Back in the late 70s and early 80s, a golden era of junior talent helped to deliver a series of premierships for the Eels. A production line of players from the Parramatta development system should have delivered similar results in the late 90s and early 2000s.
We are now reaching another significant period for the Eels. A wave of talented youngsters, assembled by Eels Junior Recruitment Manager Anthony Field, have been progressing through the junior representative grades. Some of these players have either debuted for the Eels in 2018, or are tipped for NRL time in 2019.
Many of this group have been team mates since the age of 16. The majority have been members of the 2018 Jersey Flegg squad. Consequently there’s a bond making them Parramatta aspirational, with a drive to achieve their goals together.
It’s a development which has been 4-5 years in the making, mixing pure locals with young players recruited from far and wide (thanks Fieldsy!). This is how long it’s taken to turn Parramatta’s junior development around.
Through all those years, Brad Arthur has been at Junior Rep matches, tracking their development. The investment Arthur has made is comparable to the Brian Smith era, and it’s very close to maturing.
Along the way they’ve been part of Joey Grima’s JETS group, and have kept the ball rolling under the coaching of Scott Jones in Matts and Ball, and Dean Feeney in Flegg.
A core group of these young players began their transition to the rigours of first grade in the latter part of the 2018 season, training with Eels NRL staff early in the mornings. Oregon Kaufusi was deemed ready to play NRL after his efforts in this group, with Brown and Utoikamanu only denied by their ineligibility. Arthur had previously signalled his intentions after debuting Salmon, Mahoney, and Stone.
For Eels supporters, it’s no longer an easy task to keep up to date with younger players as they transition through the grades. Match days often only feature the NRL, with lower grade matches mostly staged at Ringrose Park, and junior representative matches played at Cabramatta.
Fortunately, TCT gets to most of these venues, and Forty has happily joined forces with me for this edition of The Spotlight.
Here’s our updated guide to the next wave of Eels junior talent.
Dylan Brown (18)
Originally from New Zealand but placed into the Eels Junior Rep system by Anthony Field, Brown has impressed at every level of the Eels development pathway. He dominated the SG Ball competition whilst still sixteen, and was promoted to NYC in 2017 after turning 17. He concluded 2018 in the ISP, earning praise from Arthur and the coaching staff along the way.
At the end of 2017 the talented half was forced to make a tough decision. He’d won the number 7 Australian Schoolboys jersey for their test against the Kiwis, which unfortunately clashed with the NYC grand final. Brown ultimately decided to withdraw from the junior test
Brown is quite tall for a half, standing at around 6ft tall. He doesn’t shy away from the physicality of the game – in fact, he thrives on it. A feature of his elevation to ISP late in 2018 was his willingness to take on the line as well as his defence against big forwards.
We expect Brown to get NRL game time in 2019. Given that he’s only 18, his game isn’t fully developed and he will need experience around him in making the transition to the top grade. However, he possesses the skill set required by an NRL half back – pace, vision, defence, and a kicking and passing game. Importantly, his greatest attribute is that he never seems overawed. It will be hard to deny his progression, though we should always temper our expectations when it comes to the Eels number 7 jersey.
Stefano Utoikamanu (18)
The Eels faithful wanted a big forward and they’ve got exactly what they wanted in this young behemoth. Standing at around 6ft 4 and hovering just over the 110kg mark, this 18 year old is well on his way to an NRL debut in 2019.
Surprisingly fast and agile for a big man, the modest prop is a determined competitor as soon as he’s in the heat of battle. For reference, his match winning NSW Under 18’s try saw him shrug off a slew of Queensland defenders over the line as he battled to plant the ball. In one memorable 2018 Flegg game he ran around 80 metres off an intercept before he was dragged down by the defence.
Like a number of other young Eels, Stefano has been preparing for his first NRL pre-season via some early morning sessions with Eels NRL staff during the latter part of the 2018 season. Indeed, his form in ISP would have seen him debut in 2018 were he eligible. A strong pre-season will have him once again in the mix.
Ethan Parry (19)
Talented, versatile, aggressive – these three words probably give the best understanding of this young outside back.
A graduate of the 2017 Eels SG Ball team, Parry stood out as an imposing figure on the Eels left wing. His tries were equal parts power and pace as he dominated his opposition throughout the season. What was most impressive was the manner in which he overcame a serious leg injury sustained during 2016.
Parry has played wing, centre and fullback during 2018, and handled his elevation to ISP with ease. I’m not certain which position will prove to be his best, but his performance at fullback in a beaten Eels Flegg quarter final team was arguably the best we’ve seen from him. He barked non stop at his team mates in defence and threatened to break the line with most carries.
