The Parramatta Eels closed the books on the preseason with a full-day of trials against the Penrith Panthers on a near-perfect Saturday afternoon. Narrow losses in the Jersey Flegg (18-8) and Canterbury Cup (10-8) were mitigated by an excellent display in the main event as the Eels routed the Panthers 20-0 on the back of an outstanding team-wide defensive performance.
With three games to breakdown there is a mountain of takeaways and talking points so let’s jump right into it.
NRL Trial – Parramatta Eels 20 def. Penrith Panthers 0
We are just one year removed after a champagne trial performance against the Newcastle Knights that was most certainly not predictive of regular season success. It is safe to assume that both the Eels and the Panthers kept a good chunk of their powder dry last night given they meet again in Round 1 but it was important for the Eels to build from the results of the Canberra trial and they did that just that. Brad Arthur’s men out-hit, out-ran and out-enthused the Panthers all across the park as even the second-team unit rallied to shutout the home team.
No tickets left on the Dylan Brown hype train
I say this only because there is no way the media take the spotlight off this young star after his effort against the Panthers. He will have his ups and downs in his rookie campaign and fans need to reconcile with that but his performance on Saturday was a tantalising glimpse of just how dangerous he can be.
From a gorgeous line-break assist to unleash Manu Ma’u to a deft grubber kick to earn the Eels their first line-drop out of the night, the full repertoire of Dylan Brown’s skill set was on show. Most importantly he backed himself to take on the defensive line all night and his the quickness of his feet and his all-round explosiveness proved to be a handful for Penrith. Seriously, he was shedding would-be tacklers or carrying defenders nearly every run.
Interestingly, the Eels eased Brown into the contest against Penrith. He was clearly playing second fiddle to the more senior play-maker in Mitchell Moses in the first half but took more control of the team in the second half. He looked equally at home with both levels of responsibility but striking the right balance there will be just as important for Moses as it will be for Brown.
Forwards step up in the absence of Paulo
Junior Paulo was a late scratch as the Eels manage a minor hamstring niggle for the mountainous prop forward. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this might have been the best thing for the Eels as it posed an important challenge to the embattled forwards returning from the 2018 season. They responded in imperious fashion lead by the likes of Tepai Moeroa and Peni Terepo through the middle.
Indeed it was hard to fault any individual effort among the forwards. One errant offload from apiece from Nathan Brown and Shaun Lane asides the only real dampeners from the night were injuries to Manu Ma’u and exciting young prospect Stefano Utoikamanu. Daniel Alvaro and Tim Mannah were excellent in the roles as foils to Moeroa and Terepo while Lane and Marata Niukore cemented their claims to starting roles on the edges.
There is little doubt that the Panthers will looking to make amends for their embarrassing showing yesterday and the Eels will need to put together a similar performance come Round 1 but for now they deserve their plaudits.
Ferguson’s big audition tape
Lavishing out big dollars for a winger is still an unfashionable thing in the NRL, even considering that they handle the ball more than any other non-spine role. Regardless of any concepts of notional value that wingers hold to teams, Blake Ferguson seriously impressed in his first hit-out for the Eels. The man is a load to tackle and consistently dominated in his role as the designated second tackle ball-carrier.
Attacking opportunities were hard to come by for Ferguson but he did nearly engineer a try with a deft bat-back from an attacking bomb. Meeting the insane benchmarks that he set in 2018 for the Roosters seems improbable right now but he certainly seems like a man possessed on the field.
P(arry).S(ivo). with love
After the first-string team landed a sequence of body blows on the Panthers, an exclamation point was put on the night by emerging talents Ethan Parry and Maika Sivo. Both backs were strong rucking the ball out and were credited with some exceptional goal line defence. Sivo in particular made the sort of the tackle that ends up season highlight reels as he gunned down a linebreak in the middle of the field.
The big Fijian flanker also wrote his name up on the scoreboard after finishing off an excellent pass from Manu Ma’u. Given that George Jennings, who posted a good individual game himself, left the game with a potential knee injury the call possibly goes out for Sivo immediately if the Eels are committed to adding size and power to their flanks.
