Every preseason, when the squad breaks for their Christmas holidays, I use the opportunity to compile a mid point review on the progress of the team, the individual players and the coaching input.
In piecing this together, it’s interesting to reflect back on my initial expectations of the squad and the preseason.
I was confident about the value of signing Hodgson, but after his early contributions on the training track, I may have actually underestimated his recruitment.
My other re-think concerns what the pre-Christmas training period would offer. With so many key players missing, I made the decision to restrict reports to a weekly format. Whilst I think that was the right call, there was much to like about the work of the fringe and pathways players who made up the core group for most sessions.
These players set the positive and hungry tone that I wanted to see as the Eels rebounded from a grand final loss. The season just gone was a successful one, but not quite successful enough. New blood coming through, applying pressure on positions (be it now or in the future), will help to drive the goals for 2023 and beyond.
Before launching into my review, here’s a reminder.
The squad is training full time. In observing the major field sessions, I’m only taking in three half mornings of conditioning and footy. The workload is different on other days and has to allow for recovery periods. There will also be gym sessions, contact/wrestling work, video analysis and review, team and individual meetings, as well as kicking, passing and catching drills.
Furthermore, it should also be obvious that I never report on important specifics. After all, I’m not at training to provide notes for opponents, which is why training reports do not run through the season proper.
So, with disclaimers out of the way, here’s my overview of the preseason to date:
Despite having three new faces on the coaching team – Barrett, Antonelli and Cayless – the structure and flow of the field sessions is outstanding. I understand there is also a new contact/wrestle coach but I have no details on that person nor have I seen any of those sessions as they are most likely in the gym.
The cohesion reflects well on the dynamics within the footy department staff and also on the planning and execution of training.
Very little if any time is wasted during the two to two and a half hours of work. As you’d expect, markers, poles and drink stations are in place before the players hit the paddock, but it’s fascinating to watch the precision involved in setting them out. Then, as players move through their work, staff collect and put in place whatever equipment is needed for upcoming drills, be it markers, bibs, jerseys, footballs, bump pads or tackle bags.
Players move quickly between drills, ensuring that there is a conditioning component throughout. Aside from time taken for hydration, feedback and instruction, work is often done under fatigue, just as it is in a match.
Every coach is involved in the session, either leading a drill, coaching a group or moving around to provide individual feedback. And when it’s time for any opposed work, it’s Football Manager Craig Sultana taking on referee duties, ensuring that the coaches are all able to focus on their charges. (NRL referees are typically used later in the preseason for major opposed sessions).
For long term coaches like Brad Arthur, this is significant.
Whilst there is no doubt that BA is the head honcho in proceedings, it’s important that the players hear other voices. The messages will be from the same page, but listening to someone else deliver them reduces the likelihood of monotony.
Over the last decade, I’ve watched Arthur freshen things up. Training times, days, structures and drills have changed, even within a season, and new staff or consultants have been introduced. And this year, with the absence of World Cup players, he’s taken the opportunity to involve the Flegg and Ball players, with this group primarily composed of the 2022 JETS participants. More on that later.
We’ve had a chance to say g’day and welcome all of the new coaches to the Eels (or welcome back as it were to Caylo). Actually Steve Antonelli has been involved in some sessions in past years.
It seems that they have all gelled very quickly and from what I’ve seen it looks like they genuinely enjoy working together.
All coaches are involved with all aspects of coaching. However, there are still responsibilities with Murf and Baz looking after the attack, Antonelli the defence, and Caylo handling the NSW Cup. At this whole squad preseason stage, Cayless seems to take on more of a defence role. Trent Elkin is the Head of Performance and leads all of the physical conditioning.
As head coach, Arthur oversees everything, driving standards. Defence looks to be a strong priority for him.
As mentioned before, each coach leads drills at some stage of each session. Because every coach jumps in to take a group, BA can move around and assess individual and group effort and execution.
There are times when his feedback is a quiet word with a player. There are times when it’s calling out individual praise, or pulling up the group for reminders about goals or standards. To be fair you witness similar methods from all of the coaches, but they each have their unique way of delivering. Again, different voices but consistent messaging.
Points of Difference
There have obviously been things that have worked for the Eels over the last four seasons. You don’t play finals football or play in a decider if there aren’t aspects of your football that are successful.
However, a title hasn’t been won and there are new coaching and player faces. Changes will be the natural consequence of this.
Barrett is renowned for his work shaping the Panthers attack and for putting the finishing touches to Nathan Cleary. Antonelli will bring his methods and philosophy in defence.
Cutting to the chase, there will be differences in both sides of how we play, but this is where I draw the line in what I report.
The New Faces
All of the new faces have put themselves into contention for a top 17 berth in the pre-Christmas period. The next step will be how they measure up during the serious opposed sessions competing against and alongside the returning World Cup players.
At this stage, I’m amending my earlier bench selections as I believe Matterson, Murchie and Momoisea could be regulars from the interchange. I’m also rating Doorey and Hopgood in line for starting roles on the edge and at lock respectively.
