It's been well documented that the National Rugby League's great Queensland relocation of 2021 has prompted some angst among the ranks of players, staff, families, and to no small extent Queensland authorities. But now the season and its accompanying bubble stint is fast drawing to a climax, and aside from some isolated slip-ups, players have mostly presented a staunch 'let's just get on with it' attitude publicly. Manly Sea Eagles star Reuben Garrick is one such player. In fact, the 24 year old both embodies this mentality, and whole-heartedly endorses the overall situation.
"I love the bubble," Garrick tells ESPN, his enthusiasm giving the impression he's not under any kind of instruction to answer in a positive fashion, but is simply speaking from the heart.
"There might have been a few difficulties at the start, but you look back home and see everything that's going on back there, and realise just how lucky we are to be in the position we are. So there's a lot of gratitude."
The high flying Sea Eagles joined the Knights, Panthers and Roosters on the Sunshine Coast in early July. They've lost just one match (against the Storm in round 21) during the lengthy stint, and have otherwise produced a highly impressive charge toward the finals.
Now the famous club has nailed down a top four position which many refused to believe they could achieve in 2021, after a 13th placed finish in an even more disrupted 2020 season. On a personal level, the powerfully built Garrick has reached unprecedented heights; becoming Manly's highest ever single season point scorer, and the first player to score 20 tries and kick 100 goals in a premiership season. The Gerringong junior also became the game's highest single season point scorer, moving to 304 points after adding another 18 in the final game against the Cowboys. Such feats go a long way to justifying his vigour around the subject of life in the bubble.
But despite all the enthusiasm, the winger admits that not everyone has thrived in the circumstances as he has, leaving the 'in-sync' nature of the 2021 Sea Eagles to play an important role on and off the field.
"There's definitely a bit of homesickness creeping in for some of the guys,' he confirms. 'Our coaching staff and support staff are doing an amazing job of keeping everything fresh for us, adding another layer to our mateship here. We've all got our mates to lean on, and everyone's looking out for each other at the same time."
Des Hasler and his staff have worked hard to keep the love and competitive juices flowing for those that haven't had their families with them. Garrick speaks of team dinners, table tennis tournaments, and the constant encouragement of an elevated awareness of teammates, and how they are coping. This mandate of 'looking after the bloke next to you,' has clearly been echoed on the field, seeing Manly lift themselves into proper premiership contention.
When asked to nominate an individual who has gone above and beyond in applying it, Garrick names former long-serving Sea Eagle turned club wellness coach Matt Ballin. The one-game Queensland origin representative is bunkered down with the team and keeping a round the clock vigil on the wider group's contentment levels.
"He's been amazing," Garrick says of Ballin. "He's been liaising constantly, not just with the players but with partners as well. I think, especially early on when the families were quarantining, he was awesome in keeping spirits up."
Another charter plane loaded with NRL player's loved ones arrived in Queensland on August 31, not long after authorities placed a freeze on hotel quarantine intake in the state. In the face of some expected criticism and claims of unfairness/favouritism (Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk this week apologised for the decision presenting a 'bad look'), both Queensland's government and the NRL confirmed the arrivals were arranged independently of the state-mandated entry system; with the league bearing the cost of reuniting players and families as much as possible. Controversy aside, they're here now, and according to Garrick their presence will heal some of the homesickness being experienced by teammates.
"Definitely a good distraction," he confirms. "I know some of the boys will get a real kick from it, Turbo (Tom Trobojevic) especially has been really hanging out for his family to arrive."
The thought of a homesick Tom Trbojevic being soothed by the presence of loved ones and going up a level come finals time is a daunting one for rivals. But while having teammates, partners and kids by your side might make things easier for players in a long stretch away from home, there are other factors at play during the Delta crisis. Not least among them is the constant concern for the extended family members living in the thick of it back home.
Garrick admits that 'it's been a really long time,' and he's counting down to seeing his family on the NSW South Coast. Teammate Morgan Harper is quick to admit that he has also endured some anxiety while contemplating the situation in NSW, despite having his partner and children by his side.
"Everyone does (struggle) at points," The New Zealand-born centre confirms. "I miss my mum and dad a lot and I worry about them. But we have each other here, and once we're out on the field, we understand what we're here to do."
Harper makes no secret of a desire to return home ('hopefully after the GF'), and concedes that the strain of worry for those back home, combined with the extended time away, could certainly send some players into difficult head spaces. But he's very quick to shut down a probe into whether some of the reports of disharmony (Eels) and misdemeanours (Bulldogs) coming out of other camps in recent weeks, has prompted any words of warning from Des Hasler.
"I don't want to comment on the stuff from other clubs," he says. "The outside stuff is irrelevant to us and what we're here for, (which is) marching into the finals man."
Reserve hooker Karl Lawton is equally quick to echo the response and vouch for his teammates, when pressed on the same topic.
"Honestly we don't have anything to worry about with that stuff," the 25-year-old adds. "We're a good crew here and we're all level headed. We haven't really touched on that, there's sort of no need."
It's no secret the general vibe in the NRL bubble has taken a sharp upturn since the easing of Queensland's restrictions allowed previously confined players a great deal more freedom of movement.
"We can go to the beach, go to restaurants- it makes things a whole lot easier and you could tell it changed the situation for some of the blokes who might not have been loving it," Lawton says.
"I think it reflects in our footy, that everyone's happy and playing some good footy."
But freedom of movement aside, will the presence of additional loved ones and the reality of being so close together for so long in the bubble prove advantageous, or detrimental, come finals time?
"As long as everyone avoids Reuben Garrick we'll be ok," jokes the humorously frank Lachlan Croker.
"He's had his tail up for a while now, and no one really likes him when he's like that."
Once he gets the good natured banter out of his system, Croker is unequivocal in his belief that the quality of Manly's output has been fuelled by a harmonious and happy existence in the bubble.
"I think it's worked in our favour to be honest," he says. "We saw Melbourne in this situation last year and it worked out pretty well. Now we're all gelling together pretty well, partners are getting on. There's a good vibe around the place."
A good vibe, but not at the expense of consideration for those back home, as re-emphasised by Harper, who's final message applies both to his teammates, and those watching Manly's premiership tilt from behind the iron curtain of a seemingly endless lockdown.
"Everyone knows what we're here to do, and we'll get through it with love."