Round 25 Drink Of Choice – Balvenie Double Wood 12YO
This time last year the Parramatta Eels completed their dismal 2018 campaign with a brutal 44-10 loss to the eventual premiers in the Sydney Roosters. The 34-point loss capped a three game skid and put as ugly an exclamation mark as you could imagine on an already hideous 6-win season.
Autopsies aplenty there were including an official review but it seemed destined that the Eels were cursed to rebuild once. Semi Radradra’s absence turned out to be not so much a gap in the roster as a inextricable black hole. The halves combination of Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses, earmarked for greatness after a stellar 2017, fell into a heap. Kane Evans, Brad Arthur’s only major signing was written off as a complete bust while an array of senior talent failed to set professional standards on the field.
And yet here we are. A 32-16 victory over our bitter rivals the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in the books and as a result our 14th win of the season written into the ledgers. The victory column falls two short of the dizzying heights of 2017 but I can assure you it is every bit as satisfying for myself after our team was consigned to the gutters before a ball was kicked off this year.
Regardless of what happens in the post-season hence forth, 2019 is a sterling success for Brad Arthur and everyone involved at the Parramatta Eels. The sailing wasn’t always smooth and I don’t think this team has begun to scrape the ceiling of its potential but their ascent up the ladder this year is a testament to enthusiasm and grit of all the players and coaches. Well done.
That said, there is plenty of unfinished business to be done and before we move on to a glorious Sunday afternoon of sudden death footy against the Brisbane Broncos so let’s unpack the final win of the regulation season and some of the better story line of 2019 while we are at it.
Strength in numbers; Fans turns BankWest into formidable homefield advantage
25,034 fans packed into BankWest Stadium in spite of the awkward 6:00PM time slot and some inclement weather in a massive credit to the passion and commitment of the Parramatta fandom. While we certainly have our fringe element like any fan base I have always been of the opinion that the Blue & Gold army is one of the best and most faithful fandoms and the Eels’ success in 2019 is due in no small part to all the fans that turned out to our new stadium.
The booming ‘SI-VO’ chants that echoed from wall to wall on Friday night are not only a testament to that but they also mark one of the great ‘had to be there’ moments for the entirety of the NRL this year.
Well done to every fan who attended a home game this year.
Rookies shine in regulation season curtain-call
Maika Sivo certainly earned those chants on Friday night as he posted his first career hat-trick to bring his season haul to 20 tries and claim sole ownership of the Ken Irvine Medal as the NRL’s leading try scorer. The comparisons to Semi Radradra began long ago and will continue to come with every breath-taking try he scores and soul-devouring fend he lays on to an unwitting defender but fans should take a second to appreciate both in their own rights.
The fact that the Eels unearthed not one but two transcendental talents on the wings within the space of a couple of years is an incredibly rare feat and should be celebrated as such. Maika’s meteoric rise was captured brilliantly in a recent NRL video here while TCT’s own interview with George Dansey reflects on the team chaplains own Fijian roots and why Parramatta has become the premier club for identification and development of these phenomenal football players.
Of course, if you tab across a few players to Sivo’s right and you get Dylan Brown. The 19-year-old play-maker produced perhaps his most composed and assured performance of the year in a hugely encouraging sign heading into the finals. Brown ran the ball strongly throughout the night while showing incredibly deft touches with pass and kick alike – both of which proved crucial in Sivo notching his maiden hat-trick.
Brown’s poise and mental strength are not to be underestimated. The rookie has walked a difficult path in his first season of NRL as he battles weekly with a lower-back injury and his application to the game, especially in defence is a massive credit to his character.
Between these two alone you certainly have a stunning rookie class for 2019 while young outside back Ethan Parry was solid his first two outings in first grade and left each game with a try to his name. With their continued development alongside the next wave of young talent coming through, the Eels are poised to consolidate and push even higher up the ladder in the coming seasons.
