Just when you think that his domination of Eels conditioning must surely be approaching the end, Clint Gutherson never fails to dispatch an emphatic reminder that it will take an extraordinary human to out-perform him on the training track.
So it was at training this week with the King an absolute standout in the fitness stakes (Groundhog Day) as he continues to set the standard for others to try to emulate.
How does this benefit the team?
There’s a saying in footy that the best ability is availability.
Over the last four seasons, Gutho sits clearly atop the list of fullbacks for top grade appearances. His 101 games puts him ahead of Tedesco (89), Edwards (80), Ponga (68), Papenhuyzen (59) and Trbojevic (44).
Yes, Ponga and Papenhuyzen have also played a small number of games in other positions or off the bench rather than fullback, but the evidence is there that Gutho’s preparation stands him in great stead for every season. It means that the Eels have rarely had to look to their depth in that position and the disruption to the spine has been minimised.
And that sort of consistency doesn’t come without the effort and commitment that the Eels co-captain demonstrates every week at Kellyville.
Here’s how this week played out.
This should have been a great session to report. Unfortunately that wild storm you all experienced didn’t miss Kellyville and those of us in attendance were sent scrambling for the shelter of our cars just as the training became interesting.
After the typical conditioning runs and working through unopposed practice of the standard shapes that the team will be using this year, the squad commenced an opposed “game” with limited contact. That’s when the “cyclone” struck.
Footy doesn’t stop due to heavy wind and rain, but with no cover I wasn’t going to be standing around in those conditions.
Although near impossible to watch from a distance and through the sweeps of windscreen wipers in my car, it seemed to be the first instance of mixing structured and unstructured play. The emphasis was still probably on structure but there were definitely instances of playing what was in front of them.
It also looked like the young Flegg and Ball players acquitted themselves quite well as the tempo and contact lifted a bit.
I wish I could have reported more but the circumstances made that impossible.
The session began with the squad continuing their familiarisation with the various shapes and options, but it soon became very demanding as the conditioning work alternated with unstructured footy.
Two different types of unstructured games were played simultaneously, with one group working with Murf and the other working with Baz.
Like clockwork, the whistle was blown and the groups would swap over between the footy and the conditioning runs under the eye of Head of Athletic Performance Trent Elkin.
I particularly enjoy watching the unstructured drills as players aren’t restricted to their usual roles. Instead, wingers like Matt Komolafe might find themselves ball playing in the middle, a prop like Ky Rodwell might be supporting out wider or running an angle. It highlights the footy skills and even the peripheral vision of some that you might not normally associate with having that ability.
That said, during these drills today I witnessed some of the skills and instinct of Hopgood. It was just a glimpse, so I’ll be looking for more during serious opposed sessions of January.
The morning concluded with defence drills and with the squad working through opposed sets. It was a jam packed session which underscored the improving fitness of particular players.
I’ve often wondered about the challenge of keeping players engaged and fresh during the tough grind of a preseason. After all, there is no escaping the inevitable running and lung busting that accompanies this time of year and ensures a particular standard of fitness.
At times it looks like the answer is to keep the players guessing about what’s coming next and today encapsulated that perfectly.
On Fridays, I often expect to see the squad thrown into M runs straight after going through their warm ups. Today, a passing drill took the place of those gruelling runs. And though I’ve named it a passing drill, there was just as much emphasis on the lines run by the support players.
Attack was next to feature, with Murf and Baz again taking groups which alternated between them. We were closest to Baz’s group and therefore many of the takes came from that drill. Players ran from station to station as the coaches extracted every minute of the morning and ensured that play happened under fatigue.
Moments of effort from the likes of Doorey, Hands and Arthur caught the eye, as did a bit of ball playing magic from Carty. It was almost a case of blink and you miss it and I’m not sure that I could accurately describe it.
Essentially, within two seconds and with two fakes, Cartwright sent two defenders going in opposite directions to open up the space for him to go through the line untouched. One moment he looked like he was reverse passing to a support runner cutting back behind him, then he immediately dummied to an outside support.
In the context of a quick drill of unstructured footy, the significance of what he did was probably zero. However, it was a reminder of his footy instincts, spatial awareness and damn silky skills.
As previously noted, there is very little time wasted in these sessions. When drinks are about to be called, they are in position ready for the players. When bibs or jerseys are to be donned, they are laid out on the ground for the players to quickly grab.
As the morning progressed, the squad began some focussed opposed footy. It began with right side attack versus left side defence, later swapping to left side attack versus right side defence.
Each play or set of plays was commenced from predetermined points on the field with a specific goal set, obviously depending on that field position. One play had Waqa Blake running a particularly dynamic line that was difficult to defend.
Just when I had almost forgotten about the M runs that are typical of a Friday, the group was moved to the adjoining field and the marker poles set out.
It was a staggered start for every run with the squad roughly split into forwards and backs, with the backs group getting the first starting whistle followed by the forwards a few seconds later. To say that Gutho streeted them would be an understatement.
Jake Arthur led the chasing group as expected, and Jayden Yates pushed ahead from the forwards group to catch some of the backs, but Gutherson just keeps reminding us that whenever a challenge is thrown his way, he can find another gear.
The week concluded with the players putting on jerseys for their defence drills. Given that match jerseys are fitted differently to training shirts or singlets, it makes sense that techniques should be practised in their gear.
I wanted to give a quick shout out to Trent Barrett for his time this week. We try to have a minimal footprint at training as this is the workplace of the staff and players, not an open session for engaging with them. Field training is like a well oiled machine that should not be impacted upon by visitors such as us.
However, coaches and staff will occasionally call out a quick hello or have a few words on the run if they are setting out or collecting gear near our observation point.
Eels Football Manager Craig Sultana introduced us to Trent at the start of the preseason, and Baz has said a couple of hellos since then. This week, as he said g’day whilst setting up and awaiting a group to join him, he was kind enough to answer a quick question about the goal of his drills. It was informative and much appreciated.
With just one more field session on Monday, the squad is close to their Christmas break. It’s amazing how quickly that time has flown.
I’ll be writing up that session and giving my takes on this pre-Christmas period next week.