Five young players have made their NRL debuts with the Eels this year, but opposing perspectives on these debuts have dominated discussions amongst Parramatta Eels supporters as post-mortems on a disastrous 2018 season have begun. Some have seen Brad Arthur as a coach reluctant to use young players until the injury list left him no choice. Others regard BA as a coach with a deep investment in home grown or developed players, who finally had both the players to use and the opportunity to do so.
Let’s begin with the facts.
The players to debut this year for the Eels were Marata Niukore, Reed Mahoney, Jaeman Salmon, Oregon Kaufusi and Ray Stone. Of these, only Niukore was a Top 30 player. The former Warrior was recruited from the New Zealand NYC team for the Eels 2017 NRL squad and made a strong impression in his first year by winning the award for Wenty player of the year.
Why didn’t the Eels use Marata last year given he was doing well in ISP?
In fact, TCT was calling for his inclusion towards the back half of last season and certainly earlier this year. However, Marata himself was very happy to debut when he was ready. Speaking with the young Kiwi, he credits the coaches with developing his confidence as a player.
The remainder of the Eels debutants, with exception of Ray Stone, remain eligible for the Jersey Flegg Cup. Stone is in his first year out of the NYC and training full time on a Rookie contract.
Therefore, outside of Marata Niukore, none of these players had been eligible for NRL selection under the current rules. Only an injury crisis allowed for the club to apply for dispensation to use them.
For some supporters, this fact only seems to draw more questions. Why weren’t any of these players put into the NRL Top 30 to begin the season? Surely this is evidence of an over-reliance on older players and a reluctance towards using youth?
Let’s consider those players.
A case could be made for Ray Stone. He was given ISP experience during 2017 and proved that he could both mete out and cop heavier hits.
Was there a Top 30 spot available for a relatively unproven NYC player who played the role of smaller middle forward? You’d have to examine the Eels roster to answer that question. He was competing with the likes of Beau Scott, Nathan Brown or even Manu Ma’u for a role. I’d argue that he was targeted for a 2019 spot, replacing Scott who was mostly likely going to retire regardless of injury. Regardless, a top 30 spot for Stone would not have received too many objections.
Reed Mahoney is the debutant to feature in most social media criticisms of team selections, with many supporters questioning his omission from the Top 30. It’s important to provide some background here.
A couple of years back, Reed was signed from the Bulldogs by Anthony Field. The Bulldogs wanted a young Eels rake – Joey Tramontana (now with Blacktown) – and Field thought Reed was a player of promise and a good prospect to get in return. In essence, a swap was made.
Reed debuted for Parra in the latter part of the 2016 NYC season, and went on to star off the bench for Parra’s grand finalist NYC team throughout 2017. Going into 2018, Mahoney was still under contract and eligible for Jersey Flegg (current under 20s).
As part of his development, Reed was given an NRL training deal for the 2018 pre-season. He met and exceeded every expectation from Day 1. It earned him a Rookie contract.
NRL rules prevented his elevation to first grade until Round 14 when injuries allowed the club to apply for dispensation to select him. At 20 years of age Reed has plenty to learn in such a key role, but he obviously possesses both potential and a brilliant attitude and is now a huge player in Parra’s plans. His selection in the Queensland 20s squad was a massive moment for him this year and a big indicator that he also features in the Maroons’ future.
Consider this – Mahoney has progressed from a still contracted Flegg player through to an NRL training trial and then to Eels NRL hooker by Round 14. That’s a massive transition over a quick period of time, regardless of the circumstance. All indications are that he has earned first choice status in 2019.
This time last year, Jaeman Salmon was a Sharks SG Ball graduate recovering from a broken neck. He is a talent, but anyone declaring that they thought he should have been on a Top 30 deal is straight out lying. Not only was he returning from a potentially crippling injury, he hadn’t even proven himself at NYC level. To be honest, signing him to an NRL rookie contract with the accompanying full time training squad position was a massive leap of faith.
Salmon’s progression this year has been nothing short of sensational. To miss the first four rounds then transition through both Flegg and ISP to a starting NRL spot, is a credit to him and a nod to BA for having the belief to play this inexperienced 19 year old in the halves.
Finally, Oregon Kaufusi isn’t in the Eels full time squad this year. The Flegg prop, who only just turned 19 on the 20th of August, has progressed from under 20s to being one of the most consistent ISP players in 2018. Arthur has been very keen to give the young tyro a run this year and injuries finally provided the opportunity. Though it required injuries, elevation to regular ISP at 18 years of age was an indicator of the plans for Kaufusi.
Anyone who thinks players can just be elevated straight from Flegg (20s) to NRL, should try talking to the young players about what it’s like jumping to ISP, let alone NRL. The jump to ISP is all about the heavier hits. The jump to NRL adds the pace to that.
Check out the current Eels Flegg players who were elevated to the Wenty ISP team later in this season, despite their team’s impending participation in finals football – now work out why they would be there. The plans involving young Eels talent and their transition is obvious.
In my opinion, the successful transition of young players into first grade was always planned, though the opportunity to blood them came sooner than expected.
But there’s more that TCT can share with you, and it involves the pathways to NRL.
A number of weeks ago, a group of around 8 or 9 Flegg players commenced training with NRL staff from 5:30am a couple of times each week in preparation for the upcoming pre-season. Their needs might be different, but the discipline and dedication to become an NRL player is a big lesson to be learned. When these players take the next step to NRL training, they will be more likely to hit the ground running.
But the resources aren’t just going into the players about to rise to senior football. The expertise of the NRL staff, and ETC resources, are being provided for Eels JETs (Junior Elite) under 16s players. Each week this group of boys work with NRL coaches and trainers as they learn about correct techniques in addition to receiving specialised coaching.
Outside of that, the Harold Matthews and SG Ball program is likely to be expanded via the club’s participation in the Andrew Johns and Laurie Daley Cups in 2019. This means players in the extended 16s and 18s squads will get game time in Eels colours in these country rugby league tournaments.
Moving forward, I’m hoping that the NRL changes the rules surrounding the Rookie contracts. There has been speculation that squads could effectively become a top 36 with Rookie contract players being eligible for NRL selection. As things stand, the current rule surrounding these players is somewhat detrimental as it prevents development within a season from being rewarded. For Parra, this season began with only one of the debutants in the Top 30. What became obvious during the season was that a number of players developed from being nowhere near NRL ready, to being preferred selections. The system must cater for such growth.
Clarification on this rule is important for all clubs as it will determine decisions around Top 30 positions. Regardless, I expect the Eels to name a younger squad in 2019.
It will be by design.