Footy is officially back. That is always one of the biggest positives to come out of any opening trial and it still stands true tonight. The Parramatta Eels ultimately went down to the Canberra Raiders 22-20 following a bizarre sequence of events in the final thirty seconds of play but the ‘true’ score for the sake of critical analysis was 20-12 for the Eels at the close of the third quarter.
Canberra fielded a team largely made up of fringe first-graders and NRL hopefuls and to their credit they stuck around for the sixty minutes in which Parramatta fielded their strongest outfit of the night. The first trial of the preseason tends to be a time to evaluate individual play over team play in general (not to say that you should ignore obvious positives or negatives in team play) so that will largely be the theme of this post.
On that note there are plenty of takeaways to come out of the showdown at St Marys, so let’s get into the good and bad from tonight.
Junior Paulo is a bad, bad man
He won’t be the magical cure-all for everything that went wrong with Parramatta’s forward pack in 2018 but hot damn was Junior Paulo impressive tonight. The homecoming forward was a load for the defence all night with the ball in hand and practically offloaded at will. Encouragingly, he also played significant minutes across the three quarters of play that featured Parramatta starters. He even found himself defending a winger out wide at one point in the second half and promptly planted said back on his arse with a cracking textbook driving tackle.
I know it is but the first game back for the blockbusting prop forward but the signs are genuinely positive.
Brown composed, Moses mercurial in new looks halves pairing
The media hype surrounding the impending NRL debut of Dylan Brown is quickly approaching a crescendo but the young man himself looks ready to go about his business. Brown may not have dazzled in the trial against the Raiders but he handled everything that came his way with aplomb and poise.
Brown was willing to take on the line and threatened to break through on at least two occasions before scrambling defenders brought him down. He displayed a deft touch from the boot as the off-kicker to Mitchell Moses and perhaps most encouragingly, he looks to have struck up the foundations of a partnership with newcomer backrower Shaun Lane.
There will be mistakes made, lumps to be had and lessons to be learned for the rookie play-maker in the coming weeks and months but tonight was a solid start to his blossoming career.
Moses on the other hand had the form-o-meter fluctuating between hot and cold like a metronome at times tonight. He played a starring hand in Ethan Parry’s second try of the game with a sizzling run that split the line before hitting a pin-point cross-field kick to the rookie winger but he also struggled with rhythm and execution on a number of right-edge plays.
His lead up work to the Jaeman Salmon try was a microcosm of this with a poor initial kick giving way to a wicked follow-up kick and some sensational heads up play from Parramatta’s senior half. Consistency will be the name of the game for Moses as he takes Brown under his wing this year and we will probably get a better indication of where he is at in that regard in the Penrith trial.
One encouraging note between the duo of Moses and Brown was that our long kicking game looks to have been tidied up significantly. Tepid mid-field bombs were done away with tonight in favour of flatter, angled kicks.
EDGE stocks looks improved
Second year starter Marata Niukore and new recruit Shaun Lane have plenty to prove this preseason as they battle for places in a congested backrow. They both got an early jump on their competition tonight with solid showings and now look ahead to the Penrith trial to really push hard for starting berths.
Lane has a superb feel for running lanes for a big man and I am not sure if the live stream captured it but on a couple of occasions he had pushed up in support from out wide and had the potential to make a big bust but the ball-carrier through the ruck didn’t see him in their peripheral vision. The towering backrower did have one bad error to his name as he lost the ball on the first tackle of a penalty set but the good far out-weighed the bad tonight.
Out on the right-edge, Niukore ran with power and authority and looks to have significantly bulked up compared to 2018. Unfortunately, Marata wasn’t featured in the red zone tonight as the Eels looked to attack out wider but if he can bring that power running option to the goal line it will be a massive boost for the Eels.
Parry poised to shake up the depth charts
Ethan Parry should be a familiar name to hard core fans and frequenters of my junior blogs over recent years but most fans could be forgiven for not knowing who he is. A two-try effort tonight will certainly catapult his name into the spotlight – even if both efforts were relatively straight forward. Rather, it is his prototypical athletic profile and single-minded competitiveness that I believe will see him emerge from the preseason as one of the real smokeys for a NRL debut.
Arguably his biggest highlight play of the first half involved him running near full pelt down the right sideline and almost impossibly reaching behind to somehow reel in a stray pass from Mitchell Moses. It was a display of rare athleticism and a glimpse at the intriguing potential of what a flanker pairing of Parry and Blake Ferguson could offer down the road.
Gutherson is finally back
ACL injuries are a mean business. The recovery time for elite athletes sustaining such an injury is ridiculous compared to an average human. Obviously the vast resources available to these athletes compared to normal people plays a role but the loads they put their ACLs under in such a short recovery period is insane. The flipside to this is that far too often these players are not anywhere near 100% in their return seasons from ACL injuries.
Look at Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in 2017, who was labelled as a bust for the Warriors as he battled back from his own ACL injury. Fast forward to 2018 and the dynamic fullback was born anew en-route to claiming his maiden Dally M medal. The same will hopefully be true for Clinton Gutherson in 2019 as he puts the #1 on lockdown and grows into the captaincy for the embattled Eels.
Gutherson ran free and easy against the Raiders tonight and showed his play-making chops with a brilliant bit of vision and execution down the left-edge short side. After diagnosing that there was no fullback in play, Gutherson took the ball down the short side and placed a perfectly weighted grubber kick ahead for a flying Michael Jennings.
Parramatta’s young spine needs everything it get from ‘Gutho’ and the signs were good tonight.
Reed runs off the rust
Reed Mahoney was one of the few genuine bright spots in 2018 and fans are eager to see the exciting rake take his game to new heights in his sophomore season. However, the preseason rust cares little for any player, superstar or substitute, and that was evident tonight with Mahoney lacking timing and polish with his distribution around the ruck. I am far from worried though and I am tipping this to sort itself out quickly.
On a positive note however, Reed showed that he hadn’t lost his incisive running game – running at key moments to earn good metreage and penalties.
One thing that might be concerning is the depth behind the young rake. Mahoney played out the entire three quarters of play for Brad Arthur but with Will Smith and Kaysa Pritchard unavailable due to injuries, almost everything rides on Reed’s young shoulders.
Finding your centre
The Eels need to find their centre, almost quite literally. Jaeman Salmon is the popular choice to fill the gap at right centre but Josh Hoffman ran out as the starter tonight in a less than stellar endorsement of the young centre. Salmon would go on to score an opportunistic try and worked hard rucking the ball out but I don’t think he has the position on lock down at this stage. Brad Takairangi looms as a potential stop-gap solution but his issues with lateral defence and defensive freelancing wouldn’t exactly inspire fans.
It will certainly be one of the most important subtexts to the upcoming Penrith trial.
So what were your takeaways from the 22-20 (20-12) result? I know some fans will be upset by some of the jankiness on display in our first outing of the preseason, especially given how high tensions are heading into 2019 but putting that aside for the moment – which players caught your eye and who and what are you excited to see against Penrith?