The trials are now done and so the preseason comes to an end.
Regular visitors to TCT would have noted that the training reports have recently been conspicuous by their absence. There are reasons behind that.
Frankly, the conditions have been, on occasion, awful. At least one session was impossible to watch with the deluge restricting attendance to the dry comfort of the car. It was basically pointless being there.
Primarily, the team moved into match preparation mode over the previous two weeks which made it impossible to report. The conditioning tapers and the starting team works on plays specific to their opponent.
Consequently, during the previous week I witnessed what the team would be, including positional switches. Like the premiership proper, as an Eels supporter it’s not my business to make such things public. It’s why my observations from training shut down at the end of the preseason.
My goal in writing preseason training reports is to provide details about training structure, individual progress, player attitudes and application, in addition to highlights from sessions.
Hopefully, the reports provide a window to what might lay ahead – for the team, but specifically for individual players.
Before I get to my preseason gongs, it’s important to note that this has been a preseason like no other.
When we all came out of lockdown, it was business as usual for a few short weeks before Christmas. Then the Omicron wave hit – and it didn’t miss!
Visitors were not permitted to training. Kellyville is an open park, so the restrictions meant being asked to remain at a distance.
In previous years I could view the work from different angles, such as behind the posts. This made it easy to watch for the lines being run, the movement of the defence, and the leadership talk from particular players. It was also possible to catch a few words with staff.
After the Christmas break, things reverted to near bubble-like conditions.
From a report perspective, I became concerned that my vantage point didn’t allow me to give enough credit to the work of the forwards. Big collisions could still be noticed, and line breaks highlighted, but the defensive loads or support runs were literally in a blind spot.
So with that caveat providing all of my necessary excuses, it’s time for my awards and predictions. In some categories, I’m steering clear of many of the stars, with the goal being to identify those lesser known whose training screamed out, “look at me!”
Best In Pre-Season
The King regularly features here, and there’s no reason to discount him this year. Gutherson looks primed for a massive season and is as focussed as I’ve ever seen him. The co-captain is the leader out there and never stops barking at his troops. When he misses a session, the energy levels drop noticeably.
However, this year Jake Arthur gets the nod.
The 19 year old half has led the conditioning challenge against Gutherson, and when the opposed sessions kicked up a notch, he was ready to be the dominant half.
This in no way detracted from the performances of Moses and Brown. Both look set for big seasons and indeed issued alerts to all rivals with their play on Saturday night.
But Jake’s claims for this award cannot be ignored. Anyone watching the trials couldn’t help but be impressed with his form.
This is going to seem an unusual selection, but this gong goes to Waqa Blake.
How on earth a 140 game NRL “veteran” earns my most improved could be answered by anyone watching the preseason with me.
I can’t recall Waqa ever enjoying an uninterrupted summer prior to now, and that’s been reflected in his track form.
The power, pace and aggression demonstrated during opposed work was thoroughly irresistible to watch. His combination with Haze Dunster was going to be a match winner for the Eels.
Will he now play centre or winger?
That’s a question I didn’t expect to be answering in 2022.
Clinton Gutherson is the only choice.
When it comes to effort, the Eels custodian epitomises being a role model. Whenever challenged by the young guns, he finds another gear. Even if someone gets the better of him in a session, it just doesn’t happen again.
Everyone knows what the King brings to the table. Even if I find a new superlative or two, you’ve heard it all before.
Feel free to fill in your own reasons and you’ll probably be correct.
Despite a late surge from Ofahiki Ogden, Ray Stone is the stand out. He started the preseason n the best shape of his career and has been relentless in his application since then.
When I tried to select the round one team, even with forwards out of action, I couldn’t find a place for Stone. I was erroneously considering his limitations rather than the qualities he brings to the team. When he’s on the field, watch the energy as he moves up and back in defence. When he’s in a tackle, he literally sprints into position after peeling off the ruck.
Mr 3:16 is due to join others in a new home next year. His preseason sent a massive signal to BA that he wants to leave on a high note.
Next To Debut
The significant number of players getting a late season debut in 2021 somewhat limited the field, but there are a couple of players worthy of contention. I’ve selected Elie El-Zakhem.
Had the energetic back rower travelled north with the bubble last year, it’s likely that he would have earned his stripes then.
If El- Zakhem can reproduce his 2021 form in the NSW Cup, he’ll go very close to getting his shot.
Break Out Player
I’d earn no kudos for nominating Will Penisini. His debut season stamped his potential for a massive 2022. My other consideration, Haze Dunster, will now have to bide his time in rehab.
Makahesi Makatoa is therefore the man.
Henceforth known as Krakatoa, or maybe The Volcano, Makatoa has just earned an Eels contract extension. He’s also probably earned the bewilderment of supporters who can’t believe that he had to wait so long for his NRL debut.
This was Maka’s first full preseason with the club, and we always suspected that he’d continue to improve with that level of preparation behind him.
I reckon he’ll get a decent share of top grade games in 2022.
Watch This Space
There are two contenders here.
Brendan Hands was recruited from the Riff to show what he can do at dummy half. He immediately impressed with his snappy service and capacity to challenge the A and B defenders.
Hands is one of the fittest in the club and is in contention with Jayden Yates for the back up dummy half role at NSW Cup level. Yates has the versatility to fill other roles so that might open up the opportunity for Hands to specialise as a dummy half.
I rate Mitch Rein as an NRL player, but if Hands gets his opportunity, I expect him to take it with, well, both hands.
Samuel Loizou is the other to watch. Loizou is a first grade player of the future. He was still only 16 years old when representing the Australian Schoolboys team a few years back. Despite limited game time in 2021, Samuel was able to make his NRL debut in round 25.
The tall athletic centre will be looking to play consistent footy at NSW Cup level in 2022 as a stepping stone to further NRL opportunities.
That wraps up my preseason reports.
To everyone who has read and/or commented on the posts over summer, thank you for getting involved.
To the people who I met for the first time at Kellyville, or in many cases said hello once again, I really appreciated the conversations.
Bring on the season!