There’s an old saying about a week being a long time in rugby league.
People refer to that hackneyed phrase because so much can change in that time, and it often does.
Then again some things don’t change – like the Melbourne Storm pushing the boundaries and certain officials being apparently oblivious to their ways.
That seems like an appropriate place to start this week’s column, but there’s no shortage of other talking points around our mighty Eels – especially after that glorious win over the premiers.
We all know and understand that refereeing is a tough gig. There’s been something like 14 or 15 rule changes over the last two years, and not all have been the wisest choice.
The refs don’t get too much of a say in this – they are simply expected to apply all rules.
Therein lies the concerns for teams and supporters.
When Felice Kaufusi cocked his elbow and pulled the trigger to drop it on the head of Ryan Matterson, the evidence was captured live, and then on video replay, for everyone at Bankwest Stadium. That included all officials.
On the basis of this evidence Kaufusi was placed on report and a penalty awarded to the Eels.
Ryan Matterson was concussed and removed from the field. He did not return. At this stage, we do not know the outcome of his injury.
In the past, we’ve seen players sent to the sin bin for a reportable foul that resulted in the replacement of their “victim”.
Back in 2019, Michael Jennings was sent to the sin bin after his high tackle on a falling Isaah Yeo. The review of the tackle saw the subsequent try disallowed and Jenko’s dispatch to the bin.
In a post match commentary, journalist Paul Kent had this to say:
“The rules now state that if you injure a player and he has to be taken from the field in what’s a foul tackle, you can be sin binned. That’s textbook.”
Apparently not Kenty, because that act on Thursday night looked like a textbook deliberate blow to Matto’s head.
Perhaps the rule is too discretionary? Maybe there was some doubt as to Kaufusi’s guilt?
Spectators on Thursday night had no such doubt.
The trouble is, there has always been inconsistency in application of this rule.
On Saturday, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was sent to the bin for a high shot on Nathan Cleary that was not anywhere near the severity of Kaufusi’s elbow to Matto’s head.
What hope have we got when the rule can’t be consistently applied over one weekend, let alone a season!
It’s not good enough. The players who rely on the rules to have their head protected, and the spectators who support the game, deserve so much better.
I’d Like To Be De-Kleined
Let me again repeat that refereeing is a tough gig. It’s also mostly thankless due to the microscopic scrutiny to which they are subjected. Supporters are probably unaware of the level of preparation that goes into each season and then each game. These people are genuine athletes. With respect, referees of yesteryear don’t come close to the current standards.
When you have a terrific game of football, like Thursday night, it’s often partly due to the way it was officiated.
But Thursday’s game was the exception to the rule. It was a quality game in spite of the officiating.
For all of the deserved praise for our modern officials, a poor performance like that from highly trained individuals must at least rate a mention.
The failure to send Kaufusi to the sin bin was not the only example of the confusion caused by referee Ashley Klein’s decisions.
The slew of forward passes mostly from, but not restricted to, the Storm were completely missed. These were not line balls. They were blatant forward passes that could even qualify for a penalty under the old offside pass rule.
We also witnessed cannonball tackles, wrestling, obvious slowing tactics in the ruck – even when the tackled players weren’t grounded, and a defence line that was rarely back the requisite 10 metres.
The officiating wasn’t of a first grade standard, and certainly a long way from that required for a clash that was arguably the match of the round.
Ashley Klein wasn’t solely to blame. A particular sideline official probably missed most of those forward passes too. However, if Parramatta can avoid Klein’s appointment for the rest of the season, I’ll be a very happy man.
Brad Arthur’s selection of Marata Niukore as the replacement for the injured Waqa Blake has rightly been praised.
But there is some background behind it.
Firstly, Marata came to the Eels from the Warriors as a back rower/centre. He has since matured into an impact middle forward.
We have seen instances (see last year’s finals match against the Storm) where Marata has covered for an injury out wide when the bench only carried replacement forwards.
Similarly, when the squad has been involved in opposed training, and a centre has required treatment during the session, it has not been unusual for Marata to jump in there. Manu Ma’u used to be utilised in the same way.
In such a short week, and with literally no preparation time available besides jumping in when the injury occurred, the match day selection was only a partial surprise. But one that paid terrific dividends.
Whether Niukore retains that position remains to be seen, especially with a long turn around till the game against the Sharks.
The potential future selection of Marata at centre does pose a question.
Do the Eels have enough depth within the squad to cover the centre position?
Unfortunately, the Eels are still required to carry Michael Jennings in their top 30 listing. That means that their current squad of 28 is really 27.
New signing, Michael Oldfield, is currently unavailable.
Young gun, Will Penisini, is coming off a 2020 season of GPS rugby, and his very first NRL preseason. His potential is undoubted, but he didn’t even play in Round 1 as the Eels had a bye in the NSW Cup.
