Hindsight always makes things easier. I’m Forty20. This is 20/20. Let’s see what we learnt from the Perth 9s.
The weekend junket to the Western seaboard is done and dusted and the North Queensland Cowboys have emerged as the first two-time champions of the limited format. The ‘Boys were worthy winners in a tournament full of surprises packets and players with Scott Drinkwater starring as the primary ball-handler while Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was electrifying out wide.
Generally speaking, success in the 9s doesn’t correlate to a strong campaign over 25 rounds of the NRL but alongside the Cowboys the weekend proved to be a positive venture for the Dragons (injuries pending), Panthers and especially the Titans. Rookie head coach Justin Holbrook still has a mountain of work ahead of him on the Glitter Strip – the Titans have been a black hole for success for the longest time – but his players, particularly Ash Taylor, looked reinvigorated in their first action of 2020.
How did the Eels track though? A slow start on Day 1 gave way ultimately to a gritty loss to Dragons in the semi-finals. Another Top 4 finish means that Parramatta have never finished worse than the quarter finals since the inception of the Auckland 9s and indeed they continue to rival the Cowboys as one of the heavyweights of the format. While it is unfortunate the Eels couldn’t claim the championship for their own the campaign should largely be considered a success as they return to Sydney healthy and ready to gear up for their trial game in Bega.
Eels slip then stand firm under mantle of favouritism
Social media was ablaze with takes that nearly broke the Scoville scale on Friday night when a clunky Parramatta outfit were upset in the final minutes by the Canterbury Bulldogs care of a Corey Harawira-Naera try. How the Eels back up their 2019 campaign into this year has been one of the most topical discussion points throughout the preseason and the dysfunctional first up loss poured plenty of fuel of that fire.
Frustration was understandable. Parramatta condensed their sphere of operations on the field and played a shockingly conservative game-plan against the Bulldogs. The outcry about the Eels crumbling under pressure however proved to be entirely premature as they rallied on Day 2. Their attack may have lacked the spectacular fluency of previous tournaments but their defence made up for it as they ensured every match was a titanic brawl up until the final moments.
Of course, it wasn’t all grit and grind…the Eels still delivered one of the most stunning passages of play on the weekend as a reminder of just how lethal the attacking talent in this team is.
— Parramatta Eels (@TheParraEels) February 16, 2020
As I mentioned earlier in this blog, extrapolating form from the 9s into the regulation season isn’t an exact science but I was encouraged by the fact that the Eels rallied from a bog ordinary start to surge deep into the finals. Heavy do the expectations weigh for 2020 and barring a slight misstep, Brad Arthur has cleared the first hurdle of the year.
Are the Cowboys ready to ride again?
Paul Green has been sitting on an increasingly warm seat in recent seasons as the Cowboys lurched from 13th in 2018 to 10th in 2019. Despite fielding one of the most exciting rosters in the competition they have criminally under performed since 2017 where a string of heroic performances from Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo arguably saved his blushes in any case.
The high profile return of Valentine Holmes has consumed the headlines surrounding them throughout the preseason but the addition of Esan Marsters and the growth of Scott Drinkwater could be equally pivotal to their hopes in 2020. They looked great across the park in Perth but have been a clunky mess in the standard format of the game between injuries and weak game plans.
Can Green find the right balance in his spine between the superstar NFL returnee and the ascending talent in Drinkwater? Will Taumalolo have enough support in the engine room? They are a legitimate premiership threat if everything can fall into place for them and their success in the 9s could be the catalyst they need.
Parramatta muscle up
Metaphorically and physically that is. Their execution and application in defence provided the platform to take them to the semi-finals but equally noticeable was the improved physiques among the playing group. Mitchell Moses was foremost in both these fields following a dominant individual showing in defence on both days that highlighted newfound explosiveness thanks to aggressive preseason conditioning.
Indeed, across the park the Eels looked ready to step into the season proper following the work of Trent Elkin and the support staff over the summer. Blake Ferguson was back playing at his athletic prime following a series of injuries in 2019 while Ray Stone, all 180cm and 95kg of him, cut an imposing figure in defence as well as he tossed attackers to the ground with regularity.
