Melbourne Football Club Training
Age photographer Sebastian Costanzo is granted unlimited access to capture a day in the life of Melbourne's pre-season. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
IT'S three o'clock in the afternoon, and Melbourne is asleep on the job. To be fair, though, it's part of the job. The Demons are two-thirds of their way through “Three Block Wednesday”, the most demanding, draining day of each week. They've trained for a couple of hours, they've wrestled on the gym floor and now it's time to recoup some energy before part three: a strength circuit and the watt bike session everyone has been dreading. The 45-minute recovery nap is new to Melbourne's pre-season program, and optional. It's not for everyone, but 23 players are curled inside sleeping bags on the locker-room floor when the lights are flicked off and the door locked shut.
It's not surprising.
Discipline: Mark Neeld aims to make the Demons difficult to play against. Photo: Ken Irwin
Melbourne's day is well underway when the players start making their way through the long AAMI Park corridor to a team meeting. The players are ready for training and a bunch have been in the gym for an extra touch session with development coaches Paul Satterley and Andy Nichol. Nichol flings tennis balls, soccer balls and footballs at the players, testing their reflexes, and Satterley has them handball at a moment's notice through the hula hoops he has attached to some netting: “one, four, Jonesey, blue, five .?.?.” he calls, as players fire balls towards the hoops, coloured, numbered and with, in one case, a photo of midfielder Nathan Jones attached. Every player does touch sessions with their line group throughout the week, but extra sessions are available: this morning, defender Troy Davis gets special mention for improving his scores. On the other side of the gym, Shannon Byrnes is one of a handful of players warming his legs up on a stationery bike. Byrnes is 28, but that hasn't made adapting to a new team and its way of doing things any easier. The lingo in particular, he says, takes time to learn.
Melbourne has three footy sessions a week, each with a different focus: defence, offence, stoppages and game sense. It means that, after a brief introduction by coach Mark Neeld, it's defensive coach Jade Rawlings' turn to run through today's drills – sniper run, black hole, grid game and others – by waving a green laser pointer at a couple of graphics and some vision from Monday's session. Today's session is one the coaches spent more than 90 minutes on Tuesday afternoon planning and Rawlings keeps the graphics to a minimum, knowing it's the vision that helps the players really see things, and asks questions about decisions that were made or made badly.
There's Sam Blease's choice to lunge at a player, who slipped his tackle on the boundary line and got away; some subtle sideways movement from Rohan Bail, which allowed him to cover two defenders at once and force play across goal. “We can't afford to miss tackles and we can't afford to get stepped,” forwards coach Leigh Brown chips in. “Get up in their face, and get up in their face big.”
The last thing announced is today's All-Star defensive team, as chosen by Rawlings. They'll participate in the final drill, in which they'll be outnumbered but still asked to try to force turnovers. At this time of year, when there is no external opposition, competition must come from within and it's become an honour to make the list. Jeremy Howe, Neville Jetta, Jones, Bail and Byrnes are among those picked for today's team.
Training is at Gosch's paddock, two minutes' walk down Swan Street. It's cold and, before too long, wet. Chris Dawes jogs the boundary line, looking after a minor calf injury. Another group of players walks some slow laps before heading inside for some rehab work and among them is Jimmy Toumpas, Melbourne's first choice two weeks ago. Conditioning coach Dave Misson is still getting to know the new players – what they can do, how hard they can be pushed – and Toumpas' calves are a bit sore after training on Monday. “I got so excited. I was like, 'Yes! I'm out of rehab!' said the 18-year-old, who has moved in with the Viney family. “Two days later and I'm straight back in.”
The session runs smoothly, and Rawlings feels as though it's a good one, sharper than Monday's, which was held after a short break. “Give them four days off, and the first session back is always a bit flat,” he said. “They were good today.” All the coaches have a role to play, and development coaches Nichols and Aaron Greaves carry iPads, using an app to film sections of play up close and show it to the players involved immediately. The session is filmed by high definition cameras attached to a post behind the goals, able to be downloaded and coded straight away by the club's IT staff. By the afternoon, players will be able to call up their own edits.
The session finishes with some running, but not as much as the group would have this time last year. Last pre-season it took Misson five or six weeks to get the players where they needed to be aerobically; this time they came back running far better times.
