The Cumberland Throw

20/20 – The Perth 9s

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.

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.

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Parra Pete

I liked the efforts of both David Gower and Jaemin Salmon. Gower is a ready-made Nines player, in my opinion, with his ability to off load. Mitch Moses played mainly as an outside back..He won’t be that far out when the main competition gets under way. Cowboys looked good and were deserving winners..The young winger looks SENSATIONAL…

sixties

Perhaps Gowie will be our regular 9s “guest” player after he retires. He did what I expected – play with intelligence.

Parra Pete

I love what Gowie brings to the Club as a whole, and to each team he plays in. An outstanding role model for the younger players in the Group.

One -eyed Di

Yes,in total agreement with you Parra Pete. Plus very excited about Haze Dunster!

sixties

I think it’s an important year for Haze and other young backs. Fergo and Jenko are getting older. The club will be planning for succession

BDon

That pretty well sums it up Forty. Winning position every game, no-one creamed us, no injuries. Allowed only 35 points in 4 games including the finalist twice. We couldn’t seem to nail that points comfort gap, credit to opponents, but your notion of ‘rust’ has got legs.

sixties

BDon, the sky has apparently already fallen in for some supporters. Fitness, pace, resilience, coaching have all been questioned.
I took two major points from the weekend.
Ray Stone has positioned himself ahead of Rhys Davies should BA look for a 14 who can play dummy half.
It was an error to not stage 9s in Auckland.

BDon

Tks sixties. Agree on Stone and Auckland (or not Perth). Keen to see Stone with more game time.
Did you think at least once during the Nines that the art of the dropped goal is in decline?

John Eel

Do you believe that Ray Stone has done enough to grab the 14 Jersey for Rd 1 against the Bulldogs.His defence, ability to run the ball and cover in the back row in my opinion makes him appealing.

The Cowboys are an interesting case study. Greene looks to have lost confidence. Another bad season could see him passing his CV around for 2021

Morgan has been under performing since his breakout year in 2017. He needs to get over his injuries and find some Mojo. Hess is another who seems to have lost his way

Colin Hussey

While Taka has a bit of versatility about him, my belief is that Stone is a better option for the 14 spot, the aspect that in reading sixties training reports and Stones performance in the 9’s gives the side a better option as Stone can cover a rest for Reed as well as the other forward positions. Taka has experience and can play in both the forwards and backs, mostly centre though, thing is if one of the centres goes down, would a player such as Parry be a better option than Taka, sure Parry is still learning but with… Read more »

Joshuatheeel

WouIdnt be surprised if both Taka / Stone are on the bench (assuming Taka isn’t needed at centre ).
Probably don’t need 3 middles on the bench, Paulo / Brown can both play good minutes (50 to 60 mins). While Stone can play in the middle along with our 2 edge players Matterson / Lane (allowing Taka time at edge).

West Coast Eel

Good read. I disagree with you calling the turnout a dismal failure. It was near 40 degrees on Friday afternoon and for some unknown reason the nrl bigwigs decided to start it at 4.00pm on a Friday when everyone was at work. I took my little girl there after school on Friday, but we left after the eels game. Just too damn hot! I returned on Saturday and it was much more pleasant. I think the total crowd was around 25k for both days which is actually just down on the international 9s at bankwest last year. Don’t write Perth… Read more »

West Coast Eel

I loved having the nrl back in Perth. I try to get to games whenever they’re on over here. Just a shame the scheduling wasn’t better for the 9s. I was really encouraged by the eels defence. I’m looking forward to the season ahead and will be at Bankwest for a few games this year too.

sixties

West Coast, I didn’t agree with playing the Nines in Perth because there seems to be no plan around it. That said, it attracted decent tv numbers so perhaps the venue and attendance isn’t crucial?

West Coast Eel

Yeah. It’s like they picked the city out of a hat with no planning at all. Looks like they want to move it around every year. I’m just glad I got to see the mighty eels go around in my (adopted) home town.

John Eel

WCE I lived in WA in the 90’s. During that time support was very strong. The Dockers began at around the same time.

Whilst the Eagles drew the big crowds the Reds held their own against the Dockers as far as crowds go.

The mining industry has brought a new population to Perth and it is hungry for the NRL.

West Coast Eel

I’ve lived here since ‘04. When I first moved here, no one knew what league was. Union was far more popular. The tide has turned now. Origin last year gave league a massive boost. And also that union seems to be imploding!

Milo

I agree WCE they should have some more league in Perth and no doubt TV and timing plays a big role. And lets face it the people running our game have not always made smart decisions. They seem more intent shuffling jobs at the high end rather than introducing kids to rugby league.

DDay

Another top 4 finish and Eels were so close to making the final. I thought the Eels looked good defensively and played quite straight which I liked. looking forward to the season kick off

Rowdy

You and the boys below covered everything Forty40 (that’ll be the new rule change too but it has to be off the knee or the heel)?. I was a bit (a huge bit) disappointed with our first game, it was so not us and far too conservative for this format. Anyway they soon got their act together after a good nights sleep and we went very close making the big one! It might be worth noting that our depth this year is quite pronounced by all commentators although we only added 2 players having lost Manu which really means we… Read more »

BDon

With good forward depth Rowdy, I keep thinking Matterson’s versatility might come in handy. Opens up good options.

sixties

He goes ok Rowdy.

Scott

Hopefully Sivo can get fit and ready for round one he didn’t seem all there.

Hope to god Salmon gets a bench spot over Taka. Salmon just has that sweet spot for the bench and very clean and doesn’t make mistake. Takas hands…. can’t do it anymore.

Milo

Scott i could not agree more. Taka for me has run his race and i would not have him in the top 17 as a backrower; too many errors and he should only be considered for a centre spot. He is taking away a position as a backrower and simply is not consistent.

DK

100% agree on some concern for those rule changes. It’s a grey area when it comes to whether or not a defender is truly going after the ball or the player in the flurry of the game when contesting the ball … but the other one … 20/40 rule is, in my opinion, not only not needed but a solid disincentive for agressive defence. Time will tell I suppose. I do just wish they had have made the stripping rule a little more defined and black and white instead of this 20/40 . Simply stating that a strip can’t occur… Read more »

Zero58

On the money with your thoughts. Parra went well and only lost both games in the last minute. Their defence was excellent. I thought Taka was our least effective player and Gutherson was over playing his hand. Taka has given Parra real good service in his time here but I would prefer Gower to Taka for the bench. As big as he is he is not a forward. It’s like asking Ferguson to play second row. Stone or Salmon if BA goes for a utility player. They both did exceedingly well in Perth. Losing to Canterbury was not good. It… Read more »

sixties

I’m not one at all for the tackling in the air rule. It will make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Grunta

Sixties. With the 9’s come and gone, will we see any training reports here over the next few days? Also, really looking forward to the trial on Friday, can’t wait…

Rowdy

What trial on Friday is that Grunta? I wanna go if it’s in Sydney.

Rowdy

Thanks Forty. 6pm or 7pm?

TheKingGutho

I also herd
Reed
Jennings
Alvaro
RCG
Evans
Salmon
Stone
Kaufusi
Niukore
Lane

Are all playing also. So not really CC trial
More u20s and NRL trial

Rowdy

Whether it’s a CC or NRL trial? I think our club mentality is to compete in everything and give everyone a chance to show what they can bring “put ourselves in a position to win everything we compete in” which will breed competition and confidence to the group as a whole. I believe Souths will have to bring a competitive squad also
I love the fact that we have so much depth and competition across the squad. Go Parra.

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