Today’s round seven match between traditional rivals, the Eels and Sea-Eagles, will kick-off with a lot of expected, and unexpected, drama underpinning the narrative.
Statistically, the Eels will leap into this game with their worst start to a season since 1991 and the worst NRL record since the 2008 South Sydney Rabbitohs side, who lost their first seven games in a row. Enough to think a season is over, right?
However, they’ll do so under the guise of some renewed optimism following the return of fan-favourite, and newly appointed Eels co-captain, Clint Gutherson, after he successfully played his comeback match against the Canberra Raiders last week in the nation’s capital.
Additionally, this week’s team list has seen some forced and strategic changes to the squads positional make up. Some of those come in the form of Jarryd Hayne and Brad Takairangi returning to the squad, as well as what appears to be the inclusion of a bench hooker/utility, with Will Smith being named in the number 14 jersey.
Now normally, I’m not one to speculate in a public forum about the make up of our team. We have qualified coaches who have worked their whole careers to get to the position they’re in and their decisions, which are made with the benefit, privilege and knowledge of watching the squad train and interact together almost every day behind closed doors, deserves the benefit of respect from every supporter – they know who deserves a spot in the first-grade squad vs those who are still pushing for a spot in the first-grade squad.
That being said however, one thing I was concerned about was the lack of balance in our game day squad when the team sheets were being released. I am very much a believer that the 17 best players in our squad at present don’t necessarily fit into our top 17 team, because they either play the same or similar positions – so in effect, the presence of one player, should be cancelling out the presence of another player. In short, there has been an imbalance in our squad.
Now some of this has been forced as a result of the casualty ward, while others have been based purely on selection, but when one compares the balance of our team taking the field each week during our winning run last year, one can easily see the differentiation in the balance of squads to those taking the field in more recent times.
We have many players who all have the ability to play a multitude of positions, which can be both a blessing and a curse. In 2017 we played a very particular style of footy, both attackingly and defensively, and it differentiated from most of the competition. We attacked through our edges before turning it back up the middle, a tactic we seemingly haven’t utilised this year.
We also had a left edge possessing a blockbusting, powerhouse winger, who could turn a game on it’s head with one run – something we also haven’t had the advantage of calling upon so far in 2018. Fast forward to this week’s team sheet though and one starts to feel a sense of optimism, with some of the named changes.
It’s near impossible to replace a game-breaking winger talent like Semi Radradra, but if any player in our squad is going to be like-for-like for Semi in terms of ability and what he can potentially produce, it’s Jarryd Hayne. His selection on the wing is a welcomed one.
Just as the naming of Brad Takairangi at centre is. I’m a huge fan of ‘Takaz’ and I think presently while he’s in our squad, the value he best brings is as a centre (or back up half if we have an injury there). He absolutely has all the makings and build to be a very effective backrower, however, as of right now, this is his best position for the Parramatta Eels.
Additionally, I completely welcome the naming of Will Smith on the bench, presumably as a part of our hooking rotation. As it stands, both Cameron King and Kaysa Pritchard, when they’ve respectively donned the number 9 jersey, have struggled to push out 80 quality minutes. The injection of Will Smith onto the bench, might just be the support required to get us going through the middle. If anything, it’ll prevent our hookers from pacing themselves across the course of a match in the bid to survive the defensive rigours that come with defending in the middle of an NRL defensive line and may see the return of our running game out of dummy half.
Now that’s just us Eels fans, what of our opponents?
It’s fair to say Manly have been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in 2018. Aside from their 54-0 thrashing of us in round two at Lottoland, it hasn’t been too positive on the peninsula.
There’s been the salary cap scandal, and subsequent punishment, hanging over their heads; the allegations levelled against former player, coach and administrator Bob Fulton, which has been taking up headlines; and then there’s the recent Jackson Hastings-Daly Cherry-Evans saga, which seems to have a new twist-and-turn revealed every hour.
People may think we’re not in a good place at the moment, but our only dramas (if you want to call it as such, I’d prefer the phrase ‘lack of cohesion’) exist on the field. Manly’s extend inside and outside the dressing room, as well as on and off the field.
Tipping today’s winner is a balancing act in its own right. Will the positional changes of the Eels see more fluency in their play? Will the promotion of Gutherson to co-captain have a positive on-filed effect? Will the dramas of Manly (continue) affect their on-field performances? Who is better positioned to win here? The team with the no-wins? Or the team with all the drama who have been losing recently, but are capable of producing a ‘backs-against-the-wall’ performance?
It makes for enthralling viewing no doubt, but from the Eels end, it’s just a matter of getting the basics right and winning. A large part of that is managing the threats of the Manly side – let’s check out who they are:
Tom Trbojevic: Turbo Tom’s ranks continue to rise in the NRL, with his kick return metres ever-improving. His upright running style makes him quite difficult to bring down (which lends itself to a lot of tackle-breaks) and you just know he’s going to be hunting for that offload from either his brother or Marty Taupau. Our middle third, particularly based on how our bench played last week, must be on high alert. Afford Trbojevic time and space and he’ll make us hurt hard and quickly. However, I still think there’s a vulnerability to his game that we can exploit. I’ve noticed many a time over the last year or so that Tom has been making the number one his own, that communication between he and his winger can leave a little to be desired. Hoist the ball high with pressure runners between he and either of Brad Parker and Uate to put them under pressure! Either we force a mistake or we have them returning the ball off their own line with defenders in their face.
