Though many established NRL players remain on annual leave, preseason training got a little more intense this week with the return of more of the full time squad.
Much anticipation has surrounded the arrival of English international Josh Hodgson. At first I was uncertain whether it was him running up and down the field under the white cap, but once he started calling out to others there were no further doubts. I didn’t understand what he said but that northern English accent was unmistakeable.
Daejarn Asi, Wiremu Greig, Haze Dunster, Shaun Russell, Samuel Loizou, and Jake Arthur were others to return to the training track this week. I grabbed a few words with Haze who’s looking very fit. He’s looking forward to being ready for all of the Eels trial matches.
As usual, the pathways players participated in the Monday session making the squad number close to 30 for the start of the week. It was also our first look at Daejarn Asi.
Conditioning made up the first half of the session. With players roughly grouped according to position, they completed repeated timed runs over specific distances.
Footy featured in the second half of the session, starting off with the kick chase. A good transition from attack into defence creates pressure on the kick return and subsequent plays. Energy, cohesion and composure are paramount. The Eels have become one of the best disciplined teams over the last couple of years and rarely give away stupid penalties in these scenarios.
Next up was more grid footy followed by ruck drills. The attack concluded with consolidation of basic shapes and some of the variations of those shapes.
It’s interesting watching this being practiced as it’s still early days and there are a lot of young players involved. There was the odd error where a player would get their line wrong but overall I thought the group was reasonably sharp.
This session followed the usual format of conditioning work leading into footy. Though the majority of the younger pathways players (with the exception of Sanders, Brazel and Guymer) aren’t training with the NRL squad on Wednesday and Friday, this week’s returning players have bolstered the number of full time players to around 20.
After the grind of the fitness work, the players completed drills to assist in the transitioning between attack and defence. More time was then dedicated to the shapes and their variations before launching into 6 on 4 grid work.
The final field session of the week began with some footy skills before the conditioning work began. After warm ups the squad went straight into defensive positioning, decision making and movement.
Individually, the emphasis was on footwork and eyes up to remain engaged with the ball carrier. As a defence line there was a focus on keeping their shape as the line moved and slid.
But Friday wouldn’t be Friday without those gruelling M runs.
In the absence of Gutho, the likes of Jayden Yates and Jake Arthur pushed for the mantle of fittest on field. But others also made an impression. With every set, Dan Keir got closer to taking those two on. Josh Hodgson and Shaun Russell also placed in that first five or six on every run.
The new contender is Jock Brazel. Like Dan Keir, he seemed to get stronger as the squad pushed further into the M run sets. In fact, when Jake, Dan, Josh and Jayden were rested from one run, Jock streeted the group by about 60 metres.
This was a big session and could have received a dedicated post on its own.
Even with all of the M runs, the conditioning continued with the games played. The two hand touch and kick chase games gave the players little time for a breather. But as their minds and lungs were probably distracted by the game aspect, individuals seemed to find a second and third wind for effort plays.
The grid work appeared to have a focus on defence and communication as BA varied the number of players involved in either attack or defence in each drill. You could hear the players call out to their mates as the defence moved to cover number disadvantages.
Later in the session the emphasis was placed on tackling technique as leg movement, body positioning and contact was drilled in small groups.
Outside of that there was plenty of ball work and continued familiarisation with shapes.
The title of this report referred to Hodgson and it’s important that I remind readers of the context of his superior experience compared to the rest of the current group. He should stand out.
That said, I couldn’t have been more impressed with my first look at Parramatta’s major signing for 2023.
Overall it comes down to the leadership that he will bring to the team.
Let me elaborate by way of some examples from this week.
When the squad worked through their sets, he constantly positioned and directed the players around him. Whether doing so as the play unfolded, or talking to players in breaks about where he wanted them positioned, his was constantly communicating.
During conditioning work, his voice could be heard encouraging others. That English accent makes his voice easy to identify.
I want to highlight a specific moment from Friday. In the latter stages of the M run sets, a player began to struggle. As soon as Hodgson finished his run and saw this, he ran back to run alongside and encourage that player in the final leg.
As far as his own play is concerned, even in a training scenario Hodgson seems to create time and space around him. And yet he has that drive to learn and improve.
When the coaches were taking the players through individual tackling techniques, he was asking questions to get feedback and clarify how he was executing the drill. It came as no surprise that when training wrapped up, BA and Hodgson were in deep conversation.
Josh Hodgson has a long preseason ahead, and an even longer season proper, but he could hardly have started any better. I’m looking forward to watching the combinations evolve as more of the NRL players return to work.