The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immensely negative impact across the world, but it isn’t hard to see a silver lining for the Tigerland faithful as the 2020 Allsports Physiotherapy Hospital Challenge Cup season approaches.
With a number of overseas competitions cancelled and Australia’s borders closed, Easts have welcomed a host of proven stars back to the club to build one of the competition’s deepest squads.
2019 captain Tom Milosevic has returned from a stint in the UK alongside outside centre Landon Hayes, while front rowers Kirwan Sanday and Richie Asiata have also made the move back to David Wilson Field from Japan and Canada respectively.
The backline has been enhanced by former St.George Queensland Reds flyer Aidan Toua, with the versatile Dylan Taikato-Simpson also joining the squad full time after splitting his commitments between Queensland Premier Rugby and Major League Rugby in the USA last year.
The returning players add to an already imposing Easts squad which features the likes of Wallaby captain Ben Mowen and former Reds backrower Michael Gunn in the pack.
Head coach Moses Rauluni is excited at the prospect of seeing his new look squad take the field and already appreciates the experience his returning players will bring to the field.
“It was quite kind to us,” Raulini said of the COVID-19 break.
“Tom Milosevic was a physical player anyway, but in England it’s all about forwards and set-piece, the game is a lot slower with more contact, so playing against bigger guys will help him in his set-piece this year.
“Landon Hayes has come back a lot more mature, he really ran good lines when he played with us last year and I think just the experience of being overseas is going to help him.
“With Aidan Toua, just his knowledge, he’s going to be able to help Jack Frampton quite a lot around the park, especially attack wise.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who came to us last year with a season of experience now so they’re going to be bigger and better.”
Every game is a must win this year, and the shorter season means wins will be at premium as the Tigers shoot for their third-straight finals berth.
“Guys who have won the premiership know that you can’t drop any games, every game is a Grand Final and you have to play that way and be pretty ruthless against teams,” Rauluni said.
“We are planning to win every game, and it’s going to be a tough ask but I think we have the depth this year to do it, which is something we didn’t have last year.
Rauluni’s lofty goals have been matched by his squad’s positive approach to training, both during and after the break.
The squad trained in two groups of 17 once restrictions began to lift, with leaders and experienced players sprinkled throughout each to ensure the entire side prospered.
The coach has been especially impressed by the fitness and mindset of his forward pack, which shapes as one of the competitions strongest across all positions.
“They’ve been training outstandingly, they came back a lot fitter than I thought they would,” he said.
“Some of the guys I thought would put on weight have come back lighter and they’ve been training with really good intensity and really competitively.”
With Rugby now almost back, the Easts community is relishing the opportunity to reengage and reconnect with everyone at Tigerland.
“We’re a community, the vibe around the club is very good,” Rauluni said.
“There’s a lot of numbers and energy at training and it’s been no different across all the grades.
“Obviously we’re still registering when we go into the club and our GM Michael Lucas and the board have done a great job controlling that.
“Everyone’s glad we’re back, there’s still some restrictions with how many people we can have in the clubhouse but once that opens up it will be even better for the club.”