As with Utoikamanu and Brown, Parry was involved with early morning training with NRL staff during the latter part of the 2018 season. We fully expect him to be part of the full time squad in 2019.
Oregon Kaufusi (19)
It was a massive Season 2018 for Oregon Kaufusi. The 19 year old forward was elevated to ISP in Round 9, earned selection in the NSW Under 20 Origin team, and made his NRL debut in Round 23 – just a few days short of his 19th birthday. Strong performances for Wenty demanded his call up to the top grade and the promising Kaufusi didn’t disappoint.
The Parramatta Eels junior has played both middle and edge roles this year, with his NRL debut coming at prop. It’s been a tough initiation into the top grade, with his two matches coming against the 2018 grand finalists. However, his 100 plus running metres against the Roosters in a badly beaten Eels team was very encouraging.
This is going to be a huge pre-season for Kaufusi as he transitions into becoming a full time footballer. It’s already been an impressive achievement to earn an NRL debut after starting the year as an 18 year old Flegg player. A full pre-season will add size and fitness to his frame, and stand him in good stead as he looks to cement a regular NRL berth.
Salesi Fainga’a (20)
Potentially, Salesi Fainga’a sits as one of the most talented in this group of emerging Eels. He’s already played international football, having represented Fiji at the 2017 World Cup and he’s one of the Flegg players to have tasted ISP during 2018.
However, injury has not been kind to Salesi. He’s missed significant periods of football over the past three years and this has led to battles with his fitness. Though he’s never struggled when carrying some extra weight, either at training or in matches, there’s little doubt that his opportunity to play NRL will be contingent upon his dedication to getting himself into the best possible physical condition.
There’s aspects of Fainga’a’s game that I’d liken to former Eel, Feleti Mateo. Despite his big frame, he’s played some footy in the halves as well as the back row. He’s difficult to contain and possesses an interesting kit bag of passing skills. Interestingly, his time in ISP seemed to focus on adapting him to the physical collisions rather than any exhibition of his ball skills.
Tui Afualo (19)
After demolishing opposition centres in the Matts and Ball competitions, Tui Afualo received his call up to the NYC in 2016 whilst still 17 years of age. His raw power packed into a stocky frame make him a difficult proposition to tackle and he’s retained his place in the 20s from that point forward.
Unfortunately the back end of 2017 was a write off for Tui due to injury, and by the time he commenced the NRL pre-season, he naturally struggled with his fitness.
The past season in Flegg had him returning to his best to receive the player of the year. He even showed some versatility by playing in the halves during a game, something that he did during his SG Ball days. He’s become a more complete footballer during the past twelve months.
Though still eligible for Flegg in 2019, this next pre-season will be a crucial one for him. Look for him to be playing ISP early in 2019.
Kyle Schneider (18)
It’s likely that many Eels supporters have never seen this young rake play, but they’ve no doubt heard of him after he made Brad Fittler’s emerging Blues squad. TCT have watched Schneider play since his Harold Matts days.
Schneider is a leader. He’s excelled in captaincy roles at club, NSW and Australian age representative levels. The reason for this is that he plays with a level head – installing confidence in his team mates. Put simply, he plays with a team first philosophy.
Combine captaincy, goal kicking and ability to kick in general play, and there’s naturally been comparisons to Cameron Smith for his role within a team. Any further comparison to Smith at this stage would be placing unfair expectations on Kyle.
Injury at the start of the 2018 SG Ball season saw the Eels concentrate on his rehabilitation during the rest of the year. He returned to training with the Flegg squad late in the season and joined the early morning sessions with NRL staff.
Expect Schneider to spend the majority of 2019 in Flegg, with exposure to ISP as the season unfolds.
Jesse Cronin (19)
Another graduate of the all-conquering 2017 SG Ball team, the Australian Schoolboys representative has spent 2018 plying his trade in the Flegg team.
Usually a middle forward – in the Nathan Brown or even Ray Stone smaller forward mould – Cronin has displayed his versatility by jumping in to the dummy half role in games.
Cronin plays a workaholic and aggressive brand of football, especially in defence. His junior representative resume saw him turn a number of games with the impact of his play. It will be interesting to see whether the Eels continue to develop a utility role for him.
Haze Dunster (19)
Freakish size and athleticism may be the domains of his fellow flanker Ethan Parry but Haze Dunser is certainly no mug plying his trade out wide. Haze is a consummate finisher that plays the game with easy athleticism. Although he has made his name as a specialist right winger in his time at Parramatta, he has filled in at fullback when required and done a serviceable job in that role.
