The North Sydney Bears were the improvers of last season, with Ben Gardiner taking charge of a team that had won three from their past 30 starts, to a 2015 finals series. They had a disappointing finish to the season, losing their last three games before the Bulldogs knocked them out of the premiership race (video above). While there are a lot of new faces throughout the squad this season, Gardiner is aiming for consistency this year, and to take his team further than just a finals appearance.
Off-season focus: This is Gardiner's first pre-season as full-time coach of the Bears after entering mid-way through last season, and he can certainly see the advantages. “It’s allowed us just to put into place the basics across the board. When I say basics I don’t mean catch and pass basics. I mean some of the bases - more the bases - the things we weren’t able to put into place last year when I wasn’t there in the pre season around making sure that we’ve got every single little thing covered off. If we come to it during the season we can go ‘we discussed this during the pre season’ so we’re not re-inventing the wheel. That way it allows you to cross as many things as you can in that time off and review it on video and look at training sessions to see how they could’ve done this or that better so that when you get to the end of the season it’s not the first time that you’ve touched on it, as a coach you look to have all things covered off so that you’re not in a situation where you’re making it up at the end of the year.”
Biggest gain: The Bears have a lot of new players that have impressed so far, however Gardiner refused to single out any individuals. “We’ve probably got 50 per cent of our players have come in from other clubs - whether they’re from u-20s team or whether they’re from NSW Cup teams,” Gardiner said. “I’ve actually been really impressed with all of the new guys and their application. We’ve put a really hard pre-season in front of them, they’ve jumped in and taken it in their stride so credit goes out to every player because if I was to single someone out I probably wouldn’t be doing the right thing by they whole crew because everyone in our team has put in a great effort throughout the pre-season and now its up to them to perform on the field.”
Toughest loss: Halfback and ex-captain Darren Nicholls played an influential role in the Bears rise to success last season, and his presence in 2016 will be sorely missed as he moves back up to Queensland. While Gardiner admits he hasn’t even thought of player departures as he is always looking forward, the player who takes the number seven jersey has big shoes to fill.
Coach Ben Gardiner says: We’d like to do better than what we did last year where we finished last year so that would be a goal for us moving forward, and then on the goal with the NSW cup is to get some players to push through to the first grade outfit and get an opportunity up there whether it’s game time or training time, so we’re achieving some of that already at the moment. Probably the most important thing in the NSW Cup is to make individuals feel like their game has improved. For me, everyone wants to win so saying it’s not about winning or losing is wrong because it is about winning or losing, but at the same time it’s also about making individuals better, because if individuals get better the team gets better, so as our staff knows we’re putting everything in to making sure that each individual has every opportunity to be successful and then its up to the player then to take that opportunity to move forward.
Future star: Angus Crichton is contracted with the Rabbitohs, and despite the fact he just celebrated his 20th birthday a few weeks ago, he will almost certainly pull on the red and black jumper this season. He has an imposing 187cm and 102kg frame, but plays as an agile back rower who can also slot into the centres. The former Rugby Union Australian Schoolboy has a tremendous amount of talent, and is certainly a name to watch in the future.
Our prediction: If last season was any indication of how the Bears will perform in 2016, they will certainly be knocking on the door of the top four. However, with a brand new squad, it is difficult to judge how well certain combinations will work before a ball has been kicked. If Rabbitohs contracted player Cody Walker plays the majority of the season, it would also be a major boost to their finals chances.
Comings and goings
Gains: Brad Dietz (Cronulla Sharks), Jokatama Dokonavalu (Illawarra Cutters), Sitiveni Moceidreke (Illawarra Cutters), Samisoni Langi (Wyong Roos), Jack Siejka (Wyong Roos), Eli Levido (Rabbitohs NYC), Patrice Siolo (Newtown Jets), Clayton Williams (Rabbitohs NYC), Piki Rogers (Canterbury Bulldogs), Riley Travers (Manly Sea Eagles).
Losses: Nat Neale, Jesse Roberts (both Ipswich Jets), Joel Reddy (retired), Darryl Millard (retired), Scott Sorensen (Wests Illawarra), Sam Manuleleua (Illawarra Cutters), Matt Hyland, Brad Wall (both released)