The Parramatta Eels were dealt their first serious setback to their 2020 premiership campaign on Saturday night when Mitchell Moses succumbed to a calf tear. Thankfully, the Eels showed the collective character and gumption you would expect from a team with title aspirations to rally and claim a fiercely fought golden point victory over the Canberra Raiders – and in doing so remain the outright competition leaders. Now however, Parramatta face a nervous wait to see just how long their star playmaker will be put on ice.
Moses was troubled by a calf strain over the COVID-19 hiatus, as informed by Brad Arthur when he spoke to the Sunday Footy Show on Channel 9 yesterday and the injury on Saturday night looks to be a recurrence of the same injury. The Eels’ commander-in-chief spoke to the panel using that older calf injury as a frame of reference and he seemed optimistic ahead of any scan results given Mitchell’s mobility on Sunday.
Still, even in a best case scenario the Eels are looking at several weeks without Moses and that could quickly stretch to multiple months if the scans do reveal a more significant tear. The silver lining, however small it may be, is that Parramatta were able to navigate a vicious gauntlet in their draw prior to losing Moses. A four game stretch over the Sea Eagles, Panthers, Roosters and Raiders yielded three crucial victories and just the sole defeat against the reigning premiers. You may not win the premiership in the first two months but each one of those banked wins will be huge moving forwards.
The spotlight will now fall on Dylan Brown – Parramatta’s unflappable and ineffable rising star. No stage has ever been too big for Brown in his young career and indeed he has made a habit of stepping up in adverse conditions given that he has starred at every level with a significant age handicap. Dylan will get the job done for the Eels, it could even be the making of him as the heightened responsibilities elevates his game to an even greater level.
Instead the focus will be on who partners him in the absence of Mitchell Moses. Replacing your first choice halfback is a nightmare at the best of times but 2020 has flicked the settings from ‘Hard’ to ‘Ultra Nightmare’ with the Canterbury Cup scrapped due to COVID-19 and clubs left with no form guides and no match fit replacements. In many ways, this greatly streamlines the selection process but lets run our eyes over the candidates to claim the #7 nonetheless.
Brad Takairangi – First up is the man who got the job done on Saturday night, or least got most of it done. Technically Takairangi also spent some time in the centres when Waqa Blake underwent a head injury assessment but he was Brad Arthur’s first response to the injury crisis. While he is better known as a utility backline and backrow option these days, he remains the Eels’ most experienced half after Moses and Brown and has got the job done in the past for ‘BA’. Crucially, he is also somewhat match fit – a decisive factor in selection protocol.
The Cook Island Control Tower should be seen as the red hot favourite to parter Brown in the halves. He might need to hand in his full kicking licence and get back to the red or green P’s though.
Ryan Matterson – Next up is the other man who spent time in the halves against the Raiders. Matterson actually looked quite comfortable working down the right edge as the shot-caller for the fifteen or so minutes that Waqa Blake was off the field. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Matterson’s past at the Eels given he played in the halves as a junior at the club. The difference in impact that he or Takairangi would bring to the role is negligible – they would both get the job done at a similar level and in a similar way. The important question here is whether it is worth weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness? Matterson has been outstanding in the backrow for the Eels and we honestly do not have a quality replacement for him on that edge.
Jaeman Salmon – Salmon is one of the more popular options I have seen among fans in post-match discussions online. Jaeman was the player that Arthur initially called on to replace Dylan Brown in 2019 when stress fractures derailed his season and that gives him some form of running in this battle a year later. He has shown competence as a playmaker at the Canterbury Cup level but has also been focused on specialising his talents as a centre more recently. Salmon could be an interesting option for ‘BA’ in the coming weeks depending on how injuries stress his depth on the bench. As we will see with almost all of the following contenders though, a lack of match fitness is going to be a rough hurdle to overcome.
Will Smith – Another player who has been called on to handle this exact task in the past. It is precisely that reason why Smith finds himself on this list, even if he is a long shot for the role. The Fresh Prince has shown himself to be capable of effervescent brilliance at his best but equally so, he can leave you stumped with a baffling error. Consistency will be key for whoever is charged with marshalling Parramatta’s right edge and that leaves Smith a rung or two below the names above.
Jai Field – Like Salmon, Field has been a popular choice among fans over the weekend. Field, if nothing else, is the most exciting candidate here. He is the big unknown, the x-factor, the bloke that has the most exciting tape. Field, a one-time Dragons gun rookie, joined the Eels late in the preseason this year and immediately impressed onlookers with how smooth he looked on the, err, field. He possesses electric pace but a smaller frame that would be picked on in defence. If Arthur feels Parramatta are short on point-scoring potential at any point he could find himself in the mix but you have to think that any combination of Takairangi, Matterson or Salmon would get the first look in.
Jordan Rankins – Our most recent recruit. A capable utility who has played in the halves and fullback throughout his career but alas will likely not be in the running here. He might still be a handy pick up mind you.
Junior Paulo – As voted for by Des Hasler. Don’t you dare pretend that the idea of Proptimus Prime stretching out the #7 until it is fraying at the seams doesn’t get Dirty Des all hot and sweaty at night. Paulo is a spectacularly gifted ball-playing frontrower but for some reason I just can’t see ‘BA’ emulating Hasler’s feat of selecting Tony Williams at halfback for the Bulldogs. I can however envision Junior taking on some unique responsibilities in the red-zone, something that the Eels showcased against the Broncos this year in Round 3.
For mine Brad Takairangi is the obvious choice. Arthur intimated on the Sunday Footy Show that ‘Taka’ is likely his first choice but that he will explore every option ahead of Team List Tuesday. Who is Parramatta’s Surrogate #7 in your eyes? Should the Eels roll the dice on the likes of Salmon or Field or stick with a known quantity?