footballers know the importance of keeping themselves in shape during their off season.
This was the first time that Parra completed their entire preseason at Kellyville. The complex continues to be developed, but it is now the true home for both football operations and administration.
I’ve now compiled six seasons of training reports for The Cumberland Throw. As regular readers are aware, those reports finish before the first round, as from here on in, the team is preparing for a specific opponent each week.
For this report card I see little need to focus on the established stars. I’d be telling you nothing you don’t already know. Punters have been locking in their starting 13 (excluding centre) since last year. Throw in Marata Niukore, and that’s 13 with little debate. And all of those players have navigated the preseason without damaging themselves or their reputation.
Instead, apart from my MVP, I’ll concentrate on those pushing for a place, the new faces and the less familiar. I’ll also throw in a prediction or two. Let’s see how that plays out!
No surprises here – it’s Clint Gutherson. The King brings it all. Performance, energy, leadership, humour. He continually sets the standards for others. Any attempted description would not do justice to his value to the club.
The nickname may have started in good humour all those years ago, but this bloke absolutely rules.
This is somewhat left field, but I’m nominating Charbel Tasipale. The young back rower came into the preseason on the back of a significant hip injury. He didn’t have the opportunity to prepare for his first NRL preseason the way that he would have liked.
After only a couple of weeks, Charbel started to push into the leading group in conditioning. He then began to create more of an impression in the opposed sessions. I’ll be tracking his form in Canterbury Cup with great interest.
Two More To Shine
I have Jake Arthur in my top three of the preseason. As the coach’s son, he’s going to cop unwarranted barbs, but he’s got the temperament to handle it. It’s why I reported on him whilst keeping his peers out of the training report spotlight.
If Gutho were to be challenged in the fitness stakes, young Jake is the one to do so. Jake has taken the big hits at training that come with being a playmaker who digs into the line – the other players deliver what he would face in a game. Snake just gets up and gets on with the business of managing the team.
Quite simply, anyone who’s been watching the entirety of Parra’s preseason would be in little doubt about Jake’s potential.
Isaiah Papali’i just nudges out Bryce Cartwright for my other standout trainer. Had injury not interrupted his preseason, Carty might be a certainty for my top 3. I’ve seen enough to declare him an x-factor.
I’ll repeat an observation I made earlier in the preseason – I can’t understand why the Warriors let Papali’i leave. Fit, intelligent, tough and apparently a really decent fella. He can take the tough carries, get offloads away or play the link role.
Parra Papa looks like being a terrific addition and a crowd favourite.
Breakout Year Prediction
This will be a massive year for Oregon Kaufusi. Big Oggy is in the best shape of his short career, and owned the middle in a number of field sessions.
Eels supporters were treated to a glimpse of his intent in both attack and defence during the two trials. That was a reflection of what he inflicted on others in opposed sessions.
Oregon seems to have a new found aggression in his play. Alongside Marata and Papa, he’ll add tremendous punch off the bench.
Next To Debut
This is a contest between Dave Hollis and Will Penisini.
Dave Hollis might be further down this path were it not for COVID. He continued his trade studies rather than join a footy bubble in 2020, and should be applauded for securing his Plan B.
However, at a young age he has completed two NRL preseasons and is now gaining the benefit of being in a full time squad. Hollis has the size to make an impact in the top grade, but his 2021 journey will most likely begin in Canterbury Cup. I’ll be looking for a possible blooding in the right match late in the season.
As for Penisini, his call up might be determined by injury. Ideally, they don’t want to rush him, and defending at centre in an NRL game is a massive ask for a young player. Again, the preferred option would be late season.
Ray Stone must sometimes feel cursed. Every time an opportunity comes his way, injury intervenes. It’s not as if they are the type of injuries that would cause concern of recurrence, Nor are they major. They are simply poorly timed.
A minor injury at the end of the preseason has prevented Ray from playing in either trial, so he will again have to fight for that opportunity.
It appears as if Mr 3:16 will play in the back row in 2021. In my opinion, he’s looked confident in that role during opposed sessions. Fingers crossed for an injury free year from here on in.
Will Smith was one of the most consistent performers over summer. Often training in the halves, but not exclusively, it was not unusual for him to impress in attack.
Wilbur has the versatility to cover dummy half and back line positions and could figure as a bench option against certain teams. He’d also be next choice should Moses or Brown pick up an injury.
Jordan Rankin would be in my top 6 for his attitude at training. He pushes up in the leading group in conditioning and is quite a good talker. He is another who can cover various positions but is likely seen as a good leader to assist the young players in Canterbury Cup. His form in the Dragons trial was very encouraging.
Haze Dunster is ready to play NRL. He is determined to win a spot on the wing and demonstrated that desire every time he took to the training track. The Eels Junior is one of the fittest in the squad and looked every bit the NRL player during field sessions. In early January, I listed Haze in my 17 for round one.
