Finals Week 2 Drink Of Choice – Yamazaki Single Malt
And thus the curtain draws on the Parramatta Eels in 2019. Not with a thunderous crescendo but with the slightest of whimpers as the Melbourne Storm romped to a 32-0 rout that proved to be the manifestation of all of our collective worst dreams as the crushing weight of inevitability suffocated the life from Brad Arthur and his troops.
It hurts. It hurts so bad. At one point during the downward spiral in the first half, shortly after the Eels unleashed back-to-back brain-snaps in the way of shoulder charges from Kane Evans and Maika Sivo, I texted fellow TCT stalwart Sixties with a brief message that simply read “This is hurting my soul.”. Take nothing away from the Melbourne Storm mind you. They rebounded magnificently from Canberra’s ambush last week and showed the Eels the value of the mountain of finals experience they possess as a team.
On the flip-side though, my gosh were Parramatta at their self-destructive worst as the bright lights proved to be too much for a young team. From Junior Paulo’s opening error, to the aforementioned dual shoulder charges and then Clinton Gutherson drilling a kick into the corner post on the full – the Eels simply could not settle into a groove in the first half and Melbourne are too good a roster to let them get away with that.
I have to circle back to how much it all hurts because no matter how much you try to temper expectations – the finals are the freaking finals when all is said and done. In the big picture Parramatta were magnificent bouncing back from the horrors of 2018 and it is so easy to lose sight of that in the carnage of last night.
Still, the teaching points from last night are both plentiful and deep and I certainly hope that our young and hungry roster put this particular tape on repeat in the coming months. Learn from the humiliation. Kindle the fire. Hone the edge. These are the sort of losses that should drive you to become better. To become great.
Stormy conditions no impediment for Melbourne
Everything started sub-optimally for the Parramatta Eels before a ball was even kicked in anger with the ever-bleak city of Melbourne putting on a torrid show. The incessant downpour played straight into the hands of the home team who fielded both a mountainous forward pack and also carried the renown of being the best wrestlers and ruck-workers in the game.
The weather certainly put a kibosh on Parramatta’s aggressive brand of second phase play but plenty of credit must go to the Storm who produced only the solitary error in the first 40-minutes of play. They certainly had their slice of luck with fortuitous defections and bounces gifting Cameron Munster and Jerome Hughes the third and fourth tries of the day respectively but to suggest that the Storm were only ahead due to luck is a huge disservice to the comprehensive opening half of football they played.
Melbourne simply gave Parramatta a lesson in high-stakes footy. They capitalised on our errors, continued to turn the screws throughout the game by pinning us in-goal or near our try line and then somehow lifted their intensity when they lost Cameron Smith to the sin-bin after his stunning brain explosion. It really was a showcase display for the Eels as to what it takes to drive deep into the post-season.
Farewell and thank you
It certainly wasn’t the send off that Manu Ma’u deserved but that is so often how sports go. For every fairy tale finish there are hundred and thousands of worthy gladiators that must simply walk off into the quiet of the night. That Manu wasn’t able to register one more customary fearsome performance makes it all the more tragic with the Eels enforcer limited to 80m from 10 runs and a frustrating error from a penalty restart in the second half.
At the end of the day that is just footy though and it certainly won’t tarnish my memories of one of the greatest rugby league redemption stories of all time. Manu’s rise from the walls of a prison in New Zealand to a feared but highly respected NRL enforcer is the sort of story that makes you believe in second chances – even when there are still so many idiots squandering them elsewhere. He won’t make the Hall Of Fame and he certainly will never be an Immortal but I will never forget the amazing six years he gave the Parramatta Eels in the NRL.
If there was ever a ‘jobs for the boys’ free-pass, I think Manu qualifies for it after his ESL tour. I believe he has plenty to teach the coming generations of talent at Parramatta about both what it takes to be a true enforcer on the field and just what a blessing their opportunity is.
Thank you Manu Ma’u. Thank you truly for giving us your everything on the field.
