Round 1 Drink Of Choice – Old St Andrews
Let’s not beat around the bush in the first musings of 2021 – the footy gods just about handed this game to the Eels on a silver platter. Parramatta started their campaign in probably the worst possible fashion you could imagine as a glut of errors gifted a shockingly plucky Brisbane Broncos 16-points in the first half. Shaun Lane, Nathan Brown and Maika Sivo all produced untimely drops that lead directly to Brisbane’s three tries as Anthony Milford and Xavier Coates torched Parramatta’s left-edge.
A cruel series of injuries to Matt Lodge, John Asiata and Coates crippled Brisbane’s line-up and interchange strategy and it is absolutely fair to say that they were gallant in defeat. In particular I hope that there is no lingering concerns for Asiata and Coates given the nature of their potential injuries. Add to that a generous sprinkle of luck with Herbie Farnworth grassing a potential 95m intercept try and Jake Turpin narrowly losing a race to the ball to Tom Opacic and it is safe to say that Parramatta had plenty fall their way tonight…and hey, that is how footy plays out sometimes.
It might end up as a solitary stand in the context of the entire season but Kevin Walters certainly had his charges up for the contest tonight and for that I tip my hat to him. Brisbane were an embarrassing rabble in 2020 and they looked a competitive side tonight – even without stars like Payne Haas and Kotoni Staggs.
Enough preambling though! The Eels ultimately secured a 24-16 victory and as much as the first half felt like your nails were getting pulled out with pliers, the second half surge was a timely reminder of the talent across the park for the blue & gold.
Keep It Simple Stupid
The Eels were repeatedly guilty of trying to force the ball laterally before they earned that right in the first half. Their general impatience and refusal to win the contest through the middle was taken advantage of by the home team and I imagine that there were plenty of frustrated fans thinking that Parramatta had learned nothing from 2020.
Half time was a godsend for Brad Arthur and his team with the break allowing the wayward Eels to refocus and recalibrate. Even with an errant pass from Ryan Matterson in the very first set, the second half saw a resurgent Parramatta attack through the middle relentlessly. Admittedly they were also taking advantage of an unnaturally fatigued Brisbane pack but the simplified game plan opened up opportunities for second phase football and probing darts from dummy-half.
24 unanswered points were piled on as a result with crucial contributions from the core players like Reed Mahoney (he was really good), Mitchell Moses, Junior Paulo, Clinton Gutherson and Blake Ferguson. Naturally there will be times when the Eels will need more complex stratagems to unravel the ironclad defences of teams like the Storm and Roosters but this game stands as a stark reminder that so many contests in rugby league are decided on who wants to win the collisions more.
The Smiling Assassin
How about Isaiah Papali’i? What a freaking club debut! When the Eels were listless in the first half Papali’i stood resolute and damn near took on the entire Brisbane pack on his lonesome. It didn’t stop there though with the ferocious, power-lifting dynamo sticking it to the Broncos for all of 57min in a long and glorious first game.
Papa’s massive motor and penchant for contact got me feeling some certain kind of way and before long it had me recalling another famous club debut under ‘BA’.
|PLAYER A||PLAYER B|
|TACKLES||13 (1MT, 1IT)||18 (1MT)|
Player B is Papali’i, care to take a shot at who Player A is?
If you were able to dredge up the statistics from Round 1 of 2014 off the top of your head then full credit to you because Player A is none other than Manu Ma’u as he popped off against the New Zealand Warriors. The numbers between the two are shockingly similar and it creates a cool, if ultimately meaningless, connection between two backrow prospects that the Eels plucked from New Zealand.
The fact that Arthur trusted Papali’i with so many crucial minutes is a ringing endorsement of both his talents and his place in the team. With Marata Niukore back on deck for Round 2, Oregon Kaufusi flashing exciting growth and the monstrous core of Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown, I am equally curious and excited to see how our middle rotation plays out. There is a lot of talent we have to cram into limited minutes and ‘BA’ will likely need to be ready to run with the hot-hand in a given week.
