As the countdown towards Season 2018 rolls on, I thought it worth taking a look at some of the up and comers in our playing ranks – players who are knocking on the door, but are yet to crack first grade at the Eels.
The first installment of “The Watchlist” features a name most frequently mentioned in Eels circles as the next to crack the big time; and that name belongs to 21 year old Marata Niukore.
It often gets lost in football circles just how freakishly big 21 year olds can be, particularly when you stand them next to other giants like Tony Williams and Kane Evans. Nonetheless at 6″ 2′ and 105kg, Marata’s size and brickhouse-esque shape at such a young age is nothing short of astounding. Not only would you not want to meet him in a dark alley, his gigantic frame could be the very reason said alley is covered in darkness. He is a big, athletic, aggressive looking unit.
But first, some background. Marata came to the Eels from the Warriors in 2017, originally pegged as a centre and back rower. Prior to this, Marata represented the Junior Kiwis in 2015, and then made his first class representative debut for the Cook Islands in May last year, lining up in the centres alongside NRL experienced players such as Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (you better believe I copy pasted that), Isaac John, Ersan Masters and Alex Glenn. Although scores were tied 12-12 at the break, the Kukis went down to a spirited PNG Kumuls side 30-22, including a double from PNG fullback Stargroth Amean (the name ‘Stargroth’ makes him sound like a Marvel character; and just when you thought ‘Marata’ was going to be the coolest name in this article). Nonetheless, considering how far the Kumuls went in this year’s RLWC, and the lack of preparation the Kukis were granted, you can appreciate just how close Marata’s national team is to becoming a legitimate player in the international scene. But, I digress.
Although yet to feature in the top grade, Marata churned out 18 games for the Magpies last year, most often on the edges. In those 18 appearances, the man Forty20 likes to call “Hakuna” scored two tries, had a linebreak, 5 linebreak assists, and 10 offloads; on occasion even putting in a sneaky grubber kick or two. A solid but admittedly not spectacular set of statistics. “So what’s the big deal?” I hear you collectively ask.
Outside of his Incredible Hulk impersonation, what’s most impressive about Niukore is his 2017 average of 117.4 running metres per game. As you can see in the table to the right, if Niukore were able to translate those numbers to the NRL (admittedly against much stiffer opposition), he would have found himself as our third most metre eater, only behind certified superstars Semi Radradra and Nathan Brown. Particularly for a 21 year old, such numbers go some way toward indicating Marata’s outrageous potential. This has not gone unnoticed by Eels coaching staff, as Marata was awarded the 2017 Bob O’Reilly NSW Cup Player of the Year Award. Similarly, Marata now finds himself (and his gigantic frame) in consideration as a middle forward, moving on from his previous manifestations as an edge or backline player.
Statistic translations aside, what’s just as pressing is who on earth BA could possibly leave out of the current 17 to give him a shot. Without leaving myself too vulnerable to the inevitable criticism of being off the mark, I’ve got class forwards such as Siosaia Vave, Suaia Matagi, Peni Terepo, Kaysa Pritchard and Brad Takairangi already missing out on a spot in our starting 17. Injuries might strike for one or two, but he’s going to have to seriously outplay several names on that list to get the nod.
The good news is that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Marata’s 2017 tackle efficiency for Wenty (90.4%) would have placed him at 16th in the squad, only above Rory O’Brien in the forwards. Although this is only about halfway down the entire squad list, it’s no doubt a concern for a future forward, particularly as again these numbers come against ISP competition. In short, Niukore still has a bit of work to do on the defensive side of the ball.
Even before this article, if you follow us on Twitter (@EelsTCT), you’ll have seen me already talking up Marata as a dark horse for the 17 at some point this season. Yet when all those names, with all their respective talent and experience, get written down on paper, short of an injury crisis of biblical proportions, it’s still pretty difficult to see his path to the top grade in 2018.
At least with such an accomplished supporting cast, when Marata’s time in the top grade does come, the talent he will have needed to push past will have meant he’s definitely earned it.
Here at The Throw, we’ll be watching.
Go you Eels,