Round 2 Drink Of Choice – Nikka Whisky
Rather ridiculously, history says the Eels are Top 4 bound after starting the season 2-0 with a largely constructive 36-16 demolition of the Canterbury Bulldogs. Seriously, the only times the Eels have started a season 2-0 in the modern era (1998, 1999 and 2017) they have finished the year in the Top 4. That is much an indictment about our slow starts as it is a fortuitous reading of the tea leaves but it does add another sheen of gloss to Parramatta’s unbeaten start to the year. Even so, there is plenty of footy to break down before we can even think about the holding a St-George style coronation ceremony to celebrate our status as March premiers so as usual, let’s get right into it.
Wingers Are People Too
Is the role of the humble winger the most underrated position in the game? It has long been on my mind to blog about this train of thought but outside of your primary play-makers in the spine – who handles the ball more? Who is entrusted with both starting and finishing sets as well as making the most clutch and difficult split-second decisions in defence?
Everyone in the NRL balked at the enormous contract that Semi Radradra signed with Toulouse in French Rugby. Even last year, plenty of eyes rolled when it was revealed that the Eels had secured Blake Ferguson on approximately $450,000 a season over three years. In an era where the pay scale for marquee middle forwards is keeping pace with half-backs and five-eighths, it certainly feels like the market has responded inefficiently to a position that has such a huge bearing on the outcome of nearly every game.
Back to Ferguson now and his modest 16 run, 279m, 2 linebreak, 10 tackle bust, 1 intercept, 2 try day only sort of anchored the Eels in their 20-point rout of the Bulldogs. I spoke about Marata Niukore’s potential to physically bully the opposition with the ball in hand in a blog earlier this week and Ferguson absolutely typifies that point as well. Canterbury struggled to contain Parramatta’s chrome-domed crusader throughout the entire game perhaps even more than the statistics say. Maika Sivo played a pretty stellar complimentary role as he pumped out 139m from 16 runs but two sloppy errors during play-the-ball attempts did take some of the lustre off his game.
Million Dollar Baby
Dylan Brown caught some fire for his comments to the media this week about dreaming about making millions of dollars as a kid and potentially testing his value in free agency. Brad Arthur revealed today that the boom rookie was immediately on the phone to him to explain himself as stories broke covering the comments before playfully labeling Brown with ‘a weird sense of humour’. He is certainly aiding his cause for whatever the Eels eventually do lay down on the table as an offer with a strong, if subdued, performance today.
Brown played within himself at times and things started inauspiciously for the young man as he dropped the ball cold with a loaded left-edge flying through outside him. He quickly repaid the misdeed as he secured two line drop-outs with perfectly weighted grubber kicks and ultimately put the result well and truly beyond doubt by helping start and finish a lovely ball movement that also featured Junior Paulo and Jaeman Salmon.
Perhaps most pleasingly though is the harmonious nature of his relationship with Mitchell Moses through Parramatta’s two wins. No over-calls, no verbal blow-ups…it just works and it reminds of a cool little year called 2017.
No Brakes On The Night Train Lane
It isn’t often that you get to savour a forward streaking nearly 50m downfield to score an intercept try but it was that exact play that capped a strong game from the man with the go-go-gadget arms. Shaun Lane, he of cartoonish wingspans, is the purveyor of said rare feat and the big man had the opportunity to help the Eels post an uber-rare Triple-Double later in the game by joining Blake Ferguson and Clinton Gutherson as dual try scorers when he grassed a skidding grubber kick from Mitchell Moses in front of the uprights.
Lane wasn’t without fault with two errors to his name but he in a loaded recruitment class for the Eels he is making sure to keep pace with the efforts of Ferguson and Junior Paulo.
Slow start, sloppy finish, big test
You can never grumble too much when you are banking valuable wins early in the season but the Eels obviously still have plenty of work to do – which is both good and bad. This team is far from peaking in its current iteration with core players injured and procedural errors inhibiting their ability to put their opponents to the sword. The good news is that there is plenty of time to build and nurture this exciting young team with an eye for the business end of the season. The bad news is that they get a very big litmus test in Round 3 when they host the reigning premiers in the Sydney Roosters.
While the grit and poise put on display today to claw back an early 10-point deficit against the Bulldogs was both admirable and encouraging – they simply can’t afford to repeat such a start against the premiers. The Roosters will leave the Eels at a greater deficit and prove to be far more formidable at holding any advantage should Parramatta gift similar swathes of territory and possession on Friday night.
Switching back to the good news now and since the Eels are hosting this game (and since the accursed Sydney Football Stadium is no longer a threat) the chances of an outright beating should be reduced significantly. For whatever reason the combination of the Eels, Roosters and the SFS never ends well for the Blue & Gold.
A win would be huge for the Eels but more than anything the game represents a challenge for Brad Arthur and his men to take a premiership heavyweight 80-minutes to the final whistle.
Miscellaneous Men Of Merit
Failing an improbable way of tying Clinton Gutherson, Brad Takairangi, Reed Mahoney, Jaeman Salmon and Tim Mannah together with the mother of all attempted witticisms as a header, here is a shout-out to some of the other top performers today. Mannah’s renaissance that started in 2018 continues with an outstanding 13 run, 141m effort from the bench while Salmon may have just lost one job and won another with two valuable cameos from the bench. The young star was right in the thick of preseason competition to line up at centre opposite Michael Jennings but now could feature as a key figure from the bench for Eels as they look to make an unfamiliar foray into the Top 4.
The Final Word
The Eels needed to beat the Dogs convincingly and they did. Sort of. Everyone knew that Canterbury were going to come out fired up after getting thoroughly embarrassed by the New Zealand Warriors and they did just that, venturing their arms with some low percentage offloads that stuck. Parramatta did their best to aid the Dogs with an awful completion rate but their mid-game rally strongly evoked memories of 2017 as they blew their Western Sydney rivals off the park.
Now a massive game looms on the short turnaround as the Eels step into the ring with the Roosters in prime time on Friday night. For all their minor faults and warts over the first two rounds, Parramatta have a real shot at landing a body blow on the reigning champs. It will be must-see TV.