Sharks' Ipswich duo craves Nines chance
New Cronulla recruits Josh Cleeland and Kurt Capewell are hoping to get a chance to show off the "touch footy style" of rugby league that made their time at the Ipswich Jets such as success when the third iteration of the Dick Smith Auckland Nines takes place in February.
The Jets, under the Walker brothers Chris and Ben, were a revelation in the Intrust Super Cup last season, sweeping that title as well as the second State Championship against NSW Cup winners Newcastle on grand final day, playing a free-flowing and hyper-aggressive style of football.
Six members of that side have been snapped up by NRL clubs for 2016, and the two at the Sharks are hoping they'll get a chance to make their senior club debuts at the Nines on the first weekend of February as they look to stake a claim for NRL debuts in 2016.
Both 24-year-old playmaker Cleeland and 22-year-old centre-turned back-rower Capewell understand the Sharks are well stocked with high-quality NRL stars in their respective positions. Each is looking at this pre-season as a development period and a chance to learn from some of Cronulla's highly experienced campaigners.
"Obviously we'd be super keen to play Nines," Cleeland told NRL.com.
"That was pretty much our style at Jets anyway, running around [tiring teams out] so it'd be good for me and Kurt to get over there and show them some stuff so hopefully we get that opportunity."
Added Capewell: "I'd love to make the Nines and obviously I'd love Josh to make the Nines too and get a crack over there. [Beyond that] just train hard and if things go our way get a first grade spot."
Cleeland said the fact so many of the Jets side had been recruited by NRL clubs was testament to what they had developed over the past two seasons.
"It was our second year together playing that style of footy, and it showed people out there that playing a touch football style kind of works," Cleeland said.
"It makes people tired and helps us small guys with better footwork get through the lazy defenders. It was good that a whole heap of the boys got picked up."
Cleeland, traditionally a five-eighth, has fellow new recruits James Maloney and Chad Townsend, as well as breakout 2015 five-eighth Jack Bird, to contend with in his quest to break into the first grade side but says for now he's content just learning the Sharks' style of footy.
"I'm just getting the hang of running block plays and calling the shots around the park. It's good to learn from Jimmy and Chad, they're helping me out and teaching me what to do," he said.
"It's good to learn from [Maloney], I just watch him and ask him a few things about what I should do and he's helping me out a lot."
Capewell shapes as a lanky second rower but says for now he's been slotting in at back row, centre and even wing at training.
"I'll play wherever they want to put me – the more positions I can cover the more chance of getting a start but I'm aiming for centre or back rower. Even a winger if they need," Capewell said.
"I've been in and out of centres and back row and jumped in on the wing there for a bit. I'm only just coming back from my knee – I just had bit of a cleanout so I'm just coming back from that now."
Like Cleeland, Capewell has identified some senior Sharks he can learn off, not least club captain and lock Paul Gallen.
"With all their experience, you can learn a lot: blokes like Luke Lewis and 'Wado' [Wade Graham]. They've been around a fair bit and have a lot to give," he said.
Another senior Sharks back-rower, Chris Heighington, told NRL.com it would be good to see some more club youngsters get a shot in the Nines following the breakout tournaments from the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes last year as the Sharks surged to the tournament final only to be pipped by the Rabbitohs in golden point.
"I'm sure they'll get a chance," Heighington said of the Ipswich pair.
"They're both training really hard and 'Flanno' [coach Shane Flanagan] is going to take a few young boys so hopefully they can have a good tournament like Val and Birdy the year before.
"They both look really good. I think we need to get some weights into them but they're young kids and doing well and very enthusiastic. I'm sure they'll be around the Sharks for a lot longer."
Asked who the next breakout star from Cronulla might be to be unearthed at a Nines tournament, Heighington opted for forgotten winger Jacob Gagan, who had a bright start to his NRL career before having his 2015 ruined by an Achilles injury but is now looking to force his way back into the top side.
"Someone like Jacob Gagan who played a bit of first grade and went really well then last year did his Achilles," he said.
"He's on track to be back and if he gets a shot he's been working really hard and doing a lot of rehab so if he gets back I reckon he'll be a shoo-in for a good tournament. I'm assuming Jack and Val will go again so they'll light it up again as well."