Round 16 Drink Of Choice – Old St Andrews
My apologies for another beleaguered musings as I combat both a hectic work schedule and some behind the scenes maintenance at TCT!
Thursday night was…an interesting experience. For all the good that was on display, and for the first time in 2018 there was plenty of it, I came away from that heart-breaking loss with in a fit of near apoplectic rage for two differing reasons.
It will come as little surprise that the focus of my initial vigorous fist-shaking and foul-mouthed tirade was of course Will Smith. The earnest utility had a night to forget after chalking up several crucial errors including a forward pass in the lead up to a second-half try, a bizarre and spectacularly miscued 40/20 attempt and a shockingly errant pass on a critical clearing kick.
It was Paul Carige-esque. Almost beautiful in the way in which the self destructive ripples of his actions flowed throughout a rarely focused and committed Parramatta line-up. And yet come Friday morning I had forgiven Smith. Bad games, even ones of that magnitude happen. Drop Smith as punishment or give him a shot at redemption after the bye, so be it.
No, what still has me burning with a white-hot rage even in these terribly belated musings pertains to the 72-minutes of play that proceeded Smith’s meltdown. For lack of a more nuanced way to phrase it all – where the f**k has that been all year?
I don’t give two hoots about all the talk about St-George players backing up from Origin 2 or the Denver test. The Eels lost the man who had been playing head and shoulders above his cohorts this season in Manu Ma’u in the Tonga-Samoa test. The wash-up of the rep-round was moot to my mind.
For 72-glorious-minutes the Eels were back.
Aggressive and committed defence paved the way for an offensive showing that was equal parts industrious and expansive. Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman were both back at their scheming best. Norman finally straightened his probing attacking lines and reaped the dividends immediately as he sent Nathan Brown over untouched. Moses on the other hand rediscovered the lost art of kicking to the corners, pinning the vaunted St George pack deep within their own half for large swathes of the game.
It was the team that we all fell in love with over the course of the 2016 and 2017 seasons and then in an instant we were all dragged kicking and screaming back into 2018 as they unraveled like a cheap sweater. The battle-hardened team of the last two seasons is well and truly gone as much as it pains me to say it.
You could argue both ways as to the value of the bye at this juncture of the season. There is certainly plenty to build upon in the Round 16 loss but will the week off usurp any momentum the Eels might have had? Or is the chance to work from a clean slate after the late-game meltdown ideal? I honestly have no answers these days.
And now for a few scattered thoughts before we enter bye.
Hayne centres himself
After a torrid outing for Fiji in which the entirety of the Bati struggled for direction or impact, Hayne somewhat amusingly earned the ire of Michael Ennis. Ennis, who has adopted a crass and hard-nosed media persona in recent times, questioned Hayne’s passion for the game.
Jarryd has been a popular target for media criticism (and always has been) as critics practically fall over themselves to churn out opinion pieces on why the wheels fell off at Parramatta this season but the fact remains that when he has taken the field, Hayne has performed admirably at centre and wing.
I take no umbrage with those that question the value he has given us – even on his vastly reduced contract this year due to injuries piling up – but the iconic Eels is not short of talent or more importantly effort, even in the twilight years of his career.
While Euan Aitken certainly didn’t embarrass himself by any means, Hayne took the in-form centre to task with some bruising defence and deft attacking work. Just how Hayne and the Eels move forwards into 2019 remains one of the most interesting story-lines of this accursed season.
Simba begins his ascent
The Eels were never going to adequately fill the yawning hole left by the injured Manu Ma’u but rising backrower Marata Niukore did a hell of a job for the Eels on the left-edge. 10 toughs runs that yielded 84m (and to my eye I sincerely thought he made a few more!) to go with a handful of tackle breaks and a whopping 40 tackles with just the 1 missed made for a damn solid outing.
The young backrower kept himself busy all night, including an effort from the other side of the field to save a ridiculous first half try to the Dragons. Disney word-play (Hakuna Marata > Simba) has affectionately lead to me dubbing him Simba but with Manu out for the remainder of the season Marata now has a huge chance to carve out his place in this team. It is that very challenge that leads me to my final thought heading into the bye.
Time to plant the seeds for 2019
Marata is of course just one facet of this process. With the terminal struggles of Parramatta’s feeder club the Wentworthville Magpies in the Intrust Super Premiership, the Eels are likely better served promoting their blue-chip talent to the NRL this season. I understand that this approach comes with a ‘take your lumps’ caveat but I honestly feel like there is more to be gained this way both for players and club.
The June 30 deadline has come and past and all sixteen NRL clubs are obliged to have filled out their Top 30 rosters. Unfortunately the Eels made no public announcements about internal promotions to the at minimum two spots they have available. Thus we are left in the dark in this regard until we can piece together the clues from future team lists.
What needs to be a priority for the remainder of 2018 is finding a home for Reed Mahoney in the #9 or #14 moving forwards while Jaeman Salmon should be learning on the job at right centre. For that to happen it would require Michael Jennings to spend a stint in the ISP but I am completely comfortable with that proposition given the prolonged struggles of the senior most Jennings this year.
While Mahoney and Salmon loom as potential core pieces moving forwards, the Eels will also need to know what they have in Ray Stone and Greg Leleisiuao. They very well might not get the opportunities needed to give all four players a genuine run in the NRL this season but every bit of experience and piece of knowledge they gain on each of these four players is an important head-start on the 2019 season.
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