Gutherson trotted home barely raising a sweat. Brown flamed out spectacularly. When he collapsed across the finish line, he was so dehydrated an ambulance was called. He was put on a drip and rushed to hospital – but earned instant credibility among his teammates.
“Gutho gets out and strolls along and Dylan just pushed and pushed,” coach Brad Arthur says. “But he pushed himself to a point when we had to send him off to hospital. There aren’t many blokes who take on Gutho and push themselves so hard we have to get the ambulance. Two days later, he was right to go again. He won the boys over. That shows his character. Tough kid.”
The anecdote is worth telling as Parramatta resume normal transmission against the Broncos in the first match of the NRL’s rebooted competition at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night.
If Arthur had any reason to fear how his players grappled with isolation – with wavering discipline, with the temptations of the fridge and Uber Eats and drive-thru-whatever – you suspect it might’ve been around the youngest member of his squad.
Instead, Brown and his teammates have returned to training in better shape since the COVID-19 crisis brought the competition to a shuddering halt after two rounds.
“In our WhatsApp group, the boys were posting pictures of themselves training so it kept everyone accountable,” Brown says. “I didn’t want to come back and be the one who hadn’t been training. When I’m away from training, I lose weight quite easily. I just don’t eat. So I was just trying to make sure I was eating enough to hold my weight. But I did.”
This premiership won’t be a survival of the fittest as much as a survival of the most disciplined. That’s an adjective that hasn’t been readily attached to Parramatta for years. Under Arthur, things are changing.
“Coaches are control freaks, so the thing that we like had been taken away from us,” Arthur says. “Our players like routine and discipline as well. But it was indicated when they returned that they had done their programs, they had trusted us, and they were committed about getting back on the field.”
Arthur and his coaching staff handed out specific run and weight programs to each player, as well as basic skills relevant to their positions. They were strapped with GPS and had to record their weight and session times daily.
He also challenged props Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard and back-rower Ryan Matterson.
Ryan Matterson, we challenged him also. He was a bit big in those early weeks.
Eels coach Brad Arthur
“Junior and Reg are two good, mobile front-rowers who can get good minutes out for us, but we challenged them to come back lighter,” Arthur explains. “Reg came back at 114kg and Junior 123kg. They came back around or in better shape than when they left. Ryan Matterson, we challenged him also. He was a bit big in those early weeks. He was taking photos of himself on the scales in isolation. We’d like to think he’s come back a little more mobile.”
The other player who stepped up was winger Maika Sivo, who set up camp with his “Aussie family” in Gundagai, where he started his career in Group 9 after arriving in Australia from Fiji.
Three times a week, he would drive to Wagga for one-on-one personal training. He has shaved a minute off his time for a 1.2km run in the 18 months since he joined the Eels.
“He’s 111kg and he’s a power athlete,” Arthur says. “For him to run a minute faster than what he had done when he first came is enormous. What’s most important is that he can turn effort onto effort at training. Last year, after one effort, he’d take a breath and go again. The extra time he’s had away has allowed him to work on himself.”
Of course, humming along in isolation training counts as much as humming along in pre-season training. It will count for little come October.
It took a global pandemic to pause the hype surrounding the Eels this season but it won’t be long before it ramps up again.
They toughed out an 8-2 win over the Bulldogs in the first round, and then rolled Gold Coast 46-6 in the final match before the season was suspended.
Brown was particularly impressive in that last game. Titans prop Jai Arrow zeroed in on Moses all match. It allowed Brown to step up, running the ball and kicking with aplomb and maturity.
“I just feel like I’ve got so much more to learn,” Brown says. “There’s been plenty of hype around my name and me having to live up to that. It’s added pressure. Confidence is something that I have to work on. But I’m pretty chill.”
Arthur reckons Brown is selling himself short.
“His defence was great in that match against the Titans,” he says. “He’s a tough kid. But we’ve all known that since his first training session.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.