This article first appeared on nswrl.com.au.
One of the proud foundation clubs in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW, the North Sydney Bears hope to put their dramatic heart-breaking finish to 2016 aside and give their faithful fans more to cheer about in the year ahead.
In what has become the norm due to the overlap with cricket season, the Bears face a difficult start in 2017 with the first four matches being played on the road, and the first match at North Sydney Oval not taking place until their Round 7 Thursday night clash against the Wests Tigers.
Coach Ben Gardiner says the off-season has proven positive for his team.
“The pre season has been good, we’ve had some really good scrimmages and training sessions that have put it in perspective of where we think we’re at,” Gardiner tells NSWRL.com.au.
“We had a trial match a couple of weeks ago against Newtown which was a really good hit-out for us, I thought we hit our mark of where we want to be going into the season, but it can obviously be difficult at times because you don’t have your NRL squad players with you for the pre-season.
“We’ve got our North Sydney [contracted] players ready to the best of their ability and worked really hard with them; thankfully a lot of those guys followed on from last year so they had some base under their belt.
“So it’s been a different pre-season for us, we’ve worked a little bit differently to keep the stimulus different to the players.”
2016 IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
Dramatically knocked out of finals contention in the final two rounds with two close defeats.
THEIR BIG FIVE
The experienced Ed Murphy, with defensive capabilities at centre, will captain North Sydney this year, after tasting first grade for South Sydney for the first time last season.
Brad Deitz enters his second year at North Sydney, and has been rewarded for a solid first year by being named co-captain. Gardiner describes Deitz as a super competitor with electrifying speed.
In the halves, Eli Levido will control the team with his accurate kicking game, and will be a mainstay for the 2017 season.
Cheyne Whitelaw has had a couple of injury-interrupted seasons, but is one of the best defenders in the competition, and constantly puts his team on the front foot with a quick play-the-ball after damaging runs.
Another player who has tasted NRL is Patrice Siolo, and he is another powerful ball runner who will do some damage for the Bears in 2017.
Ben Gardiner enters his third year for the Bears after taking over a 2015 side mid-season that had won three games from their previous 30 starts.
He has previously been involved in the Sydney Roosters NRL coaching setup, and was an assistant coach in the victorious NSW under-20s side which last year defeated Queensland 36-22 at ANZ Stadium.
He is also currently heavily involved with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and while he is enjoying his time at the Bears, is certainly destined for more NRL-related roles in the near future.
“I’m really enjoying it, it’s been a great challenge bringing the new guys in and working with a few guys from last year,” Gardiner says.
“It has been enjoyable having guys who have been there for 12 months and knowing where they’re at, and [because of that] we’ve been able to work on some smaller, more particular parts of their game.
“I’ve been able to evolve my coaching from year one to where we’re at now; we’ve probably got about six or seven guys from that first year, and they have been able to see a transition through the way that we’ve done our coaching and education of them as players.
“The other [enjoyable] part of it is just seeing the club in general grow; our sponsorship has been the highest it’s been for some time, some of the people involved and working with the club are putting the club in a particularly good position.
“I think that we’re still getting better and still got quite a way to go, but it is enjoyable seeing the club improve the way it’s improving at, we just need to make sure that improvement in reflected on the field.”
Compared to other clubs, the Bears have had a quiet pre-season compared to player movements in relation to other clubs, but will welcomed a host of youth in 2017.
While they are contracted to the Rabbitohs, Tyrell Fuimaomo and Connor Tracey could spend time playing for North Sydney this year, and are two young players earmarked to have big futures.
The Bears will enter their first season without Tom Hughes this year after he departed to the Newcastle Knights in mid-2016, while Michael Oldfield, Jack Siejka and Haimona Hiroti have all moved on.
The Bears were a try away from the finals last season with next to no NRL experience throughout the year, proving they have the capabilities within their squad to do some damage in the competition. We predict the Bears make the finals and push for a top-four position.