Still, the players need to be challenged to do the required work. They all wear GPS units through the session, with their numbers fed live into a laptop on the side of the ground. They all know what they need to rack up: zone five and six efforts, where they sprint at 25 km/h or faster. “The gains you've made with your running has now got to translate into how you train,” Misson tells them. “But don't think that it's naturally going to translate into the way you train and the way you play. You've got to take it upon yourself to make sure you're doing the running you need to do within the drills.”
Lunch is laid out for the players and they drop by before or after a dip in the plunge pools for some meat, salad and wraps. This is the one time of day when they're not being watched – if there is one thing that catches your eye about their daily life it's that almost every single thing they do is measured, assessed and ranked against not only their teammates, but AFL benchmarks. There are daily weigh-in and hydration tests, and regular skinfold tests. Every training session is filmed and reviewed as if it was a game. Their GPS numbers are written on the whiteboard for everyone else to see and they get scored for the touch sessions. Every line coach has a “depth chart” and the players know that if they're not in the top five or six, they wouldn't be getting a game. Twice a week, Neeld meets with the coaches, welfare manager Craig Lees, Misson and others, and every player's progress is individually assessed. “You can't get away with anything,” says James Sellar. “If you have a day off, everyone's going to know you've had a day off. It all shows up.”
As Neeld puts it, players run half-marathons at high intensity once every seven days during the season, while their bodies are being smashed. He wants his young group to get better used to body contact, as safely as possible, hence the introduction of some basic wrestling training. “This is the fun part of the day,” says Tom McDonald, paired up with Jake Spencer. Coach Ed Bavelock winds his way through the players, as Sellar takes on Cam Pedersen, Sam Blease wrestles James Strauss and Viney tries to strangle Byrnes. There's plenty of sweat and one, brief pause for a laugh, as David Rodan treats one exercise as a chance to show off his breakdancing skills.
Most of the coaches drop by for a look. It's important for the players, says Rawlings, to feel like they're always watching, always interested and accessible. But they spend much of their afternoon in another meeting run by director of sports performance Neil Craig. Every drill is reviewed at length: which players ran hard, who didn't, how many possessions were racked up in the grid game as well as how many turnovers. That number doesn't necessarily worry Neeld. “The next defensive day we have, hit them with that,” he says. “Our ability to defend needs to improve. A lot of the unforced errors were technically unforced, but forced because they knew what was coming.”
Rawlings loved the standard of tackling, but was slightly frustrated that the other coaches weren't exactly where he needed them to be. “I should have organised that a bit better,” he says. “That's my bad.” There's some talk about how Jones was encouraged to use his voice with more authority, and James Magner's heavy tackle on draftee Dean Terlich comes up. “At the moment the senior boys are seeing a chance to get some of the boys who are struggling in training or in the running and as much as we think that's OK we can't have players doing their AC joint,” says Neeld. “I enjoyed Jimmy's tackle on Dean Terlich like everyone else but I also enjoyed the fact he was able to get up without a broken arm.”
The long day finishes back in the gym with one, last 90-minute session: a strength and endurance circuit, a half-hour for the players to work on any weaknesses in their bodies, be it their back, hamstrings or something else. The last part is on the dreaded watt bikes, where once again there is no hiding, with the players' efforts right there on a screen in front of them. Assistant coach Brian Royal stands by Blease's side, urging him on, rookie Tom Couch finishes with a tired smile having ridden well, and Nichol joins in. “It's the hardest thing we do,” says McDonald, “but the best thing, because you can see exactly what you're doing while you're doing it.” That the pre-season pauses for no one is summed up by Jack Trengove, who watches on during the bike session, back from having scans done on the left foot he knows is sore, but hopes is not badly injured. He gets the bad news a couple of hours later: he has the early signs of a stress fracture and will need to wear a moon boot for the next six weeks.
Byrnes looks ready to sleep by the time he gets off his bike, and is looking forward to eating – a lot – before sleeping and getting to the airport early for Melbourne's flight to Darwin and an eight-day training camp. He's still settling in. But he feels like he's settling into something good. “I honestly came here thinking, it's a bottom club, is it going to be a bit slack and lazy?” he said. “But I reckon they're on edge. They're still learning and the skill and the know-how is still coming, but I honestly feel like they're going in the right direction. Those are my initial thoughts. You can't have this many blokes wanting to go well, wanting to go really well, and nothing come out of it.”