I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t surprise to see the final bench spot rotate throughout the season depending on opponents, form and coverage for specific positions. It might also be that Arthur reduces the workload on Hodgson and accordingly uses a back up dummy half at 14.
I’ll single out Murchie for a comment as many supporters have tipped him to play on the edge. From what I’ve seen, he’s heading for a middle forward position, which is why I’ve listed him as a potential regular off the bench, taking the spot occupied by Kaufusi in 2022.
Daejarn Asi offers utility value and covers many backline positions. I haven’t seen him settle in any spot during the limited opposed work thus far. A reason for this is that some of this early training requires some players to simply fill spots. Therefore, I’ll reserve judgement on where he is best suited until the serious opposed work commences.
This bloke has earned a section to himself. He will be pivotal to the Eels chances in 2023, but it goes deeper than just his key role in the spine.
Make no mistake, the English dummy half has arrived as a leader and his impact at training is already profound.
My training reports have already contained examples of his influence on the training track, but in summation he guides, he inspires, he directs, he sets examples. He will be akin to an on-field coach.
What if injury strikes?
That’s the elephant in the room, but it’s also a negative perspective. I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating. This veteran recruit is actually an investment in the Eels future. He is genuinely going to make those around him better players. In the short time he’s been around the place he’s impressed me more than any previous recruit, and that’s a huge statement.
The rest of his story as an Eel is his to write.
Early Bolter Tips
If there’s a round 1 bolter, it could come from someone who was selected for the 2022 opener – Sean Russell. The gifted local product looks in brilliant shape, stronger and possibly faster than previous seasons. He literally glides over the turf as he runs.
There is competition for backline spots, but both Dunster and Simonsson are returning from significant injuries. Though Simonsson is likely to be available for the start of the season, and Dunster would also be aiming for a similar goal, Russell might just get the jump on them by being available through every week of the pre-season.
My other two potential bolters may not get their shot until after round 10 as both are on Development contracts.
Zac Cini has removed the mullet and stated that he means business. He is a powerful unit and continues to transition from wing to centre. Given the opportunities available in the outside backs following the departure of Tom Opacic and injuries to others, it might only take another injury or two for Cini to be called up.
Toni Mataele is my early tip for breakout player of the year. I fully expect him to make his debut at some point despite the limitations of being on the development list. Those getting to NSW Cup games should look for his combination with Jake Arthur on the edge. Mataele really knows how to hit the line.
Second Tier Contenders
Brendan Hands, Jayden Yates, Dan Keir, Luca Moretti, Matt Komolafe, Jontay-Junior Betham-Misa and Tevita Taumoepenu (there is some talk he has a Development deal but I haven’t been able to confirm it) all sit outside the top 30. However, none of them are strangers to the Eels as they have all been in the Eels system for at least the 2022 season.
In the case of Yates, Komolafe, and JJBM all are pathways players and each are probably looking in the best condition that I’ve seen them in.
Dan Keir could be the surprise packet. Injury and opportunities weren’t kind to him in 2022, but he was a solid performer whenever called upon. He has turned up at this preseason determined to make a statement.
Ethan Sanders, Charlie Guymer and Jock Brazel have been training with the NRL squad as part of their pathways contracts. That should mean that they continue to train with the group for a few more weeks into the New Year.
All three are teenagers, so alongside familiarising them with the requirements and demands of first grade football, there is also a workload management component. That said, they can all be proud of how they’ve matched more experienced players during conditioning work.
These young players will likely play Jersey Flegg in 2023, though it’s not out of the realms of possibility that “The Colonel” will get a taste of NSW Cup.
The Pathways Players
I’ve made a point of not naming the SG Ball and Flegg players involved with the preseason, but my goodness this was a golden opportunity that all grasped with both hands.
After looking like a little uncertain in some drills during their very first session, it was full steam ahead from there on. You could literally see individuals growing in confidence with every session as their development was accelerated during this six week period.
It’s my opinion that their inclusion wasn’t just beneficial for them, it was also good for the coaches.
The energy and rawness of these young players provided an extra dimension to the early preseason, especially with so many “names” missing. I reckon that the coaches thrived on this, and the one club philosophy was reinforced for both staff and players.
What Lies Ahead?
First and foremost we can look forward to the return of the World Cup players throughout January. This will be determined by when their Cup campaign ended. Junior and RCG will therefore be the last on deck.
Next, we can expect plenty of football.
Not much more than a month of training is available before the first of the NRL trials in February, and the coaches will need to accelerate the learning of returning internationals.
There are attacking shapes, defensive techniques and systems to be drilled, and any new combinations will get minimal time together. That means no minutes to waste.
Consequently, I’m expecting serious opposed sessions will be on the agenda and that’s when I really enjoy watching the squad at work.
Another challenge for the staff will be ensuring that the conditioning of the returning players is brought to hand as quickly as possible.
Though all will be maintaining a level of fitness whilst on their break, and probably have programs to follow, it’s not the same as competing and running under fatigue as they do during an Eels preseason.
All clubs with players in the World Cup will be in a similar position. How well every club manages those returning will go a long way in determining how they commence the 2023 season.