The Cambodian Eagles are ready to spread their wings and fly out to Hanoi next week for a swoop on the sixth annual Indochina Cup, which symbolises the best of Australian Rules Football in the region.
The one-day fiesta on November 10 is back to where it was born in 2007 and the scene of many previous battles, the My Dinh Stadium, will be where the Eagles dare the Tigers from Thailand, the Elephants of Laos and the genial hosts, the Vietnam Swans.
The Swans have done everything within their means to make this edition a unique experience for the four teams. What the hosts are offering is a carnival atmosphere for some high intensity Aussie Rules footy action. There will be loads of fun but make no mistake, there will also be fierce competition.
It is this heady mix which is keeping the Eagles coach Grant Fitzgerald buoyant and busy, preparing a side he feels is the best assembled in years to bring the coveted Cup home.
It is less than three months since Fitzgerald from the Western Australian city of Perth took over as a coach from compatriot David Murphy, who this time will lend his enormous experience and expertise as a player.
The Cambodian side started out as the Crocodiles on their first expedition years ago before turning Kangas and transforming themselves as Cobras when they met the Swans in Phnom Penh last year.
Can the fearsome dagger beak of an Eagle inspire them to their best ever performance in Hanoi this time? Fitzgerald firmly contends it will.
The coach’s optimism stems from the fact that the current squad is easily the strongest ever put together in its short history.
“Our preparations have been going very well. There has been a shift of emphasis and focus. From skill-based training to actual match style drills which are making players fitter and well conditioned,” Fitzgerald told the Post yesterday.
“The numbers at training have been great which is a positive sign. We have no injury concerns at the moment and so we will be going to Hanoi with a squad of fit players.”
The Eagles have a pretty good mix of nationalities according to the coach, with a large number of Australian expats, some with good AFL backgrounds, and many others converts from football and rugby.
Apart from a small but committed local component, the squad has players from Ireland, England, New Zealand and America. But the side’s real strength is the core group of seasoned footy players who show the way for the less experienced so that the team as a whole can develop.
One area of real concern when it comes to sustained development of a team like the Eagles is the transient nature of the expats involved, since they move in and out every one or two years depending on their work contracts.
What are the coach’s expectations from his players?
“Our goal for this year is to win the Indochina Cup. We have a really good chance,” said Fitzgerald. “We have a big mix of players with different skill levels, but as long as they are giving their best, as a coach, you can’t really ask for more than that.
“This year we have been making a concerted effort to expand AFL out from the expat community. We now have six regular Khmer players who are really enjoying AFL and hope to increase that number next year.”
The Eagles’ full forward and leading goal kicker Jhie Gough is central to all attacking plans. A triple premiership and captain at his club back in Australia, David Murphy brings a lot of experience and leadership.
Mat Rees is probably the most successful rugby convert since Karmichael Hunt, a name Australians know far too well. It is Mat Rees who forms a key part of the Eagles midfield and half forward line.
The centre half back will be manned by another rugby convert, David Parrot, whose size and aggression allows him the liberty of locking down the key position.
The lone American in the side, Jarrod Cahners, has had AFL experience back in America before he shifted to Cambodia. He is a vital element in defence. It is the captain of the team Allan Soutaris, a very experienced football player, who brings a lot of structure and leadership.
No one in the squad carries the intensity and drive to better the previous records more than Grant Fitzgerald, who has now settled down in the city as a consultant for one of the country’s leading investment firms, Devenco.
The eagle is a patient bird – it waits for its prey. The Cambodian Eagles feel they have waited long enough.
To contact the reporter on this story: H S Manjunath at firstname.lastname@example.org