Last week I was asked about the realistic standard of the NRL team, given that the opposed work is against mostly NSW Cup players. Perhaps there’s a false sense of how well the NRL team was performing?
All NRL teams doing opposed work in their preseason could be posed a similar question. It’s also accepted practice for every camp to pump out positive news stories at this time of year. As if you’d ever hear about the worst preseason in a club’s history! It’s undeniable that the real test eventually comes against outside opponents.
However, keeping it realistic, let’s remember some important factors.
Firstly, there are 17 top 30 squads, that means 30 players at 17 clubs hold full time NRL contracts. Most of those players, and even some from outside the squads, will be required to play NRL during the season. In describing opposed work as NRL vs NSW Cup, it’s arguably more accurate to use the terminology “probables vs possibles” – with a fair share of probables thrown into the possibles team.
Furthermore, injuries, form and opportunity usually dictates that a round one team can look somewhat different to the round 25 side. Those individuals identified as “NSW Cup” in a preseason can turn out to be high value contributors to a campaign. For the Eels, let’s not forget that our squad won their way through to the 2022 decider.
Another factor is that all of the players in an NRL squad are operating under the same systems – attack and defence. They know the calls, the shapes, and the idiosyncrasies of their opponents. There is a level of familiarity that provides a defensive advantage. If they are beaten by structured play that is simply well executed, or an extraordinary piece of unstructured play, it’s a solid indicator of how the attack is progressing.
Finally, with the preseason being an audition for the year ahead, those in serious contention for spots will get training time in the NRL team, and that means players are interchanging between both of the opposed sides. This year, that is especially true of those competing for the first grade bench.
There have been many times in past seasons where BA has mixed up the teams during opposed. This year the mixing and matching has been down on previous years, and given the limited preseason for many players, it’s understandable that the time to get combinations clicking has to be optimised.
One more important point, and it’s critical to the context of my reports.
Every season I look for some differences in our team to the year before. There have to be variations or significant developments for the team to improve. Standing still is not an option.
Hence, there is always benefit in some roster changes. New players, be they recruited or emerging through pathways, bring energy and potential.
The coaches also need to vary how the team is prepared and how they will play in the new season. Sometimes that can be delivered through new staff. Sometimes it might be provided by a different conditioning program, or by new attacking or defensive systems and the drills associated with them.
All of this leads to a line that can’t be crossed in these training reports. I deliberately limit writing about any specifics relating to these differences. For example, you might read that Trent Barrett has made changes to Parra’s attack, but I won’t describe attacking shapes or their variations. Or I might write about the time dedicated to defence systems or techniques via Steve Antonelli, but his methodology or key points won’t be referenced.
What I can report unequivocally is that I am seeing significant differences in Parra’s preparation for 2023, and my anticipation and hopes for the year ahead are stronger now than they were back in early November.
And so to this week.
Monday’s training was indicative of a team preparing for a game of football. There was approximately a full hour dedicated to opposed work.
Here are my highlights:
* A scintillating left side attacking play linking Hodgo, Dyl, Laney, and Russell before Dylbags backed up for the final pass to score. Conversion from just to the left of the posts successful.
* Hopgood getting away a terrific late ball to help launch the next attack from deep in the NRL half. The Shaun/Sean combo then released Sivo down the wing before he kicked infield for Dylan to regather about ten metres out. A shift right on the next play then provided the field position for a grubber across the front of the posts on the last which was pulled in by Hopgood for the try. Conversion successful.
* The right side said, “Hold our Gatorade!” as they unleashed quick hands to create space for Haze Dunster to score in the corner. Encouragingly, Haze had to beat two defenders in contact to plant the ball over the line. Try converted by Moses from the sideline.
From here, the opposed was changed up. Four tackle touch footy added speed to the attack. Malcolms were thrown in to keep the players fatigued. When the action returned to full contact there were some contrived scenarios (eg designated line drop out, designated penalty restart) introduced.
The notable moments then included:
* Tighter defence from the NSW Cup, with most of the non-contrived play kept between the quarter lines.
* Cini performing strongly with his kick returns for the Cup team
* A try to junior after Hopgood and Moses combined to create the hole.
* Matto (playing for the Cup side) making a crucial tackle on Will Penisini as he threatened to get his arms free for a try-scoring pass.
* A bone-rattling tackle from Sivo jamming in on Samuel Loizou
* Woody challenging the NRL defence with powerful charges through the ruck
* Jake Arthur, playing half for the Cup side, grubber kicking on the last into the in goal and making a superb dive and regather at the feet of defenders to score the try.
With just two weeks until the first trial, I’m expecting even more footy to feature at training. And I intend having a crack at naming my round one team before the trials are played.