Eels recruit and former Raider Michael Oldfield admits a 2020 season in which he – like many other players – was stuck in a COVID bubble away from family and friends back home, while also barely getting a chance to actually play, was extremely tough.
Living back on the northern beaches where he grew up and commuting to Eels training with lifelong mate Clint Gutherson, Oldfield said it was a relief to be back close to family and friends this year.
"I think post-COVID and the whole bubble situation, it's just a relief, getting to come home," Oldfield told NRL.com.
"It was hard last year. Everyone struggled with their experiences and whatnot but being in Canberra, I know it was only a few hours away but it was too hard to see anyone.
"That was pretty hard. On top of that with injuries and form, not playing. This year if a bubble was to happen again or that sort of situation I'll be in a much better place to handle it and deal with it given I'm back at home."
Not even getting the chance to play made things that much tougher. Oldfield got just six games – three off the bench and three in the centres – with a hamstring strain and broken thumb at different times exacerbating an already challenging year.
The journeyman outside back did praise the support system at the Raiders, with the COVID-forced travel challenges bringing the playing group closer together at the time.
"Canberra had it pretty tough last year but it did bring the team a lot closer," he added.
"We had to just rely on each other for everything, support inside and outside.
"I'm pretty lucky this year and hopefully if things go well there's no bubble and we can just experience life as it is and have a good year here at Parra."
Playing and training alongside Gutherson is an added bonus after a 10-year career at the Sea Eagles, Roosters, Rabbitohs, Panthers and Raiders plus the Catalans Dragons.
"It's been a cool little trip around the world, literally, and now I get to play with Guth," he said.
"We grew up together, I'm very close to his family and brothers. I watched Clint grow up and come through the juniors, I used to go watch him a lot and obviously now he's on the big stage it's pretty cool I get the opportunity to play under him."
Gutherson also welcomed the chance to play alongside Oldfield.
"It's good to have Oldy here; he's sucking up all my petrol but it's good! It's me, him and Joey Lussick at the moment all driving out together [from the beaches]," Gutherson said.
"We've got a couple of friends to get coffee with and head to the beach after training so it makes the car trip go a bit quicker.
"I've known Oldy all my life so it's pretty special to have him here. Hopefully we get a couple of games together.
"He's a great player, he's been around forever and he's going to be great when he gets a chance to play at our club. He's probably been pretty unlucky in his career with injuries and stuff like that but he's here to prove himself again and I'm pleased to have him here."
The Eels' 2020 season review
Oldfield said his initial chats with Brad Arthur were around the coach's desire to have another experienced back to help bring some of the rising crop of young backs through the grades.
"He was looking for some experience in the outside backs, someone that can help develop their juniors alongside the coaches," Oldfield said.
"Having an old head around and having that ability to sort of fill in anywhere and the speed side of things. It was all positive from my end, it's exciting."
Most of Oldfield's chances in first grade have come on the wing but the most obvious vacancy in the Eels backline is Michael Jennings' vacant centre spot and Oldfield said he's content anywhere in the back five if given a chance.
"Especially over the last few years I've done everything in the outside backs," he said.
"It's been good. I've never really just seen myself as a winger, it's just been the case there's been a wing spot available. I'll play wherever I can, wherever Brad sees fit, I'm happy to play anywhere.
"[The Jennings suspension] does present an opportunity for someone. It's just a matter of who trains well in the off-season. I'll dip my toes in a bit of everything, familiarise myself with the systems and combinations.
"I try not to limit myself to one spot, there's five different positions in the outside backs you could be in which could be five, six, seven different combinations. It's important I get around and run around with different people and familiarise myself with how everyone is individually."