Parry once more gives the Eels the best sort of problem as he continues to strengthen his case for a position in the Top 30. Adding depth to the hooker position is clearly a priority for the team given our paper thin depth at the position but Parry is doing his darnedest to complicate things.
The Fence, I love the fence!
At 16-0 on the scoreboard and following Brad Arthur ringing through the changes to give game time to his depth players, you could probably forgive the Eels for conceding a couple of late tries. Add in the fact that the Panthers left plenty of core players on the field until late in the game and it seemed a fait-accompli for the home team to add some respectability to the scoreboard.
Instead of allowing any consolation points the Eels rallied to stone-wall the home team in a focused display of single-minded willpower that honestly dwarfed anything Parramatta put on record in 2018.
I realise of course that one swallow does not make a summer but a defensive shutout is a rare occurrence, trial or no, and it reflects just as well on our second-string team as much as it does our starters.
Canterbury Cup Trial – Penrith Panthers 10 def. Wentworthville Magpies 8
The Wenty Magpies were narrowly pipped in a game where they pulled the vast majority of their starters at half-time. The defensive effort was commendable in this game too and Wenty will likely take plenty out of this game from that viewpoint. Putting the focus of any prospective NRL talent, the best player on the field was easily Salesi Faingaa.
The big backrower with a flair for play-making was every bit as impressive in defence as he was with the ball in hand. He unloaded plenty of bone-rattling shots in the first half and proved to be a constant threat running the ball. Faingaa is a likely candidate for one of Parramatta’s six development spots and those sort of performances will quickly enhance his standings at the club.
Jaeman Salmon fared much better at five-eighth in this trial as opposed to his prior game against the Bears and constantly threatened the Penrith defensive with his running game. He also sent Salesi over for a try in the shadow of half-time with an excellent short ball. It is clear he has the talent to make it in the NRL, the question now is whether he can carve out a niche at centre.
While he probably boosted his stocks more with his great little cameo in the NRL trial, Maika Sivo was strong on the right wing for Wenty. Interestingly, he switched sides to play on left sideline in first-grade but that is more than likely giving deference to Blake Ferguson.
Oregon Kaufusi and Kane Evans were strong up front while the aforementioned Ethan Parry made the most of his limited opportunities at left centre when he crashed over for the opening try of the game.
On the injury front it would seem like Josh Hoffman got banged up very early in the piece and was quickly replaced at right centre.
It feels like we have been primed for a big season from Wenty for the last couple of years only for it to blow up in our faces every time. With new coach Rip Taylor at the helm they look to be a pretty tough and well-drilled squad thus far. Even considering they are definitely missing a steady shot-caller in the halves, they should be competitive most weeks.
Jersey Flegg Trial – Penrith Panthers 18 def. Parramatta Eels 8
Given the magnitude of junior stars unavailable for the Eels (Dylan Brown, Jaeman Salmon, Ethan Parry, Haze Dunster, Oregon Kaufusi, Stefano Utoikamanu) it wasn’t a shock that the Eels fell short of the Panthers who are a traditional powerhouse in the Under 20s. Still, much like with their senior cohorts in the Canterbury Cup and NRL, the Eels battled diligently throughout the game and showed plenty of grit in defence.
Kyle Schneider made his debut in the grade and was masterful at hooker, lacing his second 40/20 of the preseason and directing his team around the park with gusto. As I mentioned before, Parramatta are clearly short for depth at the position in first-grade but rushing Schneider at this stage of development is asking for trouble. Let him play out the season in the Flegg and build towards 2020.
Notable performers included Bailey Biondi-Odo, Charbel Tasipale and JP Nohra but the best performance of the day came from new recruit Jack Jordan who added plenty of grunt from the bench for the Eels.
Star fullback John Fonua left the game early, presumably due to injury, prompting Nohra to switch from centre to his preferred position of fullback and he certainly looked more comfortable at the back.
Much like Rip Taylor in the Canterbury Cup, coach Dean Feeney looks to be running a pretty tight ship heading into the regulation season. So while they may be missing some of the best talent due to higher callings, they should be ready to front up every week.