Strength without agility is a mere mass.” Fernando Pessoa
What an imposing football sight is the Eels’ Junior Paulo!
Opponents know that any collision will be an unpleasant encounter. Defenders who try to wrap their arms around him and wrestle his 124kg frame to the ground face a near impossible task.
But the powerful Eels prop is so much more than the sum of his physical dimensions. With his rich vein of form attracting the attention of a growing number of NRL pundits, fans are becoming increasingly aware of his praeternatural skills and athleticism.
What do I mean by that? Check what Joey Johns had to say about God’s handiwork in creating Junior Paulo.
Realistically, 20 stone footballers should be expected to possess all the speed and agility of a three-toed sloth. In contrast, watching big Junez carry the football is rugby league’s Endymion – a thing of beauty.
Where does one begin to laud such footballing pulchritude?
From an NRL perspective it began at the Eels in 2013, and after three years in the Nation’s capital, it’s now in full bloom in his second season back in the Blue and Gold.
My insights begin with the training track exploits of the Eels powerhouse. Those moments are a window to his skill set.
The Samoan international’s footwork during warm up/agility drills with Trent Elkin are astounding to watch. When he delivers the evasive manoeuvres that would do Brad Fittler proud, it’s highly impressive but not surprising.
To illustrate, consider this moment from Friday night as he bamboozles the Cowboys defence.
He takes the ball on the back foot then accelerates towards the defence. The right foot step, followed by the left foot step, then the hit, spin and offload – put those moves to music baby and take it to the charts.
This evasiveness, in addition to brute power, sees Paulo averaging 3.3 tackle breaks per game. To put this in perspective, and ignoring the one off performances of Gower and Field against the Cowboys, Junior’s average places him second at the Eels behind Michael Jennings (3.4) and compares quite favourably to the elusive Kalyn Ponga (3.9)
The old chestnut description of “halfback trapped in a prop’s body” is regularly applied to Paulo’s passing game. Fans have marvelled at the balls he’s thrown in playing a link role to the Eels outside backs. He can straighten the attack and pass at the line as adroitly as any top class pivot, and therein lies an additional weapon to his arsenal.
Tackling Junior is an unwelcome task for a single defender. When he engages the defence, the threat remains that he’s going to run the ball. Spaces are opened as others are drawn to the tackle, creating opportunity for support runners.
And if the big bloke carries the ball into the tackle, a rotation of his torso often frees the arms to facilitate the offload. Amongst his astonishing 8 offloads against the Cowboys was this pearler which led to Sivo’s third stroll to the try line.
Watch as he stands in the tackle of one defender, gets the interest of two more Cowboys, then twists his body to deliver a classic pass to Brown.
And yet there is still more to discover about Junez.
Few might know of Junior’s kicking skills. Though only on display at training – given Brad Arthur is unlikely to issue any match day licence – it’s not unusual to see sideline kicks sail between the posts in the competitions held during extras.
It’s probably best to describe the Cabramatta junior’s style as “bullying” the ball over the crossbar. The strike isn’t necessarily the sweetest, but the footy often travels low, straight and true.
Such was his kicking form one week, I had to ask him (from the other side of the COVID fence) whether he ever took conversions in junior footy. With his typical smile, and arguably channeling the immortal Jack Gibson, he answered, “Nah, I had the wrong number on my back.”
The Origin contender’s skills off the boot aren’t limited to off-the-tee. Paulo will often jump in to hoist high kicks for the back three to catch, and those bombs carry all of the awkwardness for which a team’s kicker would strive.
And just when I thought that there was nothing else to be found in Junior’s kicking kit bag, the talented middle forward produced a chip and chase for a giggle at last week’s Captain’s Run. Why not?
To finish the picture, let’s trot out some numbers. Consider this list of quality averages in 2020 – just under 56 minutes played, 170 running metres (his career average sits at less than 120 metres), 92.6 tackle efficiency. Then we have the raw totals – 26 offloads (topping the NRL), and 506.6 post contact metres.
At 26 years of age, and in his eighth season of NRL, Junior Paulo has unquestionably struck a purple patch of form. Arthur and the coaching staff are making full use of his talent and athleticism, and Trent Elkin deserves kudos for having him in the best condition of his career.
How good is it to behold?
Junior Paulo, an Eels football beauty!