Manu was joined by Tepai Moeroa in his final game as an Eel in Saturday nights’ loss. Moeroa remains to this day one of the most exciting junior prospects that I have covered back in the era when my junior updates were posts on League Unlimited and 1EyedEel rather than here on TCT. Tepai was a punishing thumper in defence with a big motor and solid line-running ability in attack – he was highly regarded in all circles of the game and equally so in our fraternal code of union.
Everything above manifested in his debut season as the boom rookie mixed up some big hits with cracking tries against the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Newcastle Knights. Since then however, Tepai has carved out a career that is more solid than spectacular (certainly not an insult mind you) as injuries – particularly concussions – curtailed his development as a top-flight NRL prospect.
Moeroa’s 112 NRL caps are nonetheless an impressive feat for the soon-to-be 24-year old, putting him on a trajectory for close to a 300-game NRL career. I fully expect him to forge a successful career in rugby union with the NSW Waratahs and Wallabies.
Best of luck and thanks Tep.
Second half starch suggests Eels might be learning
I will freely wear and criticism here from any fan that sees this as a reach. It certainly doesn’t exonerate the Eels of their nightmare first half as well as their inability to post a single point on Saturday night. Yet even so I came away with a smidgen of pride in the second half. Just a smidgen mind you but Melbourne didn’t so much take the foot off the front as the Eels managed to push it off and crawl back to their knees…albeit before coughing up a fit and probably throwing up if were were to continue the fight metaphor.
Still, it was a marked step forward from previous shellackings that the Eels have suffered from premiership powerhouses in the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters and possibly speaks to the grit of the next generation ready to take the helm of the team.
No single player encapsulated this more than Dylan Brown who made Rihanna proud as he shone bright like a diamond. The 19-year-old rookie was unflappable in a game where plenty of Parramatta players were decidedly ‘flapped’. On top of running the ball strongly (10 runs / 74m) in the testing conditions, he kicked beautifully and posted a flawless night in defence (20 tackles / 0 missed / 0 ineffective).
What was truly impressive though was his relentless commitment in cover defence – regardless of the time on the clock. He gave everything he could to come across from the other side of the field and damn near stop Josh Addo-Carr’s opening try in the 5th minute and backed it up in the dying minutes to yet again come from the other side of the field and gun down Justin Olam within metres of the try line.
Even if the Storm still went on to score I am not ashamed to admit that I jumped out of my seat and yelled out ‘F*ck yeah!’ because that was a heroic effort. That was the play of a kid who will give you everything so that his team wins. That my friends is a winner and the a huge part of the reason why everyone from the head coach down love this kid.
Mahoney, Moses and (Waqa) Blake other Eels to impress
The television coverage might have called it otherwise but I personally feel like Mitchell Moses played a pretty solid game given the cards he was dealt. As his team-mates continued to spill the ball and gift Melbourne a hefty possession and territorial advantage, Moses eschewed his prior tendencies to chase quick and easy points and tried to get the Eels back into the arm-wrestle.
That Melbourne’s formidable defence were able to deny the best efforts of both he and Dylan Brown speaks more to their commitment and ferocity on the day than anything else. Moses was later picked off by Addo-Carr as the pressure of the clock truly began to take its toll before then looping a pass over the opportunistic Addo-Carr only to be denied as Blake Ferguson barely failed to navigate the narrow margin he was left with on the sideline.
Moses has earned a reputation as something of a flat-track bully and while last night’s performance won’t erase that I feel like it was a solid step in the right direction.
A later handling error as he went burrowing for a try and a missed tackle on Nelson Asofa-Solomona (after he was left posted alone to be fair) might not have been a great way to cap the night for Reed Mahoney but the feisty hooker lost no respect from this blogger. Mahoney worked himself to a stand-still as the Storm dominated possession with the first-year starter posting a game 55 tackles (6 missed 1 1 ineffective) to lead the next highest effort (Manu Ma’u – 41 tackles) by a staggering 14.
