Round 22 Drink Of Choice – Royal Salute 21YO
There is an almost unprecedented level competition for the wooden spoon in 2018 as the final few rounds of competition in the NRL boil down to a fascinating race to avoid last place on the ladder. The Canterbury Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys and Manly Sea-Eagles all lodged improbable victories in the last two weeks and thus the Parramatta Eels were left with no recourse but to overcome the inadequacies that have plagued them in 2018.
While you could probably rather aggressively compose a thesis on why the Eels suddenly decided to recall that they were a Top 4 calibre side in Round 22, there is no arguing that they answered the challenge thrown down to them by fellow spoon contenders in imperious fashion.
The 40-4 deconstruction of the St George Illawarra Dragons was everything that Parramatta fans were expecting of this roster coming into 2018. After absorbing early pressure through the middle from the vaunted Dragons’ pack, the Eels proved to be too fast, too strong and too slick for St George as the full seventeen man assignment of Eels came together to play a complete 80-minutes of football for their fans and their coach Brad Arthur.
I suggested last week that the hard fought victory over the Gold Coast Titans might signal a turning point in the fortunes of the Eels. Saturday’s result supports that claim but the run home for Parramatta is nothing short of brutal. A trip to Melbourne, followed by a trip to Townsville (Jonathan Thurston’s final home game no less) before hosting the Roosters is a helluva scheduling trifecta. The effort and execution shown against the Dragons has to be the standard that the Eels hold themselves to for both the remainder of 2018 and heading into the 2019 preseason.
The fire rises for the Parramatta Eels, let’s see just what has stoked the flames in this week’s edition of Whisky Musings.
Blue (& Gold) Caviar
Brad Arthur made one of the biggest roster shake-ups this week in his tenure at the Eels as he switched Corey Norman to fullback in order to open up the five-eighth role to boom rookie Jaeman Salmon. The spinal switch placed greater responsibility onto the shoulders of Mitchell Moses as he was asked to take on the role of the dominant play-maker. Moses responded in compelling manner as he scored a scintillating solo-try and tacked on a further four try-assists in a man-of-the-match effort.
As much as Moses starred though, the new-look spine played so cohesively with each of the four players performing admirably in their assigned roles that it does beg a very intriguing question for the future…is this Parramatta’s best spine for 2019?
It has been well documented in the past that Norman prefers to play in the halves over fullback. Couple this with the dramatic nature in how his contract status has played out in recent weeks and I would not blame you for calling me a fool. Yet, the easy nature in which the Norman-Salmon-Moses-Mahoney combination clicked surely would have pricked up the ears of the coaching staff.
Salmon’s role in the rousing victory was equal parts excellent and understated. Happy to defer to his senior halves partner, Salmon’s role as link man and occasional off-play-maker resulted in far greater offensive fluency for the Eels. Thrice he was denied a maiden NRL try by the barest of margins but he did notch up his first try-assist from a sailing bomb that completed Hayne’s first half hat-trick. Add in 21 rugged tackles (0 missed) and some great off-the-ball work (seriously, check out who was hot on the tail of Moses during his big run) and you have a damn good first NRL starting game!
Throw in the sensational ability of Jarryd Hayne to moonlight at fullback from the wing and you have an exciting play-making core to develop heading into 2019. Of course there are plenty of questions that rapidly need to be answered first. How consistent can this combination be and where do the futures of Norman and Hayne lie?
The studded stud
The cries of whether Jarryd Hayne still has it in 2018 have quickly subsided and been replaced by curious call of just how good he can be again. The mercurial superstar continues to take strides back to his stunning best as he increasingly looks to be in rugby-league shape and touch. A first half hat-trick against the St George Illawarra Dragons catapulted him past Brett Kenny (110 tries) to second on the all-time try scoring list for the Eels with 112 – just 12 behind the record holder Luke Burt.
Easily the most impressive part of Hayne’s dominant showing on Saturday night was his recovery from a brutal incident early on in proceedings. Shortly after scoring his first try of the night, Hayne has studded in the face by Jordan Pereira from a questionably raised late-boot. For those that are curious to see the full extent of the damage, simply click this link, I do however advise those with fainter dispositions towards flesh wounds to avoid the image as it contains an impressive gash.
The improvised solution to stop the bleeding from Parramatta trainers was quickly dubbed the ‘hot-cross bun’ by commentators but Hayne’s efforts were far more sweeter than the popular seasonal treat.
There is one last major milestone to check off in Hayne’s storied career as he seeks the premiership that was cruelly robbed from him and his team mates in 2009. For all of their struggles in 2018, the last six or so weeks culminating in Saturday’s enthralling performance are a reminder that this roster should indeed have premiership aspirations next season. Hopefully Jarryd is one of the core pieces in that puzzle.
