Hindsight always makes things easier. I’m Forty20. This is 20/20. Let’s see what we learnt from the All Stars Weekend.
The Eels kicked off a loaded weekend of preseason action as they played hosts to the South Sydney Rabbitohs in front of a bumping crowd at Ringrose Park on Friday night. Originally billed as a Canterbury Cup trial, the Eels quickly dispelled any such notion when they named a formidable line-up on Wednesday featuring the likes of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Michael Jennings, Kane Evans, Reed Mahoney, Shaun Lane, Nathan Brown and Marata Niukore. On their end, South Sydney’s squad was headlined by Tom Burgess and featured a smattering of first-grade contenders and fringe talents looking to press their cases for higher honours.
In spite of an aggressive start that was full of positive intent, Parramatta couldn’t put away an exceptionally spirited South Sydney outfit – all of whom deserve plenty of credit for their level of play. The Rabbitohs out-pointed the Eels 18-14 at half-time and ultimately ran out 28-24 victors in what should rightfully be considered a surprise result.
Elsewhere the Maori All Stars prevailed 30-16 over the Indigenous All Stars in a fantastic relaunch of the preseason representative program while the Storm, Dragons, Bulldogs, Panthers and Cowboys enjoyed wins over NRL opponents. Parramatta weren’t the only club to suffer the ignominy of a loss to a lower grade opponent. The Burleigh Bears knocked off a reasonably competitive Titans outfit while the Wynnum Seagulls put away a youthful Broncos squad.
Frail goal-line defence costs Eels
Let’s get the most alarming concern to come out of Friday night out of the way – the goal-line defence of the Eels stunk. The Rabbitohs scored three times in the first-half against Parramatta’s stacked roster to snare a shock lead at oranges. A week prior the Eels had battled their way into the semi-finals of the Perth 9s on the back of consistent, gritty defensive efforts, so what gave on Friday night?
Honestly? Not that much. With the benefit of a second viewing care of the official VOD the Rabbitohs did well, be it by design or coincidence, to attack weak links in the defensive line. In particular, their iso-play two passes wide of the ruck against Rhys Davies for their opening try was a great teaching point.
Kane Evans initially shadows the lead option – Tom Burgess – who is crashing down back to the ruck. Evans disengages as soon as he recognises the block play and slides to his right to provide cover from the ruck. Meanwhile, Marata Niukore has taken a strong square defensive position against Tevita Tatola but because Rhys Davies has lagged a step behind his back-rower he opens up the unders channel for Jack Johns off the left hip of Tatola. Better play-recognition and positioning saves a try and maybe even forces an error there.
Ultimately, that was the only try scored against the Eels’ full-strength line-up with Campbell-Gillard, Evans, Lane and Brown put on ice shortly after the 20-minute mark. South-Sydney would go on to score their second try thanks to a generous slice of fortune from a deflected grubber kick while George Jennings on was guilty on the third try of not trusting his inside man on a short-side play in the shadows of half-time.
Again, I give the Rabbitohs every due they deserve for an outstanding first-half but this week’s trial against the Panthers in Bega will give us a much better insight into the state of Parramatta’s goal-line defence.
Smith shines, Fergo flips and Latrell flops
With the faux controversy about anthems thankfully left behind in the build-up the rebooted NRL All Stars kicked off with a truly heart-warming story as Quaden Bayles led the teams out and opened up proceedings. The Maori team then dialled up the intensity to eleven with one of the best performances of the Haka that you will ever see – All Blacks included. While the Indigenous team produced a quality reply of their own, including a powerful throw-back gesture to Nicky Winmar by Josh Addo-Carr, the Maori team enthralled throughout an extended war dance that truly set the tone for the night.
The Eels were represented in both teams with Blake Ferguson and Brad Takairangi earning starting berths for the Indigenous and Maori teams respectively. ‘Fergo’ was in his element, as he always is under the bright lights, and added another All Stars try to his name after he claimed a loose ball and cheekily kicked ahead for himself. Krisnan Inu would have been proud of the effort as Ferguson pounced from out-of-bounds to regather his own grubber and score.
Ever the showman, Ferguson’s added a back-flip and 195m from 18 carries to his brilliant try (and a conversion to boot, pun intended) and he might have stolen on any other night if it weren’t for one Brandon Smith. B.Smith, the protegee of C.Smith, enhanced his reputation as one of the most devastating red-zone threats in the game as he bull-dozed over for two tries and ran riot on the ground to the tune of 177m from just 13 carries. Brandon continues to evoke comparisons to a prime Isaac Luke for mine but he might somehow be an even more damaging runner of the ball.
Flipping Fergo? 10/10 baby! @fergyferg4
— Parramatta Eels (@TheParraEels) February 23, 2020
After a season dogged by contract dramas and a switch to a bitter rival, Latrell Mitchell made a rather lacklustre debut to the 2020 season. Mitchell is undoubtedly one of the game’s most electrifying talents but even with one decent run to his name he lacked involvement and looked well short of a gallop on Saturday night and simply couldn’t match the pace and conditioning of other backs like Addo-Carr, Johnston, Ferguson and Watene-Zelesniak. Latrell has proven to be an inconsistent option at fullback for the Roosters in the past and how he handles the added pressure and scrutiny of the role at South Sydney will be one of the biggest story lines in the NRL in 2020.