Edge Case Scenarios
Gee, there is plenty to unpack here. Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown bounced back from an underwhelming opening half to steer the Eels home. Neither was anywhere near their best but we saw tantalising glimmers from both. Thankfully, Moses took control of the game with his boot late in the contest and his flawless form off the kicking-tee ensured Parramatta held the edge when both teams had notched three tries a piece. Dylan was aggressive in taking on the line and I love that but some careless handling counts against him – even if he somehow managed to spark a cracking try on account of it.
It should be said that Jamayne Isaako did a superb job in nullifying the short kicking game of the Eels. The flow of the game could have changed significantly earlier if he wasn’t playing Johnny-on-the-spot all the time.
Ryan Matterson, save for that errant pass to open the second half, looked pretty sharp and I think he will grow into a commanding presence on the left-edge. Matto continues to be a second-phase menace and the team look to be leveraging his above-average play-making skills more. Shaun Lane on the other hand had a horror season opener and given his struggles in 2020, the blow-torch will quite possibly be on the rangy backrower. Lane’s unique talents make him such a devastating weapon in full form but concentration lapses have crept into his game and those lapses tend to pop up at incredibly inopportune times.
While the Eels are somewhat thin on EDGE depth, Lane could quickly find himself falling out of the starting line-up and even further beyond. Keegan Hipgrave would be keen to eat into Lane’s playing time while Bryce Cartwright is due to return between Rounds 4-6.
Out at left centre Tom Opacic made the sort of debut that we expected of him – cool, effective and if anything, slightly understated. He did a terrific job containing Tesi Niu and ran a number of damaging lines back into the sliding defence. Milford did manage to plaster two tries on the left-edge but that was more a function of a brilliant kick and cut-out pass than Opacic’s defensive decision making.
Waqa Blake’s efforts to help cart the ball out of Parramatta’s half were very noticeable. Blake threw himself into the defence to the tune of 104m from 11 carries and while attacking opportunities were relatively sparse he looked sharp. The jury is very much still out on his defensive combination with Blake Ferguson though with the two seemingly not in sync in jam or hold decisions. I will say that Waqa was somewhat unfortunate in the lead up to the opening try as he got entangled with Herbie Farnworth which opened up a saloon passage for David Mead to the try line.
Ferguson and Maika Sivo looked dialed in and hungry in attack. Both were the owners of some brutal clearing runs while ‘Fergo’ shook off the demons of 2020 with a brilliant try assist for Gutherson and terrific individual try of his own. Neither were flawless though with a Sivo error under the high ball leading to points for Brisbane while Ferguson flirted recklessly with the sideline at times and paid the price. Both look to be far more engaged than their 2020 iterations though and with Haze Dunster anxiously waiting for his opportunity it would behoove both of them to stay that way!
The Final Word
Whew. That one wasn’t good for the heart but with the stream of consciousness that is musings behind me, I do feel a lot better for the experience. The first half exposed a lot of the flaws that dogged the Eels in 2020 and the fact that they took corrective actions in the second half to rectify that is a big positive. Yes they had plenty of luck over the course of the first 80min of 2021. The Broncos were ravaged by injuries and even beyond that the footy gods seemed to smile kindly on Parramatta but those are the breaks. There will be other games when it is Parramatta’s back against the wall due to cruel circumstance.
There is little time to celebrate a successful launch of the campaign though with the Melbourne Storm rolling into town for a Thursday night blockbuster. The Storm were the inverse of the Eels in Round 1 – they looked untouchable in the first half against the Rabbitohs before ceding significant ground and points in the back stretch of the contest. Perhaps more than any other fanbase in the NRL, the Eels know how much of a litmus test the Storm are and how difficult an opponent they are. One way or another, Parramatta will learn plenty about their 2021 selves next Thursday.
Speaking of Thursday, you can catch myself and Sixties shooting the shit in a live broadcast of The Tip Sheet on the green at Eels Lane from 4:00PM to 5:30PM. Feel free to drop by if so you are so inclined or catch us on the live-stream, the details of which I will reveal early next week!