Six Parramatta forwards broke the 100m mark on Saturday night while Tepai Moeroa (8 runs, 80m) and Marata Niukore (9 runs, 84m) were far more effective than their numbers may suggest as they both produced aggressive outings on the edges. It was a truly dominant performance by the pack and one that vividly evoked memories of the high-energy and up-tempo play-style of the Parramatta forwards in 2017.
In some ways it was potentially a curtain raiser for what the Eels might expect in 2019.
Siosaia Vave’s outstanding starting performance of 16 runs for 141m and 20 tackles (2 missed) plus the game-sealing try was something of a watershed game for the big man in his two-year stint at the Eels. Whether that performance and his general up-turn in form of late earns him a second contract at the Eels remains to be seen but that sort of performance is what I dare say the Eels will look to be drawing out of Junior Paulo on a weekly basis next season.
Even the change in the way that the Eels have used their backrowers in the red zone in recent weeks bodes well for incoming recruit Shaun Lane. While they may not have troubled the scorers recently Moeroa, Niukore and Brad Takairangi have caused plenty of mischief near opposition try lines as the Eels vary their point of attack via their big backrowers. Lane has proven to be particularly astute as this aspect of the game for Manly en-route to becoming their leading try scorer in 2018.
For the forward that took to the field for the Eels on Saturday though, each and every one of them deserves their individual plaudits. David Gower capped career NRL game #99 with a vintage effort from the bench while Peni Terepo continued his destructive vein of form as he equaled Jarryd Hayne with a team high 6 tackle breaks.
It should come as no surprise that Nathan Brown was a monster on the stat-sheets once more as he went for 21 runs, 186m, 30 tackles (1 missed).
Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Kane Evans though. The towering prop forward has struggled heavily in his first year at the Eels but has, pardon the pun, stood tall in the last two rounds. 14 runs for 122m and 19 tackles (0 missed) along with 2 tackle breaks make for a productive night by any measure but Evans also played a crucial part in Jarryd Hayne’s second try and Vave’s try with his ball-playing ability. His cutout pass in the lead up to the break for Hayne’s second was particularly impressive.
Evans is also starting to channel his aggression in defence better since returning from his lengthy stint in the Intrust Super Premiership. Like Nathan Brown, Evans has shown himself capable of producing a timely big hit – a valuable defensive trait for sure.
Brad Arthur will need all this and perhaps even more out of Kane Evans moving forwards but as a fan it is just nice to see some consistent production from the big man after his troubled start at the Eels.
Rookie of the (quarter) year
Brisbane Bronco Jamayne Isaako is the runaway favourite for the Dally M Rookie Of The Year gong and for good reason after starring all season at wing and fullback for the fabled Brisbane franchise. I will be damned though if Reed Mahoney has not been the most dominant rookie across the NRL in the final quarter of the season.
Mahoney’s presence at #9 has been transformative for the Parramatta Eels and more than that, it feels a gaping roster hole at arguably the most important position in the team. The young rake has erased the handful of errors that crept into his game in his first two caps and has since been clinical at dummy half for the Eels.
Although it is admittedly easy to oversell it slightly with my Blue & Gold glasses, Reed’s slick service and ability to punish lax marker defence has been hugely refreshing to watch and I dare say has aided Mitchell Moses, Corey Norman and Jaeman Salmon greatly into jolting the Eels back into life.
5 runs for 48m and 32 tackles (2 missed) make for another rock solid night at the office but more than that you can see the young tyro slipping into an on-field leadership role that befits the player that handles the ball more than any other.
The Final Word
It is hard to criticise much of anything from that performance. Even the Dragon’s sole try came from a pin-point bomb and a great take from Luciano Leilua – something that is pretty hard to defend against.
The Parramatta Eels were just ‘on’ against the Dragons. Stellar hustle in defence, off-the-ball work and a rugged commitment to the defensive mantra of bending without breaking stymied the early assault of the St George pack and paved the way to victory.
So compelling was the team effort on Saturday that I have even neglected to mention the excellent efforts of Clinton Gutherson and Michael Jennings in the centres. Jennings did have one unfortunate error to his name in the second half but both were outstanding on either side of the ball for the Eels.
Brad Arthur and his men now stare down the barrel of the hardest run home in the competition but there is good reason to believe that this team can take all comers to close out 2018. I completely understand any fan that is bitter that this resurgence, or rather realisation of the team’s potential, took so long but I suggest we all just enjoy what is left of the ride as Parramatta look to develop several key pieces in their push for a premiership in 2019.
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Photos courtesy of the Parramatta Eels. Stats courtesy of Champion Data.