Stone Cold Stunner
I appreciate that Martin Taupau showed genuine concern for Ray Stone seconds after he had shockingly laid him out with a high swinging arm. I think that speaks towards his character and the fact that it was an attempt at a big defensive play gone awry. In that vein I am glad that both teams didn’t come to blows immediately following it because Taupau was clearly remorseful and more importantly there was a semi-conscious Ray Stone left strewn on the ground in need of medial attention. Taupau’s care for his victim is probably the difference between a careless and reckless grading.
With all that said, the fact that Taupau was not sent off for that breach is not just an embarrassment to our game but an indictment on the officiating process. Michael Ennis voiced similar frustrations tonight on the Big League Wrap and it legitimately raises the question of what constitutes a send off these days.
Kane Evans also found himself in the sin bin on Friday night, and perhaps fairly so, but unlike Taupau who carelessly swung an arm at an opponent’s jaw Evans was guilty of aggressively squaring up Brad Parker with his pec and shoulder. The Eels have elected to fight the one week ban Evans now faces (with nothing to lose should the appeal fail) and it will be interesting to how they contest this given the simple mechanics behind a 2-metre tall individual executing a relatively textbook tackle. Freeze frames and initial contact points will be crucial here and the outcome will be crucial for the Eels given the outstanding form of Evans in 2019.
Fergo not full go, Moeroa potentially no go
Just as Dylan Brown is showing plenty of ticker to push through a difficult physical predicament, so too should Blake Ferguson be lauded for returning to the field following a severe reaction to antibiotics. ‘Fergo’ was far from his best on Friday night and I doubt that he will physically be near 100% this season following his massive weight loss recently.
However, despite a number of errors and missed opportunities to his name on Friday his presence in the team will be vital moving forwards. Ferguson’s propensity to performing in big games will be called upon henceforth from next Sunday and his general experience in the finals will be crucial for our young team.
While Ferguson gets something of a free pass in that regard Tepai Moeroa is not so lucky. I don’t like to single out players for ridicule and this is not anything of the sort but Tepai has produced dismally from the bench with a number of errors punctuating an otherwise tepid stat sheet. To his credit he produced his most accomplished effort of the season against Manly when it came to productivity in the running game but his error from a kickoff was nigh unforgivable while another error led to a contentious try to Manly.
Nathan Browns return from suspension poses Brad Arthur with a selection decision to be made for one of his bench forwards. Should Ray Stone pass through concussion protocols I hope he gets the nod for Sunday with Tepai being the man to drop off the bench.
Late offloads the bane of our defence
Defensively I think the Eels have improved significantly in the back end of 2019. Since bleeding 36-points to Manly at Brookvale in Round 18 they have conceded 22, 4, 14, 12, 12, 17 and 16 for grand total of 97-points and a per-game average of just under 14-points. Line-speed and aggression levels are both well up compared to early portions of the season and our edge combinations are starting to settle now that new faces and returnees from the injury ward alike get used to each other.
One factor that has consistently punished us over the last three rounds however are late offloads. Canterbury, Brisbane and Manly all produced their most threatening offensive displays on the back of offloads that caught our retreating defensive line off-guards. Heck, it was a late offload that made Darius Boyd look remotely threatening against Brisbane.
Parramatta will obviously need to defend this better moving forwards but given the calibre of the opposition in the post-season they also simply need to be better aware of the potential for any late offloads and scramble better as a response.
The Final Word
If you had polled the fandom before Round 1 and asked them if they would have taken a home final in Week 1 at BankWest Stadium I have to believe the response would have been an avalanche of yes votes. It is a huge credit to the team for their ability to put the demons of 2018 firmly behind them and achieve as high as they did to this point. While everything moving forwards is a bonus, it is also a massive opportunity for our boys. Yes the Storm and the Roosters are nigh unbackable favourites…and for good reason given their form this year. Yet all it takes is one bad game and they will only be as good as any other team eliminated from contention.
Any given Sunday (or Friday or Saturday given it is the NRL) rules are in place now. Results prior to this coming weekend are meaningless and four wins are what now separates the Eels from immortality. Parramatta showed that they have the composure to win four straight just a while back, now it all begins again on Sunday against the Brisbane Broncos.
See you all out there!