Sixties’ outstanding training reports have kept us dialled in on what to expect from all these players but it was great to see Junior Paulo look more trim and mobile than ever while Marata Niukore on the other hand seems to have better developed his playing frame to make in impact as a bench weapon.
Most importantly though is the fact that the Eels avoided any sort of injury, serious or otherwise. It is by far the biggest boon you could ask of from the weekend and I have little doubt that Brad Arthur is elated that an array of serious talent got away unscathed with some great match conditioning.
Rules changes make a poor first impression
I wrote about the potential exploitation of a rule change in 2020 last week and the first impressions from the 9s didn’t exactly fill me with optimism. Parramatta’s own Blake Ferguson earned a penalty after he was tackled in the air as an attacker and while the repeat possession was nice as a fan it left me wondering what other recourse the defender had in that instance.
There is still plenty of time to see how teams devise defensive counter-strategies to the aerial gambit but it is hard to see it as anything but a huge boon to attacking teams.
I still have no idea why a 20/40 exists and why we need it and the fact it will be part of the regulation season upsets me.
Elbow-grease and polish to be applied
He may have sneaked his way into the Team of the Tournament, somewhat controversially it has to be said, but it was a weekend of ups and downs for Clinton Gutherson. Parramatta’s custodian looked in top nick physically and was moving well around the park but his willingness to take on extra play-making responsibilities on the weekend produced a mixed bag of results – especially off the boot. He wasn’t alone, Brad Takairangi couldn’t replicate his heroics from the World 9s and was let down by some sloppy ball handling while Moses and Ferguson, two of Parramatta’s best, were also unable to finish off a number of big opportunities.
And you know that? That was just fine. On the whole it was a completely satisfactory display of preseason rust but the Eels will be busy in the comings weeks applying layers upon layers of polish to what we saw this weekend as they eye off the Bulldogs in Round 1.
Who let who down?
There is no sugar-coating the fact that the crowd turnout for the Perth 9s was a dismal failure. The city has long been heralded as a prime location for expansion in the NRL and the existing infrastructures of the Perth Pirates have gone a long way towards building that argument. So why were the crowds so bad? How come the Perth faithful didn’t turn out?
The Daily Telegraph paraded a story in the run to the tournament that Perth were not in the NRL’s expansion plans in what I imagine would be a pretty huge dampener on excitement for the weekend. Still, ticket sales should have been well advanced by the time the Telegraph piece dropped and you have hoped hype for the returning preseason fixture would have driven crowd attendance upwards.
With talk about the NRL exploring the idea of taking the 9s to Newcastle and Canberra (with Canberra quickly refuting the idea) it does beg the question why the NRL won’t take the exciting format to either of the code’s cathedrals in Suncorp Stadium and Bankwest Stadium.
No breakout star this time around but some stocks were improved
Fans will have to reconcile themselves with the fact that we don’t have a name to jot down in the little black book after the completion of the 9s. We will have to make do with the most exciting first-grade roster in a long, lone time I guess.
Stefano Utoikamanu was featured prominently in the media as a player to watch in Perth but the young buck made minimal impact in his limited opportunities for the Eels…and that is just fine. The format doesn’t suit his skill set particularly well and while he is a fair chance at featuring for Parramatta in first-grade at some point in 2020 he is also buried pretty far down a handy list of prop-forwards.
Another rookie fared a bit better with Haze Dunster showing some flashes of speed and elusiveness in the open spaces of 9s. While he was no Bevan French circa 2016, Dunster looked smooth working down the sideline and showed plenty of hustle in cover defence. He might have to wait for an opportunity at the Eels in 2020 given that Parramatta field arguably the strongest set of flankers in the NRL in Ferguson and Sivo but he should be pleased with his weekend certainly.
Perhaps the biggest riser when it comes to NRL stocks on the weekend was Ray Stone. I already gave him a shout out for his punishing defence but he looks to have pushed cleanly ahead of Rhys Davies to vie for the utility role in first-grade. He will likely compete with Brad Takairangi for said position on the bench and it will interesting to see how Stone’s ability to cover the back-row and dummy half weighs against Takairangi’s experience across wing, centre, five-eighth and the back-row.