Here we go NRL and Parra Eels tragics!
The 2020 Club Nines kicks off in Perth this Friday, and for many of us the first serious top grade action of the season can’t come soon enough.
The Parramatta squad has just been announced and it’s an impressive one. Mobility, skill and youth feature prominently in a group of players who should perform well in this version of rugby league.
This is how the Eels will line up:
Having just represented Australia at the 2019 World Nines, Clint Gutherson is a “no brainer” selection for the Eels campaign. Parra’s custodian might not be blessed with the wheels of a Bevan French, but his versatility, insane fitness and capacity to maintain top speed over a longer distance than the average player, holds him in good stead over this short form of the game. Just like in the 80 minute game, he’ll have a big say in Parra’s performance.
Explosive power and pace provides Maika Sivo with the potential to be a one man wrecking crew at this tournament. He’s the antithesis of Gutho when it comes to fitness, so his value might be found in high return from short stints. He certainly needs more ball than he received when representing Fiji at the World Nines when his talents were arguably wasted.
A surprise inclusion perhaps (much like ‘Taka’) given his involvement in next week’s All Stars game but ‘Fergo’ should absolutely light up the Western seaboard given his status as one of the NRL’s premier wingers. Look for the superstar flanker to live up to his billing as one of the greatest entertainers going around when (if) he crosses the white stripe!
He might not feature in too many 2020 NRL discussions, but Will Smith would be one of the more natural fits for Nines footy in the Eels squad. Blessed with exceptional pace, Smith is the “Will of the Wisp” type of player highly valued in a game where there’s more space than the regular NRL variety. Time to shine Wilbur.
A star for Cook Islands on day one of the World Nines, it was no surprise to see Brad Takairangi selected for the Eels. Big Taka will be expected to float around the edges, and has that ability to get the one-handed offload away in traffic which can create opportunities for faster supporters. A strong performance in Perth might just secure the versatile Takairangi a spot on the Eels interchange in Round 1.
As a player who can cover both wing and centre, the lesser profiled Jennings brother gets his shot in this tournament. George may possess the ridiculous acceleration of his famous older brother, but is renowned for his courageous carries off kick returns and his cutbacks through the middle of the ruck. This is George’s opportunity to remind the Eels that he can be relied on should injury strike the Eels outside backs in 2020.
Many Eels supporters will be pleased with Jaeman’s selection. After being groomed by the Eels as a half, and then considered as a potential centre, the acquisition of Waqa Blake and the rise of Dylan Brown has seemingly pushed the talented Salmon out of the NRL spotlight. Though I’d like to see “Fish” settle into a specific position (centre), his versatility should be his strength in the Nines format.
The star of the World Nines, Mitch Moses is another essential selection in the Eels team. An argument could be made that the 2019 Dally M Half of the Year is best kept in cotton wool during the preseason. However, any visitor to training would acknowledge that Moses never shies away from collisions. The Eels are blessed with the fastest half in the Premiership and he gets the opportunity to showcase his talents in Perth.
The 2020 season could be a breakout year for Oregon Kaufusi and what better way to launch it than with a starring role here. Big Oggy has a good motor and a step before the line, qualities that would be highly valued for a middle forward in the NRL, let alone this shortened game. Get ready for next gen Blue and Gold.
Readers of my training reports would be very familiar with the name, Rhys Davies. Close to Gutho class in the fitness stakes, the former half is being groomed as a dummy half option for 2020. Blessed with one of the best defensive techniques I’ve witnessed in a half, there’s no denying that Davies has the basics to be a success in the 9 jersey, but needs every opportunity to gain experience in that position. For that reason he earns selection ahead of Mahoney.
A half trapped in a prop’s body – it’s a rugby league cliche that becomes a truism when you’re discussing Junior Paulo. I’ve seen the big unit demonstrate his passing, kicking and goal kicking skills on the training track, and NRL supporters have witnessed his quick feet and ability to link with outside supports. Throw in his stats leading offloads and Junz is potentially the archetypal Nines middle forward.
