EVEN from my distant vantage point, I could tell something wasn't quite right.
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The Newcastle Knights were back on the training track, and rarely have I been so pleased to see the men in red and blue working up a sweat.
In normal circumstances, the local media contingent would be standing around grumbling about how late the session is running and how they have other places they need to be.
But after a six-week hiatus because of the coronavirus, amid genuine concerns that the NRL season might have to be written off, it was a welcome sight to observe coach Adam O'Brien putting his troops through their paces on Wednesday.
A familiar face, however, was missing. Someone who for decades has given his heart and soul to the club.
Where was "Thommo"?
John Thomas, that is, the first-grade team manager since 2002 and club stalwart in various capacities for the past 30 seasons.
Normally he'd be patrolling the sidelines, dispensing iced water and Powerade at every break in proceedings, as well as collecting the goal-post padding, singlets, footballs, bump pads and any other items that players have left behind.
There was no sign of him, which struck me as unusual. Perhaps he was in the dressing rooms, tending to his long list of chores?
It was only as I made my way home that it dawned on me, so yesterday I called him for confirmation.
Thommo has turned 76, and while he still looks fit as a fiddle, under the strict new government guidelines imposed on all NRL clubs, staff over the age of 65 have to be stood down.
When the Knights were told Thomas could not be included in their list of 50 "essential personnel" - 32 players and 18 staff - they queried it.
"But then [Knights CEO] Phil Gardner phoned me on Monday lunchtime and said unfortunately that's the rules," Thomas said.
"Their hands were tied.
"The rules are pretty strict, obviously. Even for the players, they basically come to training and then have to jump in the car and go straight home."
Gardner has nonetheless assured "JT" that that when normal service resumes, "they want me to come back".
Those sentiments were echoed by coach O'Brien.
"Adam rang me and was real apologetic," Thomas said. "He said: 'I want you here, and we'll be doing the best we can to get you back here'."
O'Brien is the latest in a long line of Newcastle coaches to recognise Thommo's value.
The first was David Waite, in 1991, who needed to find a team manager for the Harold Matthews (under-15) squad at short notice.
From that point on, JT occupied an array of support-staff roles before Michael Hagan offered him the job of team manager of the reigning NRL premiers.
Former coach Rick Stone once described Thomas as "like Radar O'Reilly in MASH".
"He's just one step ahead of most people and gets the jobs done that need to get done . . . [he's] a bloke who has put his heart and soul into this club for the last 20 years," Stone said.
Stone's successor, Nathan Brown, was equally appreciative, saying in 2018: "Probably the best way to sum it up is the boys just love him. And JT probably loves the boys and the club as much as everyone loves him ... those type of guys are as important as anyone in the club."
Even the taciturn Wayne Bennett was a fan.
When Bennett initially arrived at the Knights, Thomas was told his services would not be required for away games. Before the pre-season was finished, Bennett had a change of heart.
"Thommo has to travel with the team," Bennett told then owner Nathan Tinkler. "The boys love him."
It has not escaped Thomas's attention that the same biosecurity rules apparently do not apply to the South Sydney coach, whose 65th birthday was five years ago.
"That was my argument," he said with a laugh.
Already Thomas has had supportive texts and phone calls from Newcastle's players, including skipper Mitchell Pearce, who said last year: "Every club needs someone like JT. Being a new guy to the club, he took me under his wing and made me feel welcome.
"He's a real gentleman, and talking to some of the old club legends, they all hold him in the highest regard. He's one of those guys who helps hold the club together."
If the players are missing JT, rest assured the feeling is mutual. He normally finds himself counting down the days in the off-season until he can return to work.
"It's killing me," Thomas said. "But I can't do much about it. That's the rules at the present time."
When I suggest the club might fall apart at the seams without him, Thommo replies: "They'll survive. Someone can always be replaced."
In the meantime, he's doing his best to keep himself occupied.
"I'm still getting out on the golf course, and I went fishing this morning in the lake and caught a couple of 50-centimetre tailor and a few smaller ones," he said.
"So that filled the morning in. And now I've got some plants to put into the garden, and the races are on tomorrow, so I'm finding things to do."
Like the rest of us, Thomas is looking forward to the NRL resuming, which will at least give him some football to watch on the TV. But it will also be slightly bittersweet, given that for the first time in decades he won't be at the stadium, in the dressing rooms, to ensure everything the players need is at hand.
He will, of course, be with them in spirit, and then in person, as soon as the restrictions are lifted.
"I'm hoping it's back to normal in four or five weeks, but probably not," he said.
"But whenever it is, I'll be back. I'm not finished yet."