New faces, new inspiration at the Jets
SHANE Walker says the Ipswich Jets are using last season's disappointing finals capitulation to Easts as inspiration ahead of their 2019 campaign.
Asked if the 50-20 hammering to the Tigers in Week 3 of the Intrust Super Cup finals had stayed in the minds of he and the playing group, Walker said he had drawn more from the form the team showed prior to that loss than anything negative from the September 8 encounter.
"It's not so much motivation about the way we went out, it's more inspiration,” Walker said.
"We know we've got a really good squad. We know we finished a game short last year. We've already spoken about all of that with the team.
"We've had two big losses in Dane Phillips and Wes Conlon, but at the same time we have a lot of guys ready to stand up and do a great job for us.”
Going on last season's ladder placings, the Jets have - by far - the most difficult opening draw of any team in the competition.
They play every side from 2018's top eight in the first eight rounds.
But despite missing the aforementioned Phillips and Conlon, the club has brought in some notable replacements which Walker believes will hold it in good stead come round one.
The most notable being the return of 2015 premiership-winner Josh Cleeland, after a three-year stint in Sydney with Cronulla and Canterbury-Bankstown.
"It's a massive signing for us. Josh has been terrific since he's been here,” Walker said.
"He's been in a professional system now for three years, and he's come back and shown all those qualities that he learnt while he was away.
"Before Josh left he was one of the best players in our competition. He was certainly one of the best in their competition down there. I don't expect anything to change.
"Every team will fear what he brings to the table.”
Left admittedly frustrated at not being offered an opportunity with another NRL club despite impressing anyone with a pair of working eyes whilst in Sydney, Cleeland's return home brought with it a mixture of excitement but also disappointment.
"When Josh first came back you could see it. Nat Neale has been that guy before, and to an extent a lot of us have been through it, where you finish in the NRL and come back to Queensland Cup and there's a bit of a mental barrier to overcome in terms of desire and things,” Walker said.
"Up until Christmas you could see could see that in Josh. He was struggling with the transition. But since Christmas he's really taken on a noticeable leadership role within the group. He's really driving guys' standards up, and accountability around training and performance. There's been a noticeable shift.”
Cleeland is not the only notable inclusion to the Jets in the off-season.
Wynnum's favourite son Peter Gubb has followed good mate and former 'Gulls teammate Ben Shea to the Jets in the off-season.
Walker likened Gubb - a powerfully-built winger - to Richard Pandia, for his willingness to take on some of the hit-up work.
Another Wynnum product to make the switch is fullback Hayden Crowley, who has also spent some time in the Cowboys system and is back fresh after a year away from footy.
Former Jets colt Shannon Hicks has returned "and is in good shape”, while one-time Mackay Cutter Jack Creith has overcome an extended ankle injury lay-off which sidelined him all of last season, and impressed on the training track.
Brett Kelly (Easts Tigers), Jacob Teevan (Easts Tigers), Fred Keil (Melbourne Rebels) and Todd White (Pittsworth Danes) are further additions to the senior squad.
Despite the influx of seasoned players in the off-season, Walker said he and brother Ben would still regularly cast their eye over the lower grades this season.
"There's some guys that have come out of our 20s that have stayed on and are looking in great shape. Even fellas in our 20s and 18s, we think there is a real possibility some of those guys could debut this season,” he said.
"There is a lot to look forward to.”
As for the 2018 crop of senior players, much stays the same outside of Phillips and Conlon's exits.
Jets fans can expect further improvement from youngsters Jayden Connors and Julian Christian, while Walker hopes winger Denzel Burns gets a full season under his belt after work interrupted his debut campaign in Ipswich.
Connors became an instant sensation when he was elevated from the bench in place of Keiron Moseley when the latter went down with injury midway through 2018.
However Christian found himself on the outer, after struggling to make the transition from the 20s to senior footy.
"It's always tough coming out of the 20s into first grade,” Walker said.
"Julian has worked really hard in the pre-season to get himself right. His training is the best we've seen from him. Hopefully he can see the rewards for that this year.”
Burns impressed in the 2018 pre-season and made a handful of cameo appearances early in the season, before work took him away.
"Denzel is another guy who made his debut last year. He had to return to Toowoomba for work, but hopefully we get a full season out of him this year,” Walker said.
The Jets face Sunshine Coast in a trial game this weekend, and Easts next weekend.
The first game for points is on March 10, at home to Townsville Blackhawks.