In playing what was arguably the most consistent football of his career, Shaun Lane quickly established himself as an Eels fan favourite throughout 2019. At six foot six, he’s a challenge to tackle, and those one-handed offloads create opportunities for both inside and outside support runners. He could prove a dynamic inclusion on the edges in this tournament.
The inclusion of Ryan Matterson is another zero surprise selection. At 108 kilograms, the former half has the skill set of a playmaker but the size of a middle forward. Tremendous mobility and game sense could make the latest inclusion in the Eels leadership group one of the players to watch in Perth. Welcome back to the Blue and Gold, Matto.
I’m really looking forward to what Marata Niukore can deliver in the Nines. The former Warriors centre and now edge/middle forward holds nothing back in his carries, and has retained much of the pace of his outside back days. He’s looked powerful at Eels preseason training and will leave his mark in this competition.
In my opinion, Ray Stone fitted into the must select category for the Eels Nines squad. Parra continues to upgrade Stone’s dummy half skills at every training session, whilst he also spends time as both an edge and middle forward during opposed work. His mobility and “take no prisoners” attitude in defence will be a huge plus in this tournament.
Welcome to the big time Haze Dunster! For many supporters, this might be their first glimpse of this Eels pathway graduate. With experience at fullback, wing and centre, it’s easy to see why Haze has been given this opportunity as his first senior appearance. Watch for his ability to beat the first defender in his carries.
The evergreen David Gower is surely the epitome of what hard work and self belief can achieve in rugby league. He’ll once again not feature in NRL team discussions, yet he’ll no doubt answer a top grade mayday call at some stage during the season. And in Perth, Gowie will add leadership, versatility and a surprising skill set to the Eels squad. What a champion!
How good is it to see Stefano Utoikamanu getting a run in the Nines! The Eels young gun has probably featured in the media far more than he’d like to during this preseason, but I can assure readers that he’s a terrific young bloke and he’s been all business, all dedication in his training. Stefano will prove a handful for defenders in the middle.
The Unlucky Player
Who? I’m not surprised that people would be wondering about who Watson Heleta is and why I’m mentioning him. This bloke has been on a train and trial with the Eels in the latter part of this preseason. As a reference point, his build is not too dissimilar to Greg Leleisiuao. The former West’s Tigers lower grade back was not contracted for 2020, so I made the decision to not feature him in my training reports. However, he has been very impressive and at one session was my pick as the standout player that day.
Unfortunately, Watson suffered a jaw injury during the Eels Canterbury Cup trial last week. It’s my understanding that he was under strong consideration for a place in the Eels Nines squad.
We wish him well in his recovery.
The Eels in 2016
I wanted to quickly honour the Eels team which won the Auckland Nines in 2016.
It was a shame that the Eels Salary Cap penalty in 2016 extended to stripping the Nines title. I don’t disagree with the NRL Premiership points deduction of that year, nor the other sanctions imposed on individuals or the club.
However, the Club Nines is pure entertainment. It’s an exhibition tournament which gets the fans excited about the upcoming season. It’s not bound by the same eligibility rules as the Premiership, as evidenced by clubs fielding “guest players” who aren’t even registered with their club or the NRL for the upcoming season.
This is the 2016 Eels Nines squad which won that title:
Mitch Cornish, Bureta Faraimo, John Folau, Bevan French, David Gower, Luke Kelly, Cameron King, Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa, Ryan Morgan, Cody Nelson, Corey Norman, Junior Paulo, Semi Radradra, Kelepi Tanginoa, Peni Terepo, Vai Toutai, Matt Woods
More than half of that squad spent the majority of the season in the NSW Cup that year, and Bevan French was yet to play NRL.
They deserved the credit for a job well done.
The Nines format is gloriously unpredictable. On paper, this is a very strong Eels squad, and it’s obvious that Parra is taking its commitment to the tournament very seriously.
However, the bounce of the ball can play an even bigger role in nine minute halves than it does in 80 minute NRL games.
With that in mind, I’m planning to treat the matches as entertaining spectacles and add in a wish that every player in every team enjoys an injury free tournament.
With Parra to win, of course!
Images courtesy of Eels media and the NRL