Reedy, set, go.
Reed Mahoney was rested from the Perth 9s and instead made his preseason debut against the Rabbitohs on Friday night. He showed very few signs of rust in attack as he guided the Eels around the park with on-brand clinical passing from dummy-half. In what might be either a tease or a genuine peak at his expanded play-making responsibilities, he combined beautifully with Haze Dunster down the right-edge short side to create a try in next to no space.
Parramatta field one of the youngest and most exciting spines in the NRL and each degree of growth across the four individual play-makers that comprise it magnifies the talents of the entire team. ‘Cash’ Mahoney was a breakout star in 2019 and a strong start to the upcoming season will have him firmly in the sights of Queensland selectors. More importantly, a strong start from the Eels’ dummy-half would have them primed to burst out of the gates in Round 1.
The football gods demand sacrifices
An already horrific injury toll seemingly exploded over the course of the All Stars weekend as player after player succumbed to serious injury. Fortunately, and knock on every piece of wood nearby, the Eels remain unscathed – even after trotting out a Canterbury Cup team full of NRL talent.
The actual list of players is alarmingly long and would take entirely too long to type out – that is no joke. Brisbane, Canterbury, St George, Manly, Penrith and New Zealand are among the clubs hit hardest and the implications on the early exchanges of the NRL could be far reaching. Parramatta still have to navigate a full-strength trial against the Panthers in Bega this Saturday but so far Trent Elkin’s guidance seems to have them tracking towards a healthy Round 1 turn-out.
Campbell’s Chunky Debut
The man with the mo’ made his preseason debut for the Eels on Friday night and like the ad above would have you believe – it was a hearty and full of meat. The Fully Loaded Man looked sharp through the middle and nearly stormed over for a try (although he did lose the ball unfortunately) in a busy first quarter effort before Brad Arthur declared he had seen enough.
Kane Evans, via the official Parramatta Eels’ Podcast, had already indicated recently that ‘RCG’ was the presumptive starter for Round 1 and the showing on Friday night did little to dispel that notion. Evans himself seems set to build on his resurgent 2019 performance, running the ball strongly and offloading several times, but the idea of a fully firing Campbell-Gillard joining forces with Junior Paulo is a genuinely exciting proposition.
On a side note, Marata Niukore looked GOOD on the right-edge. I have been talking up the importance of his role off the bench for the Eels throughout the preseason and he looked like the most explosive player on either side at Ringrose Park. While Ryan Matterson and Shaun Lane will give the Eels big minutes in their starting roles, Niukore could give the blue & gold a genuine weapon off the interchange bench.
Roosters still the benchmark in 2020
There is little doubt that even with the losses of Cooper Cronk and Latrell Mitchell the Sydney Roosters are still the benchmark of the NRL. Their 20-12 victory over St Helens in the World Club Challenge means not only did they complete the exceedingly rare double-double of consecutive NRL and WCC titles but they also secured a record 5th WCC title. A brace of tries to Joseph Manu was ultimately the difference between the two teams and it only served to further enhance the reputation of the rising star. Manu had already stepped out of the shadow of Latrell Mitchell in recent years and look for him to cleanly cement himself as the NRL’s premier centre this year.
Young backs on the front foot
Haze Dunster’s ascent through the 2020 preseason continued on Friday night as the young winger scored a great try from a deft Reed Mahoney kick and kept himself busy all night. Dunster began the preseason buried in the depth charts amidst a clutch of outside backs at the Eels but he has made the most out of the his opportunities in the last two weeks. Obviously he is no chance of unseating Ferguson and Sivo but should injuries or rep selections open the door for a call up later in the season he has started compiling a case file for why he should be the man for the job.
Another young back who has made the most of his two preseason chances thus far is Sione Fonua. Sione opened up 2020 with a polished performance against Blacktown Workers two weeks ago and backed that up on Friday night as he scored the first try of the game with a great show of strength down the left-edge. He returned kicks with vigour and barring a late drop of a contested bomb, looked comfortable handling all of the duties from fullback. Similar to Dunster, Fonua won’t be forcibly taking Clinton Gutherson’s spot in first-grade but the Eels are skinny on depth options for the #1 jersey and Fonua has a real chance now to stake a claim for greater responsibilities within the club.
There was also a new plot line to the preseason for Parramatta, one that developed in the moments before kickoff on Friday as Jai Field was spied wearing the #20 jersey for the Eels. Field was a highly touted prospect out of the Dragons that never quite kicked on and he gives Parramatta an interesting flex-option through fullback and the halves in the Canterbury Cup. Barring a bad miss on a clearing kick come eventual 40/20, Field looked dangerous with the ball in hand and that was with little-to-no experience with his new team mates. Just where exactly he fits in and precisely how the Eels juggle their play-makers in the Canterbury Cup is very much in the air but it will an exciting, if minor, story line for the remainder of the preseason.
Credit to the Parramatta Eels for all images used.