Don’t bother speculating about the Eels Round 1 team. There might be an abundance of NRL team previews on offer over the coming months, but the pundits will vary little in their crystal ball prognostications.
Assuming that Waqa Blake is fit, Round 1 will be a universally agreed upon 13 of: Gutherson, Sivo, Jennings, Blake, Ferguson, Brown, Moses, Brown, Lane, Matterson, Paulo, Mahoney and Campbell-Gillard.
You can then lock in three of the bench – Niukore, Evans and Alvaro.
I’ll nominate Stone to get the contested 14 jersey ahead of the versatile Takairangi.
This is where the debate opens up.
Assuming my 17 get the nod, that chart reads as follows:
Backs – Salmon, Smith, Takairangi, Parry, Dunster, George Jennings
Forwards – Kaufusi, Davey, Terepo, Gower
By round 1 of the 2020 season, the Eels will be expected to list 29 players.
Of the six backs listed above, five boast NRL experience. They also manage to cover all positions through either specific skills or versatility. On the other hand the four forwards are expected to be able to cover the middle roles, with Davey also noted as backrower. At this stage, the only cover for Reed Mahoney is Ray Stone.
Taking all of this into consideration, the likely roster need sits around back row and dummy half. Which brings us to possible solutions.
In my opinion, the dummy half solution will come from within. Rhys Davies is currently on a development contract, but I’m tipping an upgrade to a Top 30 deal by the beginning of the season.
The 2019 Wenty half has been outstanding during the early preseason, leading conditioning runs until the return of Gutherson. He’s completed skills sessions in both dummy half and halfback roles, and could come into consideration for the 14 jersey.
Another factor in Davies’ favour is that it would only require a small upgrade and he is a known commodity.
Spot 29 becomes more interesting. Initially, it was straight forward – upgrade Stefano Utoikamanu. This might still be the path chosen, as again he is a known player and the cost is minimal. However, his contract with the Tigers for 2021 might muddy those waters.
Should the Eels decide to recruit externally, I don’t expect them to spend up big. The top 13, even 16 of the top 17 places, seem settled. Furthermore, the depth in middle forwards is impressive, with Hollis and Hughes on the cusp of NSW Cup and Duggan included in this NRL preseason. I expect all three to start in Jersey Flegg, but it’s difficult to envisage an established NRL forward being lured to the club with the level of competition already at the club.
Another consideration is versatility. Whilst it could be argued that an injury to either Lane or Matterson would expose a lack of depth in the back row, there are answers to that problem. If Davey is available, he could slot straight in. Takairangi also becomes a back row option, or Niukore could easily switch to that role, meaning that Kaufusi, Gower or Terepo come onto the bench. I’m also of the belief that all of these players would not only fill a spot, they could also put pressure on the bench to claim a place in the 17.
With that in mind, I’m anticipating either an internal upgrade or the signature of a fringe NRL forward. The club won’t be in a rush. The Eels have the depth to cover their needs, and this was in evidence last year when Kaysa Pritchard was granted extended leave to determine his future, effectively forfeiting a roster spot until mid season.
Of course, things might change. The Newcastle Herald has reported that Brock Lamb is considering a return to Maitland. Were this to occur, and though Lamb’s only on a Development contract for 2020, his status as Top 30 in 2021 might mean that the Eels decide to sign another half.
As usual, it’s unlikely that the 30th place will be filled until midway through the season, and will probably be determined by market availability and injuries to the roster. It’s difficult to speculate at this stage, as you can never predict who becomes available or what changes are forced upon a roster. It’s why coaches like to have that last spot up their sleeve.
Looking ahead, I’m buoyant about the potential that sits in the Development contract players and the Flegg squad. Though a large number of juniors have been lost in the last six months, there’s plenty of talent coming through the system. TCT was critical (and rightly so) in our pathways post, but we took issue with the processes that led to the departure of players, some of whom (not all) should have been retained. Despite this criticism, I believe that the strength of the Eels roster and emerging players to be better than at any stage during the last decade.
Eels supporters will have the opportunity to watch four rounds featuring three grades of football at Bankwest Stadium this season. Most people are familiar with the players who’ll take the field in Canterbury Cup, so make sure you get there early to watch the Flegg games.
Coach Dean Feeney will have forwards such as Hollis, Schneider, Hughes, Tasipale, Clements, Duggan, Tepu-Smith, Colovatti, Betham-Misa, Tohi, Mataele, Skinner and Small at his disposal and a backline that’s likely to include Arthur, Murray, Loizou, Nohra, Penisini, Komolafe, Russell, Naiduki, Tuimavave-Gerrard, Tuipulotu, Tuigamala and Chappell. I believe that around one third of that list will play NRL. If that happens, it would be an extraordinary strike rate for any Flegg roster.
With so many players in the Eels NRL squad in their mid 20s or younger, the pressure to secure high profile signatures has been reduced. This hasn’t happened in the last 12 months – it’s the result of years of roster tuning/recruitment and junior development. Though it doesn’t mean that the club ceases to chase quality recruits, the switch to an emphasis on retention and internal promotion should be a healthy scenario for the club. It means that the club can afford to be very selective about who gets added to the roster – a far cry from recruitment announcements in the not too distant past.