How to train slippery eels

The oracle of Mitchell Park – new eels coach Grant Sundborn. Photo: John Borren

Grant Sundborn looks like the enforcer - an intimidating chunk of a man who demands compliance and gets it.

But that’s not the style of the new head coach of the Otumoetai Eels premier rugby league team. Because just beneath that granite complexion is quite a mild mannered man - a coach who appeals to common sense and reason rather than hard-ball fist pumping and yelling.

“Relaxed but focused,” says the Eels’ Briar Hayman. “He gets buy-in from the players with his supportive approach.” A kind of league ‘whisperer’.

He proudly tells the story of the Taupo team he coached last year. “Seven Black Power, three Rebels,” he says. And a swarm of Killer Bees, apparently. ”The discipline hadn’t been great. So before every game I explained if they started fighting, they’d be playing with 12. And if they started telling the ref what to do, they’d be playing against 14. It was the same message, every game, over and over.”

And if they stopped that nonsense they could win the comp.

It took about eight games to sink in. He knew they believed his message when the gang members started giving him hugs. It might also have had something to do with the fact that Grant was driving from Tauranga to Taupo for training each week – a 300km round trip after work.

“Winning the comp and getting the trophy was great, but taming these guys, getting them under control and enjoying their league was a much greater prize. It was about making them see what they could achieve if they thought about it, and just playing the game.” That says something about the new Eels coach.

“It’s what I tell everyone – the committee, the players, the supporters. First and foremost we have to enjoy ourselves. It is a game, it is a sport. If you aren’t doing that, you are in it for the wrong reasons.”

And it will probably be easier for Grant to preach that message in the rugby league oasis that is Mitchell Park, the community that is the Eels and the family dynamic that pervades everything at the club. But there is still a job to be done.

“Grant brings finals coaching experience,” says Briar Hayman. From Feilding, to Foxton, Taupo and now Tauranga. So the club has expectations, as does Grant. “Last year was my third championship win. I came to Mitchell Park for one thing, and that was to win the comp.” And to enjoy himself in the process, of course.

To be a successful coach, Grant Sundborn believes you need to bring something different to the game. “I think outside the square,” he says. “I don’t do things by the book because everyone else is reading the same book.”

For example, when watching sport on TV, it’s a learning experience and information gathering. “I do it with a pad and pencil. I will listen for quotes and watch for drills – netball, NFL, whatever. It’s always the latest stuff and you can’t beat that.”

There have been a dozen pre-season training nights at Mitchell Park and Grant hasn’t repeated one drill. “Variation feeds interest.”

He’s working with a squad of about 25. There’s been some attrition from last year for various reasons - half-a-dozen players. “But I also have great new talent,” he says. “We are rebuilding, and these are exciting and challenging times.” It’s a simple game and should be kept simple according to the coach. “Enjoy it, listen to me, and we can go all the way.”

There are some undeclared KPIs. In 2017 the Eels won the senior reserves championship and the senior premiers were bundled out in the semi-finals. Last year, both senior teams made the semi-finals. So there’s the benchmark, Grant.

Know Mitchell Park and you will know the hill – a 45 degree, 50-metre tree lined embankment. Part of the charm is nature’s grandstand, providing panoramic game views only surpassed by the cloud level corporate boxes at Eden Park.

It’s also a torture device. It causes hearts to try and escape chest cavities, it drives lungs to the brink of exploding and muscles to surrender. “I hate dropped balls,” says Buddy Wirori, senior reserve coach and Grant’s sometimes ‘bad cop’.

Dropped balls can lose games. And even at practice, they mean the offender is sentenced to run the hill. It has a built-in deterrent factor, but is also a team builder.

“The hill’s a real bonus,” says Grant. “The other day we climbed the hill ten times. When the backs finished their ten, they went back and did another five to help our big boys complete their work. It was inspiring to watch.”

Games are won or lost in the engine room. “So we should look after them,” says Grant.

This is a relaxed, appreciative and positive coach, and a humble man to boot. “I am enormously proud to have scored this opportunity with the Eels,” he says. “It is a great club, with a great culture, great respect and a great reputation. It’s a good bunch of people who know how to look after each other and their visitors.” 

He’s been part of a visiting team at Mitchell Park, and has experienced the hospitality first hand. And he likes it.

Grant Sundborn has a wife and two children living by the beach in Foxton. “We catch up every couple of weeks.” He has a house in Taupo, a studio in Mount Maunganui, and is a concrete worker for his brother.

As he pursues his love of the game and new challenges, he may have found a new spiritual home at Mitchell Park. This is an eminently likeable bloke.

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