When the footy starts, it’s a beautiful time of the year.
Nowadays, live streaming of trial matches makes access to early season form far easier. Where once such clashes were the domain of only the hardcore fan, many more punters are able to watch trials and add validation to their opening round team list predictions.
Since Thursday night, I have been inundated by the opinions of mates and followers of The Cumberland Throw. That will heat up even more in the lead up to next Saturday’s hit out against the Panthers.
Who’s going to win the centre spot, what position will Papali’i play, who gets a place on the bench, what about the young blokes! Everyone has had something to say, and I’ll have mine on all that and more in today’s column.
We also welcome a new sponsor for Bumpers Up.
Did Thursday night’s trial answer the question about who wins the battle for the Eels vacant centre position?
Throughout the preseason, my money has been on Tom Opacic. The former Cowboy has had a solid preseason, and I’ve described his efforts as professional – he looks like an experienced NRL centre. His performance in the trial backed up that assessment.
The other prospect, Will Penisini, stamped himself as a player to watch with a solo try and a couple of incisive runs in attack. This has been his first NRL preseason and he’s clearly benefitted from the advanced coaching and conditioning he’s received.
However, Will only graduated from Kings School at the end of 2020, and there was minimal rugby league that he and others put under their belt in 2020. With that in mind, it’s highly unlikely that Arthur will be rushing the young star into first grade.
Haze Dunster has been nominated by some punters in a left field suggestion. At this stage, that won’t be happening.
The emerging Eel has offered some utility value during his time in the Eels pathways. That said, he’s been pushing both Sivo and Ferguson for a wing spot during this preseason, and has worked hard in his claims for first grade selection in that position.
Regular readers of Eels preseason training reports would be familiar with my praise of Isaiah Papali’i. My confusion about the Warriors not fighting to retain his services has been well documented.
In his first hit out in the Blue and Gold, Papa couldn’t have been more impressive. You can lock the new recruit in for a place on the bench in Round One.
The trial might have excluded many high profile NRL stars, but that should not diminish the admiration earned by Kiwi’s work rate or his capacity to break the line.
Though he’s been training in the middle, Papali’i’s form on the edge at Kogarah underlined the selection options that his recruitment provides. To borrow from my own preseason report, “he runs intelligent lines, can ball play and provide a link role in the team, and he doesn’t shirk the dirty carries.”
Parra Papa, we’re happy to have you at the Eels!
Still on Thursday night, the Eels pathways system can be credited for 12 players who took to the field.
Russell, Penisini, Dunster, Arthur, Hollis, Kaufusi, Tuipulotu, Komolafe, Tohi, Tasipale, El Zahkem and Aukafolau all played Junior Representative football for Parra. Solomone Naiduki was recruited from Fiji to learn his craft in the Eels under 20s. A further two junior rep graduates – Tasi James and Sam Loizou – completed the Eels preseason but were unavailable for selection.
For years, Brad Arthur has been the subject of uneducated criticism for not promoting pathways footballers. The truth is, there are few first grade coaches as invested in the juniors as the Eels mentor.
A big intake of young players in the 2019 preseason saw the likes of Dylan Brown, Ethan Parry, Stefano Utoikamanu and Haze Dunster debut over the past two seasons.
We should probably include Oregon Kaufusi in that list given that he made his debut in 2018 from outside of the full time squad. Other 2018 debutants included Eels Jersey Flegg players Ray Stone and Reed Mahoney.
Assembling a top 30 is delicate balancing act. You need elite players, established NRL footballers, experienced back ups and emerging youngsters. You can’t throw young players to the wolves, but by the same token you can’t clog up their path with a reserve grader who’s unlikely to feature in any plans for the year.
On Thursday night, Eels supporters were treated to a glimpse of some of the young talent that’s been identified. It’s clear that many will feature in Canterbury Cup in 2020.
The primary role of any pathways system must be to produce future NRL players.
The benefit of including more emerging stars at the level immediately below NRL comes in the flow on effect to the pathways. When players are advanced it opens up the opportunities for the next group of youngsters.
If Flegg and Ball eligible players prove themselves capable of playing Canterbury Cup, or even NRL, and are elevated to those grades, it provides a shot for those in the younger age grades who might otherwise have missed out.
Arthur’s Junior Coaching
Like many fathers whose children play rugby league, Brad Arthur volunteered his time to the local junior football club. In this case it was the Rouse Hill Rhinos.
Coaching junior teams in any sport has its challenges. You could be the subject of praise and gratitude, or just as easily criticised for your selections or methods. If your child is in that team, it’s likely that there’s more scrutiny heading your way.
When BA combined NRL coaching with junior coaching it was always going to come into the spotlight. There was some admiration but also a bit of flak. I heard quite a bit from the crowd in the few Rhinos games I attended.
But enough of the negatives.
Consider the following players who were all team mates in the side coached by Arthur at the Rhinos – Shaun Russell, Will Penisini, Jake Arthur and Samuel Loizou. Each player has been identified as one of the best prospects in rugby league in their age group, and each has been involved in this preseason.
More of their Rhinos team mates are involved in the Eels Jersey Flegg and SG Ball teams. A couple of others have linked with rival NRL clubs.
It’s quite a wealth of 18/19 year olds that benefited from receiving quality coaching during their younger years.
Eels Pre-Season Training Reports
My regular preseason training reports are coming to an end very soon.
When the focus shifts to match preparation, I no longer provide details on the Eels field sessions. That’s pretty logical considering the team will be shifting their energies and planning towards beating a specific opponent.
Thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to read the reports. The Cumberland Throw has enjoyed a record January, with views of the training posts reaching unprecedented numbers.
I’ll conclude my coverage after the Panthers trial with a preseason summary and player assessment.
Indigenous All Stars
I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday night’s All Stars match. The players absolutely ripped in with an intensity that rivalled an Origin match.
The mix of veterans and unheralded players in both teams provided a terrific stage to showcase the potential of some youngsters, as well as emphasising that an older bloke like Benji Marshall still has plenty to offer.
My only disappointment was that Will Smith missed selection. The Eels utility is a proud Indigenous man and would have offered plenty of versatility off the bench.
Hopefully he’ll get a call up next year.
Parra Leagues members should by now have received their voting details for the Election of Directors.
The new constitution provides for triennial elections. Two board members must vacate their positions every year, and should they wish to continue in the role, nominate as a candidate in the election.
In the first election under this system, Leagues Club president Greg Monaghan and fellow director Sue Coleman are the two current board members nominating for election. The full list of independent candidates is included in the email or postal pack.
We encourage all PLC members to vote. Whether you do so online or by post, it’s an easy process and we need as many people as possible invested in the future of the club.
Two members of the Parramatta Leagues Club Board must always be appointed to the Eels Football Board of Directors. If you’re an Eels supporter and a PLC member, the result of these elections should always be important to you.