The exciting dummy-half prospect also narrowly missed a cracking 40/20 in the second half and was the catalyst for a brief glimmer of hope late in the first half as he pulled a swift one on the almighty Cameron Smith, baiting him into an incredibly rare brain explosion and subsequent sin-binning. It is easy to see why Mick Ennis is so enamoured with Reed whenever he speaks on Fox Sports. While his game still lacks some polish, the fiery rake closely resembles Ennis from his plus play-making ability at dummy-half right through to his clever niggle. Reed is certainly a real one and a big part of the reason why fans should be excited for 2020.
Lastly we come to Waqa Blake. Parramatta’s mid-season transfer didn’t jump off the stat-sheet on Saturday night…but then again which Eel truly did? Still, Waqa impressed me with some gutsy efforts in cover defence as well as some good reads and hustle in general. He saw very little of the ball but every time he gets a modicum of time and space you can just see that he is threat to the opposition.
Blake & Blake Inc. was a running work-in-progress in the back end of this season. Waqa joined a new club and was recovering from a hefty knee injury while Ferguson never truly got back to his physical best following a life-threatening reaction to antibiotics. Giving them a full preseason together to recuperate and build that combination is easily one of the most exciting story-lines for the upcoming months that I can give you.
What does this mean for 2020?
Although the spectre of 2018 still looms large after the highs of 2017, I think fans have a multitude of reasons to be optimistic for next year. The team is built better and has the right players in the right positions to forge ahead. Dylan Brown and Reed Mahoney will continue to grow and augment their senior partners in the spine while a stunning backline should be better served by a strengthened middle as Reagan Campbell-Gillard lends his strength to Junior Paulo and Kane Evans.
What else makes 2020 different prospectively from 2018? Well behind this crop of NRL talent that we expect to grow and develop there is a Canterbury Cup team that has booked a place in the big dance next Sunday at Bankwest Stadium. While old-heads like David Gower, Josh Hoffman and Tim Mannah have supplied crucial experience to the Magpies, the team has also been driven by young talent like Ethan Parry, Jaeman Salmon, Rhys Davies, Oregon Kaufusi and Stefano Utoikamanu while Haze Dunster and Salesi Faingaa have also played their parts in the late season charge.
The Eels are poised to field their best top-line squad in Brad Arthur’s tenure at the club while also having access to an assortment of real depth – both savy and experienced and young and exciting. Of course a lot of water still has to pass under that bridge but right now Parramatta have nearly everything they need to consolidate and push ahead in 2020.
One matter worth following is Parramatta’s interest in Ryan Matterson. The one-time Eel is on the outer at the Wests Tigers and fills a pressing need at edge backrower for Parramatta. NRL.com have already reported on the Eels’ interest in Matterson while the Gold Coast Titans are another leading suitor. Should Matterson’s signing eventuate then the Eels seriously need to set their goal at Top 4 – or higher – in 2020.
The Final Word
Not the final Final Word mind you. I plan to get to a season concluding musings at some point alongside some other off-season content.
The pain has somewhat subsided now, even if it will linger for the coming weeks through to the grand final as the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ tease my psyche until a champion is crowned. Simultaneously though, hope springs eternal as I run my eye over the incredibly promising class of rookies, new recruits and second-year starters from this year.
Maika Sivo, Waqa Blake, Blake Ferguson, Dylan Brown, Reed Mahoney, Junior Paulo, Shaun Lane and Marata Niukore. Each and every one of them was a core contributor this year while Kane Evans also turned things around to become an important starter in the front-row.
The Eels didn’t so much as rebuild as they did retool after winning the wooden spoon in 2018 and ‘BA’ and the rest of the football staff deserve a huge amount of credit for what they have done. Last night was certainly a savage blow and a rather embarrassing lesson but as pain-staking as it may feel, the Eels are closing the gap on the top teams in the NRL. 2020 will be a huge year for the club mind you as they have to take that next step forwards. Make certain to return the body blows of yesterday twice over and carve out their own path deep, deep, deep into the finals.