The Auckland Nines are done and dusted for another year and once again the Eels have acquitted themselves well via a semi-final appearance. The euphoria of Day 1 came crashing back to earth at the hands of a youthful and athletically gifted Panthers outfit. Nonetheless, the blue and golds can take pride in both their results and their attitude towards this event. For the club and its supporters, certain facts were either learned or reinforced.
* Corey Norman Is A Crucial Component Of This Team
Yes, and the sky is blue. Naturally this is a Captain Obvious statement. Parramatta can probably manufacture wins without Norman, possibly even beat any team on our day, but he remains the most important member of the squad. Essentially he embodies every component of a Premiership winning half, and any team with such a player would struggle without them.
However, let me temper these statements by adding that this was magnified in the context of the Nines. Norman is arguably at the pinnacle of the elite class in this format, and his absence in the semi-final was a bridge too far for the Eels. One can prepare for the premiership absence of a star player via days, weeks and months of training. It’s not so easy in a weekend tournament. We witnessed that on Saturday.
* Matagi Will Be A Starter
The question I’ve been asking at training has been, “What possessed Penrith to release this bloke?” After the Nines, other Eels fans were thinking the same. When the Eels recruited Suaia Matagi, I did my research, watched the highlights reels. He was certainly a man to be admired. A redemption story out of the same mould as Manu Ma’u. Matagi had a playing style that was akin to a more skilful Moi Moi.
Yet with this all research he still snuck under my guard. Back in October, without much time spent at training, I listed him as a starter for Wenty. Was I influenced by his previous inability to settle at one club? Whatever the reason, the pre-season soon changed my mind. By early January I had him listed as a starter in the NRL pack. Matagi plays with all of the aggression required in the engine room, then adds some deft ball skills. The Nines gave other Eels fans the opportunity to see what Matagi has showcased throughout this pre-season. To use one of Phil Gould’s favourite lines, “He’s a goodun!”
* Nathan Brown Is Ready To Fire
This bloke has a career history that made headlines for all of the wrong reasons. Labelled by some sections of the media as a grub, you could be excused for thinking we’d gone out to recruit some mongrel for the pack. Without dismissing that notion, you’d definitely be short changing his skills to limit any profile to just his aggression.
At the Nines we witnessed his kick and chase, dummy half work (is this the reason for the “Piggy Riddell” moniker?) and ball skills. Mix that in with some firebrand defence and you have a potential representative level utility forward.
Brown was another player that I erred with in my October prognostications. Thinking back to his Rabbitohs days, I listed him as a starting prop. Watching him in person during pre-season, I was surprised to see that his size had more in common with Anthony Watmough than Tim Mannah. I soon labelled him as a “young Choc with ball skills”. With that in mind, he’s certain to be in the 17 and an ideal player to start at lock or come from the bench.
* Gutherson Is Best Suited to The 13 Man Game
When I reflect on Gutherson’s performance in Auckland, I’m astounded by the doubters that have appeared on social media. For the most part, he was confident and comfortable in the halves. That was until he was asked to assume a more prominent role without Norman. In the Penrith match he looked unsure about his options and his execution followed suit. However, this was far more reflective of his suitability to control a Nines match, rather than a 13 a side Premiership game.
Consider the role that Norman plays in Nines football. He dances around in front of the opposition, teasing the defence about what he’s going to do. At times he appears to come to a complete stop, almost beckoning his opponents to come at him, only to find a hole for himself or a support player. Few players are as dominant at Nines as Normz. Few players orchestrate their Nines teams like he does. He’s almost like the Cameron Smith of abbreviated footy. Take him out of the Eels line up and there will be an impact. It’s folly to expect Gutherson to fill that role in Nines. Nobody could.
Why then am I confident that Gutherson will be a success in the Premiership pivot role?
The key word is “role”.
Gutherson’s role will be supported by the players around him. Players that were not there in that final Nines match. Norman is the most obvious. As a pairing, they will compliment each other. Gutho is a very good support player. He has the ability to take on the line and pop a pass and his short kicking game developed nicely in the latter part of 2016. His areas of development lie in game management and pass selection. This is not to describe it as a weakness. He looks impressive at training and is renowned for his dedication to improvement. Certainly his development In the halves in what was his first full season of NRL was astounding.
The support play (both on and off the ball) of the pack will be crucial to Gutherson. Indeed, talented halves realise their potential when the platform is laid by the big boys. Additionally, the Eels pack contains a number of talented ball players this year, a facet of the team that will ease the pressure on both Norman and Gutherson. Pritchard, Edwards, Brown and Matagi can all use the ball before, at, or in the line. Viewers were treated to a couple of tries created through the ball skills of the forwards in the first game in Auckland. I’m expecting plenty of that in 2017.
To wrap up my assessment of Gutherson, I’m going to make a comparison with Corey Norman. The Eels purchased Norman for the 2014 season and regarded him as a high profile recruit. With four seasons and 63 appearances to his name in Broncos colours, he came with both credentials and expectations. With respect, it took Norman a good 12 months to settle into his role at the Eels.
In contrast, Gutherson arrived at Parramatta with little fanfare and just five first grade appearances across three injury plagued seasons at Manly. Yet in the most tumultuous year in the Eels history, he played across four positions and eventually assumed the role of a chief playmaker. It was a phenomenal achievement and leaves me with little doubt that Gutherson has both the determination and the football smarts to succeed in the halves. It ludicrous to doubt him after one average Nines game.
* Bevan French Is A Tough Bugger
We know he has speed to burn. We’ve seen him score tries that others couldn’t. But few have recognised how tough he is. Perhaps we lose sight of it because he’s lightly framed and there’s more concern about bulking him up than acknowledging what he can do in spite of his size. Over the weekend he surprised nobody with his speed, but he might just have turned a few heads with his defence and his resilience.
* Defence Wins Matches
Even in Nines footy, the teams who played with the best defensive attitude qualified for the semi-finals. The defensive application of the Eels was outstanding across the weekend. It was controlled and aggressive. Some of the hits from Brown and Matagi would surely have sent a signal about the way the Eels will go about their business. Line speed, hitting, sticking and trusting the bloke next to you must remain key, but we look to be building on the foundations laid last year.
With depth and options at his disposal, Eels supporters can be assured that BA will only hand out NRL jerseys to players who can tackle. The Auckland Nines was the first of three weekends that players will need to use to prove their defensive capabilities.
* Plenty of Talent to Add
With the focus on the strength of the Nines squad, the quality of the players left behind has surely been forgotten. Both centres and most of the pack are still to be added to the 17 man NRL team for Round 1. Very little needs to be said about the impact that will have. With a number of the Auckland Nines team set to fill roles for Wenty, it allows for pressure on positions, quality back ups and high standard opposed sessions. It’s a good place to be in.
A Final Word
The team performance in Auckland did not deliver a much hyped title, but a semi-final result was a fair start to the year. It would be foolish to ignore any red flags, but those were rare. Players who need to address aspects of their game will no doubt be spoken to by Arthur – he’s noted for his up-front approach to players.
Ultimately, this event is another part of each team’s preparation for the season. A sequence of rapid fire trials for half of a squad, played over one weekend. The coaches will decide what it will tell them. For mine, there were plenty of positives.
Images courtesy of Parramatta Eels, NRL and Auckland Nines