After spending a season getting thrown around and bullied by opposition forwards through the ruck, the missive for 2019 was clear – get bigger, faster and stronger. The recruitment of Junior Paulo and Blake Ferguson heralded an unwavering commitment to that cause. Internally, the likes of Daniel Alvaro, Tepai Moeroa and young Oregon Kaufusi among others embraced the challenge as they emerged from the preseason heavier but functionally more athletic and powerful.
Even just one round in, the results of that recruitment and reconditioning seem to be apparent with a heavily undermanned Parramatta middle-forward rotation running the Panthers off the park twice in the space of three weeks. And yet there is the potential for another positional group to come from the clouds and steal the show following Marata Niukore and Shaun Lane’s standout efforts across the preseason and Round 1.
In recent years the Eels have employed some of the more under-rated edge backrowers in the game with the likes of Manu Ma’u and Kenny Edwards carving out important roles out wide. That obviously careened to a halt last year with Ma’u breaking down with injuries while ill-discipline finally caught up with Edwards.
The two men who would ultimately claim those berths in the backrow this year enjoyed very different seasons – even if their teams struggled mightily by equal measure. For Lane it was a breakout season. Never had there been doubt over the potential of the towering Bulldogs’ junior but following an eye-catching debut for Canterbury in 2015 he faded into relative obscurity.
Indeed, Manly was his third club in four years following a brief pit-stop at the Warriors but in 2018, his second season at the Northern Beaches, everything seemed to finally click for Lane as he finished the season as the leading try-scorer for the Sea Eagles with 9 tries. To put that in perspective, Lane finished behind only Gavin Cooper (13 tries) and Tariq Sims (10 tries) among forwards in the NRL. By contrast, Parramatta’s leading try-scorer in the forwards was the injury afflicted Ma’u with 3. Shockingly, Lane’s 9 tries actually equaled the total of all specialist Parramatta forwards in 2018 (Ma’u , Vave , Brown, Mannah, Gower, Edwards ) .
The important question for both Lane and the Eels was whether 2018 was the exception or would prove to be the new norm. The early indication fortunately seems to be the latter and the level of chemistry he has formed on the left edge with rookie star Dylan Brown is a credit to both players. Both his line-running and second-phase potential, in conjunction with his unique frame and athleticism, have given Parramatta a different kind of weapon on the edges.
While Lane was flourishing even in spite of Manly’s tribulations, Niukore was slogging through some of the more brutal conditions for a rookie to debut in. His call up to the NRL in Round 11 was absolutely deserved following a year and a half of quality play in the Intrust Super Premiership (now Canterbury Cup) for the Wentworthville Magpies. Yet, I think it was fair to say that Marata struggled somewhat with both rigors of first-grade and the abysmal team form around him in general.
It wasn’t so much that his play was particularly poor, but that he was just so slightly off the pace. His hard working qualities were apparent, especially in defence, but his runs lacked venom and it was difficult to envision him as a difference maker in the backrow heading forwards.
What a difference a single preseason can make.
Perhaps no single player typifies that creed of ‘bigger, faster and stronger’ than Marata Niukore. His transformation into one of Parramatta’s most explosive athletes has been astounding. If the training videos from the club and the weekly reports by TCT’s very own Sixties didn’t attest to his regular attendance at the Sales Yards I would have simply assumed he had flown to Russia to train as if he was booked in for a fight with Ivan Drago.
An unassuming and otherwise fantastic young man off the field, he has transformed into a bully with the footy in his hands. And. I. Love. It. There is a violence and ferocity to his running style now that will intimidate our opponents. When you factor in that Ferguson is also situated on the right edge, suddenly you have two contact-loving maniacs ready to go to war that will wear down their opposites with sheer brute force.
It feels like a lot of what is written in these early rounds needs the caveat that there is still a lot of footy to play but both Lane and Niukore have the chance to absolutely be difference-makers for the Parramatta Eels in their redemption tour this season.