Dylan Walker & Akuila Uate: Two game breakers in the Manly backline who are probably (aside from Tom T) the only ones capable of producing a play that will turn the game on its head. The key for us is to maintain our line-speed & second efforts against players like these, otherwise either one of them will poke their head through the line when we start to tire. The slower these men play-the-ball, the better, and just as is the case with Tom Trbojevic, and the more these guys are having to contest high balls with our chasers in their face, the better. Both can be found wanting on second-man plays and I’d look for both Corey and Mitch to try & create plenty of 3-on-2’s against them, particularly given that they will be both defending outside of smaller-bodied centres who will call upon their size and support defensively.
Daly Cherry-Evans: The last year or so has seen a lot of maturity enter the game of Daly Cherry-Evans, especially when it comes to his ability to game manage. In part this was due to the presence of now Warriors Five-Eighth, Blake Green, but it would remiss not to acknowledge how Daly has accepted his role in running the side as well. His presence becomes even more pertinent given Green’s departure, and even more so when you’re in the news the way he has been the last week or two. If his game is off or if he is down on form, doesn’t have the respect of his team-mates, whatever it may be – who controls the game for Manly? Being in his face and pressuring him all-day long is a must for us. When you get in the head of a player going through what DCE is, it’s only a positive thing for your team.
Apisai Koroisau: Continues to be a very underrated attacking hooker, who takes full advantage of lazy marker work. Api would had a field day against our defensive line in the second-round fixture. It’d be wonderful if we could get his tackle count up as much as possible today, because I do believe he is still a defensively liability when you correctly turn the ball back on the inside against him. Do so effectively and it might just take the spark off his attacking game and help create in-roads for our forwards in the middle.
Martin Taupau & Addin Fonua-Blake: The two Manly enforcers, who both start the game strong, bring plenty of energy and second phase play. These big men are the two who have the real ability to get the forward pack over the advantage line. Both possess strong leg drive and the ability to offload, so shutting them down quickly with ball-and-all tackles will be key to an Eels victory. If we afford them even them any momentum or quick play the balls, you better believe their team mates listed above will be there to make us pay – just like they did in round two. We will need to have leant from our mistakes when managing these two specifically.
Jake Trbojevic: The Manly answer to Nathan Brown – a great defender, forward play-maker and energizer bunny. This man just does not stop. As one of the Sea-Eagles main attacking weapons and link men, the more we can fatigue big Jake, the better. It’ll negate the quality of his passing game, which has quick become a strong facet and aspect of Manly’s attack, and something one gets the sense they’ll rely on today.
How’ll They’ll Play It & What We Will Have To Do
To put it simply – win!
As I alluded to above, the balance in our team has been a little left of centre in terms of team selections, but some of the changes we’ve seen this week lead one to believe we’re much closer to a victory than we were this time last week or the week before.
One of the most important things to do in modern day rugby league is to start your sets off on the right foot – that means kick return metres, dummy-half running and straight up hit ups from your backline. This is an area we have struggled in so far in 2018, mainly because we haven’t had a backline full of big players capable of regular executing the donkey work.
Today, that finally changes. Gutherson, Hayne, Mennings, Takairangi and Gennings are all capable of making plenty of metres per carry, and it will help out our forward pack immensely. They will help pick up some of the slack that will relieve some pressure on our forwards.
So too the inclusion of Will Smith providing some dummy half relief. We’ll be able to play more concentrated two-way footy across the 80-minutes, instead of containing ourselves.
But how does this help us/affect our playing style? Well it’s been no secret the struggle our halves have been going through. The amount of tackles we’ve been racking up inside our opposition’s 20 metre zone for no return is evidence of that. So having players that are getting over the advantage line more regularly, starting our sets off on a better foot, generating quick play-the-balls, will help provide them with that crucial extra second or two they need to not only generate more points, but to produce the right play and effectively manage the game.
Manly will look to reproduce their round 2 effort against us. They’ll target the defenders either side of Mitchell Moses, will look to try and expose Brad Takairangi as he returns to the centres. There’ll be nothing subtle or unexpected in the way they try to play us. It’s just about us turning up defensively on these plays and supporting each other. We do that, then I think we will have enough to grind out a win.
Today looms as a pivotal match in both these team’s seasons. Manly to help put the drama of the last couple of weeks behind them and the Eels to keep their season alive. The positional changes are a welcomed one for the Eels, it’s a far better-balanced team, but one should not underestimate the confidence hole we’re currently in. The best thing to do when you’re in this type of a position is to compete and try to win every play, and when you do, celebrating those wins. I want to see back-slaps and high-fives for every dropped ball we force and every time our line repels the Manly attacking raids. It’s time to claim our first win of the season and restore the balance.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.