In 2018, Dunster was given his first taste of senior rugby league as he joined a number of his fellow Flegg talents as they were called up to the Intrust Super Premiership for the Wentworthville Magpies. He performed solidly throughout his time in the ISP scoring 2 tries in 5 appearances and averaging a tick over 100m per game. It wasn’t an eye-popping performance by any means but given his age and the relative talent levels of Wenty in 2018, it was certainly a platform that can be built on heading into 2019.
Blake Ferguson has one wing on lock down for the Eels but given the heavy media speculation about the uncertainty that surrounds the futures of Bevan French, Brad Takairangi and Michael Jennings, there is a lot that we honestly don’t know about the make up of the NRL backline in 2019. A big preseason could push the likes of Dunster or Parry right into first grade calculations.
Valance Harris (18)
Valance was primed for a massive campaign in 2018 after starring at prop in the post-season run of the 2017 SG Ball championship team. Sadly, his season was derailed by personal tragedy as his mother lost her battle with cancer. Evaluating his performances in 2018 becomes rather difficult given the filter of personal loss that he suffered.
Looking forwards, expect Valance to become one of the cornerstones of the Jersey Flegg forward pack in 2019. A strong season in the 20s next year would set him up for a short run in the ISP towards the backend of the season.
David Hollis (17)
There are times when spectators can not help but make immediate comparisons between a young player and an established NRL star. For young David Hollis, we’d suggest that more than a few fans will draw parallels to David Klemmer.
As you might expect given the expected Klemmer comparisons, Hollis is a towering prop forward. While the Eels struggled in the SG Ball in 2018 for a variety of reasons, Hollis enhanced his reputation with a string of strong performances throughout the season. Eventually he was called up to the Jersey Flegg where he handled the jump capably – especially given his age handicap.
Given his rare physical traits, expectations will be quite high for Hollis moving forwards. However, with Oregon Kaufusi and Stefano Utoikamanu looking set to make the jump to NRL sooner rather than later it looks like Hollis can develop on a smoother gradient in 2019, cementing his place in the Jersey Flegg before anything else.
Sam Hughes (17)
Hughes has been the primary partner in crime of David Hollis over the last two seasons. A standout on the edges in 2017 in the Harold Matthews, Sam made the transition to the middle this year as he took on both SG Ball and Jersey Flegg responsibilities.
Injuries bogged Hughes down to an extent this season but there is no denying his talent. Big, physical and aggressive forwards are always coveted and Sam is lacking in none of these traits.
As with Harris and Hollis above, we envisage Hughes to become one of the mainstays for the Flegg in 2019 with greater expectations in the years beyond that.
JP Nohra (18)
JP Nohra has proven to be of the most consistent and dominant backs throughout his district representative tenure at the Eels. Nohra is an exceptionally well-rounded fullback, excelling as a physical and powerful ball-runner but equally so displaying excellent communication skills and the uncanny ability to pop up at the right time in support.
As with many of the other young talent detailed in this post, Nohra’s development was accelerated in 2018 as he was blooded in the Jersey Flegg. We expect this young custodian to spring board from that experience and become one of the focal points in attack and leadership for the Flegg in 2019.
Charbel Tasipale (18)
In a list rife with props, locks, backs and playmakers, Charbel Tasipale is one of the few EDGE prospects to earn a mention. As with so many prototypical EDGE talents these days, Tasipale oozes athleticism and explosiveness but what has consistently stood out for me when watching Charbel is his knack for big game performances.
Dating back to the 2016 Harold Matthews National Champions and right up until his late season debut in the Jersey Flegg where the Eels faced a number of crunch games, Tasipale finds impressive ways to impact said big games with powerful carries and deft offloads.
Of course, the flip side to this is that Charbel needs to strive for greater consistency on a weekly basis and that will likely be one of the goals for 2019 as he spearheads a young forward pack alongside the other talents listed above.
As this guide has been limited to members of the 2018 Jersey Flegg squad, it’s by no means an exhaustive list of Eels players. There are Flegg graduates whose current status is unknown to us, including those who may yet be contracted to the Wenty ISP team.
Furthermore, the 2018 Harold Matthews (under 16) team were grand finalists and will be major contenders for the 2019 SG Ball title. That squad will be strengthened by external recruits who’ve remained at home (Queensland and country).
Trying to predict the future for young players yet to experience the demands of full time football can be hit and miss, with a strong likelihood of the miss winning out. However, this quick listing is indicative of the depth of junior talent being developed and hopefully provides Eels fans with some (though not all) names to keep an eye on.
Sixties & Forty