The first fixtures of the preseason are in the books and while the Eels failed to register a ‘W’ in either the Jersey Flegg or Intrust Super Premiership trials – it was far from all doom and gloom. Naturally anyone trying to read the tea leaves or peer into the murky depths of a crystal ball for either grade in the first week of February have more in common with a gypsy fortune teller than a predictive mastermind. With that said, there are legitimate concerns to come out of this evening for both teams so let’s jump into the good and bad from today’s action.
Jersey Flegg – South Sydney Rabbitohs 16 def. Parramatta Eels 4 (No conversion attempts)
This match started out surprisingly clean with both teams generally executing well through the first quarter. Both the Eels and the Rabbitohs laid down the wood with some crunching hits in defence. Parramatta had a number of early opportunities to post first points but the touch on finishing passes and momentary lapses of concentration saw South Sydney take first blood against the run of play when a J.P. Nohra grubber kick was returned 65m down field with the visitors then scoring on the next play.
Souths would add one more try before half-time and another after the break before the Eels finally replied via a Joe Small scoop and score following a line break from new recruit Arron Shelford. A soft error in the resultant kick-off set allowed the Rabbitohs to score one last try leading to our final score of 16-4.
As you can imagine at this time of the year, fatigue and a very apparent lack of match fitness quickly crept into the affair for both teams. Anecdotally it felt like both teams made a similar amount of errors but the Eels were more consistently coughing up possession in their half – which quite likely resulted in the 12-point differential on the scoreboard.
Jesse Cronin was comfortably the best Eel on the park today. Damaging with and without the ball, Cronin created turnovers and (positive) penalties for Parramatta with his hard-hitting defence and surging carries.
Making his long awaited return from North QLD, halfback Bailey Biondi-Odo started the game in terrific touch. Well laced kicks, heads up defence and steady involvement in attack were the hall marks of his first two quarters of play. He struggled to maintain that level of play later into the game, partially due to a weaker forward platform, but equally a learning moment for the young play-maker.
Hailing from way of Burleigh, backrower Arron Shelford looked a fair imitation of a young Tepai Moeroa when he first took to the field. Working down the left-edge with Biondi-Odo, William Kei and Taufa Afu, Shelford looked sharp with the ball in hand and laid down some crunching hits in defence. He also laid the ground work for our only try of the day after slicing through the defensive line via a pass from Jayden Yates. Arron would beat the fullback with a right-foot step only to have the ball reefed out of his possession by a cover defender at the last moment. Fortunately, heady support play from Small saw the winger dive on the loose pill to score.
Right now I would caution fans to show a pretty hefty dose of patience with this young roster. Not only are seven of their best players (Ethan Parry, Haze Dunster, Dylan Brown, Jaeman Salmon, Kyle Schneider, Oregon Kaufusi, Stefano Utoikamanu) likely to be unavailable for the majority of the season due to senior responsibilities, they are also missing key players like Joe Taipari, John Fonua and Noel Aukafolau care of long-term injuries sustained in 2018.
Big picture, it feels like Parramatta will need to find both more strike power and greater consistency from their middle forwards and there is perhaps a lack of genuine speed out wide. We are but one game into the preseason mind you so I will save the scorching hot takes for a later date!
Intrust Super Premiership – South Sydney Rabbitohs 20 def. Parramatta Eels/Wentworthville Magpies 4
It was more of the same for the Eels in the ISP trial as South Sydney exploited a fragile right-edge en route to a comfortable 16-point victory. Unlike the Jersey Flegg result, where I find it easier and perhaps more reasonable to rationalise the loss away on account of factors like inexperience, injuries and unavailability – there are starker takeaways to come out of this match.
Two of the most senior players on the field struggled mightily today in Bevan French and Kane Evans. It isn’t exactly uncommon knowledge that both French and Evans are caught behind other players in their respective positional groups and they did not help their causes today. French (3 knock-ons, 2 passes into touch) and Evans (3 knock-ons) were criminally guilty of over-playing their hands and gifting the Rabbitohs possession and field position.
It would be horribly unfair to write either player off given it is just one week into February but they have a mountain of work ahead of them at this stage.
Peni Terepo, on the other hand, looked like he had not missed a beat following his breakout campaign in 2018. South Sydney struggled to contain Terepo through the middle and it was a trademark barnstorming run from ‘Baz’ that allowed Kyle Schneider to rip a monstrous 40/20 that led directly to Greg Leleisiuao’s try. The battle for a place on the first-grade bench will be fiercely contested but Terepo definitely struck an early blow for his cause today.
It was a day for the new guard beyond that with the likes of Ethan Parry, Kyle Schneider, Salesi Fainga’a, Oregon Kaufusi and Stefano Utoikamanu all shining in limited opportunities. Fellow rising rookie Haze Dunster was dealt a tougher hand today, bleeding two tries to his opposite number but I fully expect him to rebound in the coming trials.
Halves depth might be something of an issue in the ISP for Parramatta. Jaeman Salmon struggled to make an impact at five-eighth today but he projects to centre in first-grade. Indeed, the Eels have a number of back-up five-eighths at their disposal. From Will Smith and Brad Takairangi to the Wenty-contracted Rhys Davies and even French if needed, they can certainly fill the #6 jersey. Instead, they lack a stabilising ball-handler or use more conventional terminology – a controlling half. How big of a handicap this could prove to be remains to be seen but on first take I do think Wenty might struggle to close out tight games as a result.
We have come into seasons prior billing Wenty for great things on the back of solid NRL depth. Regardless of whether the Eels have soared (2017) or flat-lined (2018) in recent seasons, the Magpies have found ways to be singularly ineffective. It is hard to champion for lofty expectations in 2019 in light of that but I honestly do think there is a healthy dose of talent and potential in the ISP roster this year – both helped and hindered equally by its accompanied youth. I am intrigued to see what new coach Rip Taylor can do for this roster brimming with youthful talent given he is one of the most storied coaches in the history of the NSW Cup/ISP.
The coming weeks will give us a clearer indication of exactly where our ISP expectations should lie, be sure to join us at TCT for all the coverage and breakdowns in the run to Round 1!