MELBOURNE coach Mark Neeld was entitled to look relaxed last Friday.
With Christmas a week away, he was soon to take what even Ebenezer Scrooge would describe as a well-earned break.
Behind him, Melbourne players were completing the last session of their nine-day Darwin training camp in a pool at Robertson Army Barracks.
As the players worked in teams, voices were loud and the benefits of time together in a new environment evident.
The camp had been a success from both a football and a club point of view as Melbourne aims to extend its relationship with (and presence in) the Northern Territory.
Sunday's training session – even under the duress of heat and humidity – was one of the better ones the coaches had seen during their time at the club.
The walk in Kakadu – as much a mental as physical test – had been completed without drama and proved a bonding experience for the players.
It was also obvious to everyone in the football department that everything was easier to coordinate this pre-season than it had been 15 months earlier, when the group came together without a shared history.
In fact, such a trip as this one in the Top End would not have been contemplated during those early days of change. By now, it could not only happen but achieve all its objectives.
"We did a lot of work with the players about what it was going to look like [in Darwin] and what our expectations were. The idea was that we have another opponent up here and it is called heat and humidity. It's about tackling that opponent head on and still demanding from yourself and the guy beside you peak performance and it has been really pleasing," Neeld said.
While he was not sure how the group would react to the conditions, he knew the list had players who would rise to the challenge. All the changes that occurred during the exchange and draft period were designed to improve the club in that regard.
The formula is no secret. A core group of existing players were identified during 2012 that could take the club forward. Added to that core was a set of players with experience and willing to lead, A-grade juniors with a work ethic to match their talent and a set of mature-agers with the capacity to train and play hard.
The addition of Nathan Stark and Mitch Clisby - who flew to Darwin the day after the Demons placed them on the club's rookie list – brought to 14 the number of players added to Melbourne's list in the off season. Although different ages and shapes and sizes, the players had to be considered competitors.
"They all have very, very strong characters," Neeld said of the new players. "You add that to a group where the young players were coming along really well and showing similar traits…"
The coach does not finish the sentence, distracted for a second, but it's obvious the group is trying to create a culture that sets no limits, makes no excuses and tolerates no complaining.
The players' response to training the day after arriving in humid and hot temperatures, when an exhausting first 20 minutes pushed them to the edge of tolerance, told Neeld plenty: "When we reviewed the session with the players, the heat and humidity was never mentioned," Neeld said.
"It was about this kick needed to go there, that was really good running."
That is some achievement given it was completed in heat that could shape glass.
Shannon Byrnes and David Rodan have made an instant impact with their ideas and sense of humour. Chris Dawes and Cameron Pedersen are building strong relationships within the forward line, the voice of Dawes obvious at training, while the official leaders are becoming better and better at the role thrust upon them every day.
Tom Gillies worked among the most relentless defenders the game has seen while at Geelong and shows genuine care for teammates while Jimmy Toumpas, Dominic Barry, Jack Viney, Jesse Hogan, Dean Kent, Matt Jones, Dean Terlich, Clisby and Stark provide energy, enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
Neeld has been impressed with how the newcomers with AFL experience have attacked that leadership responsibility and heartened by their impressions of the group.
"Talking to them, they have been surprised by the want of our young boys to fast-track and become better immediately," Neeld said.
"It has been different. They are all a little bit – each one of them was not known as a leader at their football club – but they come here and they have to play that role straight away."
Neeld said those experienced players have been answering questions in meetings and demonstrating by their actions how people from strong clubs go about their business.
Neeld has always understood it's better for players to see their peers at work than to be told what success looks like, so their presence is invaluable. Their role is also is a reminder that Melbourne's list remains one of the youngest, least experienced in the AFL once again as it heads into 2013.
It makes a person with Yoda-like qualities such as Neil Craig critical in guiding the development of the group and its leaders.
Not only does Craig support players to ask the right questions of themselves and others, he has the sense of humour and perspective to propel the changes in a manner that keeps people coming back for more.
Sports scientist David Misson's successful experiences with Australian cricket, as well as the Sydney Swans and St Kilda, combined with an approachable demeanour has made him a person players seek out for stories and tales of success. That's a good sign too.
"Now we have got some people in the club that have been there and in some cases done that and that is the role they have been playing," Neeld said.
What that means for wins and losses in 2013 remains to be seen, but the club's planning and vision goes much further than one year.
"Our plans go longer than one year because they need to," Neeld said.
That he can now say with confidence words he would not have used a year earlier is a good sign: "We're strong in our training standards now and it is becoming a high performance environment."
As the players worked together as a team in the pool over his shoulder, the dialogue was urgent.
Such urgency has been a feature of Neeld's approach all season and it's beginning to rub off on his charges. He understands, however, that his short break is just a chance to recharge before going again.
"We're not going to shy away and pretend that we don't have a lot of work to do … we certainly do," Neeld said.
"We are really confident in the group we have to deliver, over time, sustained success for the club. We are right at the initial stages of head down and working hard to learn to work together."
The point would be emphasised to the group just hours later. The coaches were happy with what was achieved at the camp but it was nothing else but a launching pad for the rest of the season. Work hard enough and the wheel will turn - but only if the work is all quality.
"Our club wants to be involved in the big games at the 'G. We want to do all that but you have to earn the right to do that. We're really keen as a footy department and a coaching group and a playing group to play our part in earning that right," Neeld said.
4:50pm May 21, 2013
1:28pm May 21, 2013
4:38pm May 20, 2013
1:37pm May 20, 2013