But here’s the value of competition.
The pressure from Dunster has undoubtedly pushed both Ferguson and Sivo to much improved preseasons.
The incumbent Eels wingers have been in irresistible form over the past eight weeks. Maika Sivo has just completed his first uninterrupted preseason, whilst Fergo has brought match level intensity to opposed sessions.
It now looks like Ferguson and Sivo will get the nod for the opening game, but isn’t it great to know that the Eels have a quality prospect “waiting in the wings”!
I didn’t report on the pathways players during this preseason. It was a decision to not burden them with any expectations.
The club has now listed the upgrade of Will Penisini to the top squad and named the following pathways players as being on a Development Contract – Sean Russell, Jake Arthur, Solomone Naiduki, and Sam Loizou.
Each of one of these young blokes impressed during the last three months. There were many times (which I didn’t report) when they pushed the established stars during conditioning work. Nor did they shy away from the physicality of some incredibly serious opposed sessions.
Sean Russell – can play a number of backline positions but regularly found himself at fullback. My highlight was an almighty defensive collision with Blake Ferguson to stop a try – there was no shortage of players celebrating his tackle.
Will Penisini – the upgrade was no surprise. Will is physically closer to a debut than his peers. Still a work in progress but can beat a man a number of ways. I could have easily singled him out for praise in several reports.
Jake Arthur – see my earlier comments. Class act
Sam Loizou – the youngest of the group and has the frame to get much bigger. Sam was selected in the Australian schoolboys squad back in 2019 and would have still been 16 at the time of his selection. Athletically gifted, and could literally play from halves to fullback.
Solomone Naiduki – a Fijian recruit who was added to the Flegg squad back in 2019. He’s a physical specimen who can power through defenders. Still learning the game, and his time in the Canterbury Cup will be a good stepping stone this year.
Every year a number of pathways players are provided with an NRL preseason as part of their development. In the past, Reed Mahoney turned a limited weeks arrangement into a development contract and a first grade debut.
This year featured forwards Charbel Tasipale (see above), Tasi James, Caleb Tohi and backs Matt Komolafe and Josh Tuipolotu.
Charbel Tasipale – (see above) back row, occasionally filled in at centre, really impressed.
Tasi James – aggressive middle forward. Mobile for his size
Caleb Tohi – lock middle, straight out of schoolboy footy, compact build, carries the ball strongly
Matt Komolafe – winger who is faster than he seems. Came into the preseason off a leg injury in 2020. Impressed in Dragons trial
Josh Tuipolotu – fullback/winger. Has had genuine x-factor moments in Junior Reps. Terrific in and away.
Tom Opacic has earned the vacant centre spot. He’s looked like an experienced centre during every session. Might not produce the Jenko flashes of brilliance but will be ultra-consistent.
Bryce Cartwright was tracking for a round one debut in his battle with Keegan Hipgrave and Ray Stone for a bench spot. Created something out of nothing quite a few times and is close to the fittest forward I’ve seen at Eels training over many years
Keegan Hipgrave will likely be named for round one. Can play back row or middle and that versatility will keep him in the mix during the year. Had a short period in rehab just before the trials but is training strongly now
Nathaniel Roache is the great mystery. Could be anything if the Eels can get his body right. It’s difficult to believe that he has such a history with injuries as he possesses a powerful build. A naturally gifted player who caught the eye during drills and opposed sessions.
Joey Lussick performed stronger with each passing week of the preseason. He is one of the fittest in the squad and a powerful defender. His playing style is a cross between Mahoney and Roache. Roache doesn’t possess Reed’s long pass, but Lussick goes close. Mahoney doesn’t have Roache’s running game but Lussick enjoys engaging the defence. I’ll predict his inclusion in the 17 early this season.
Michael Oldfield filled a few positions during opposed work, though he seemed to mostly train on the wing. Very fast and looked composed in his work. He had a memorable moment coming from the clouds to tackle Mitch Moses when Moses looked certain to score during a full contact opposed sessions.
Isaiah Papali’i placed in my top three of the preseason, as detailed earlier. I’m tipping a big year.
My Favourite Moment
I have to go with the spectacular and nominate Maika Sivo sending Jordan Rankin into the next suburb with a merciless fend. Think Tedesco and Ayshford combined. Incidentally, Jordan Rankin was not a 2021 recruit. He’s been with Parra since mid year 2020.
A Final Word
I want to thank all of the readers who’ve contributed to the record number of views we’ve received over summer. Site visits over January were a 27% increase on the same month last year, a staggering increase.
To everyone who took the time to reply, thank you very much.
To the staff, coaches and players who shared their time (and wisdom) at training, thank you also. Those of us who visit Eels training try to leave a minimal footprint. Any time extended to us is unexpected but very appreciated.
Bring on the footy.
Images Courtesy of Eels media