Could Penisini be expected to advance directly from Schoolboy rugby to NRL? He was literally a team mate of Joseph Suaalii last year. His selection would garner massive media attention.
Haze Dunster was mentioned as an option. He played in the centres during his younger years, but has trained exclusively as a winger over the last couple of seasons.
It was also suggested that Dunster could be selected on the wing with Ferguson shifted to centre, a position he has also played during his younger years. But again, you are looking at a stop gap measure.
Perhaps the more likely long term scenario is Tim Lafai who is currently on a second tier contract with the Eels. Whether it means elevation to the top squad, or an application for dispensation to select him remains to be seen.
The answer is probably dependent upon how long Blake will be unavailable.
The Real Deal Eels?
Premierships aren’t won in March. That’s a given.
Nonetheless, successful teams usually maintain a healthy ladder position throughout the season, so picking up premiership points remains important.
Furthermore, you also want to see certain traits in your team.
I like to see effort on effort from individuals, commitment to one percent moments, composure from playmakers, solid game management, defensive resolve and an effective kicking game.
Getting the job done in tight games and under pressure is another key indicator.
These things are all about the attitude and character of the team. Some might use the word culture.
Right now, those early signs are positive.
The NRL season is like a gradual reveal. It has its ebbs and flows, and sometimes injury and circumstance become an unfair factor.
Each year, between 4-6 teams show themselves to be genuine contenders. They are described as being in a premiership window.
I maintain that the window opened for the Eels in 2020. Though they were criticised for bowing out in straight matches in the 2020 finals series, circumstances were not kind and there was a distinct difference between their 2019 and 2020 finishes.
After watching their preseason, I was convinced that the Premiership window remained open in 2021.
Beating the defending premiers this week, in such a high quality game, said plenty about the character of the Eels.
Backing it up next week will say more.
The Value Of A Strong Pre-Season
As someone who attends and reports on the Eels preseason every year, I obviously place great value on what I witness.
What transpires during the season preparations is important to individual players and important to the team.
I can’t make comparisons to other teams. I’m sure every one of them have exacting programs that they go through.
However, followers of my reports will readily recall that Papali’i was an absolute standout during the field sessions. He has since been a revelation for Parra fans, but not for regular visitors to TCT.
Followers also read that both Sivo and Fergo had responded to the challenge issued by Haze Dunster. In my opinion, Haze was the number one winger through the first half of the preseason. He never let his standards drop, but the two incumbents lifted to the point where BA couldn’t omit either.
Another to make an impression during the preseason was Oregon Kaufusi. He too has earned plaudits for his impact off the bench during the first two rounds. Had Bryce Cartwright been available, I’m certain he would have earned selection and continued his outstanding training track form.
Besides these individual performances, the team enjoyed what was arguably the best preseason that I’ve witnessed. The conditioning work was intelligent, varied and engaging for the players. The opposed sessions were an incredibly high quality.
I believe that the Eels have prepared superbly for the season ahead. How far that takes us will be answered as the year unfolds.
Inner Sanctum Vision
Last week, TCT proudly presented a video montage – Eels Junior Reps: A Week In The Life.
Filmed by SG Ball Strength and Conditioning Coach, Neil Dunkley, it provides a snapshot of the Monday to Saturday program for the team.
The Eels Junior Rep teams and their coaching staff dedicate incredibly long hours of preparation each week and it deserves recognition.
We are very happy to have had so many views of this short video across our platforms.
If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it for some Sunday viewing.
New Match Day Presentations
The ten thousand hardy souls who ventured out in rain to Bankwest Stadium were treated to a new light display which forms part of the 2021 pre-match “show”.
When it comes to these presentations, there has been much publicity around the removal of the Parramatta Cheerleaders, themselves a tradition of around fifty years at the club. Not everyone has been happy about this decision, and their feelings are understandable because tradition is at the core of rugby league.
However, the rationale of the club has been that match day presentation would be taken in a different direction this season. Thursday night was our first glimpse of that.
Home matches in 2021 have been grouped into themes. “Thursday Night Lights” kicked off as the first theme, with the light show, the pyrotechnics and new hosts Katie Brown and Zac Bailey all part of the new format.
Conditions were not kind, so kudos to all concerned in the staging of the first match. I’m not sure whether there were any aspects of the evening that couldn’t be staged, and I would imagine that match day presentations for a stand alone game would be different to having two or three grades of footy on the day.
Back on the hosts, I’ll give them a big tick for their energy and importantly, the clarity of their voices. But I do have one proviso going forward.
I’ve gone on record as being no fan of MCs urging the crowd to start cheering when the ball is in play. It doesn’t mean that MCs can’t bring some hype – it’s all a matter of timing.
The response of the crowd to on-field action is a beautiful and organic part of our code. It doesn’t require manufacturing.
I hope that our new hosts are cognisant of that.
The Tip Sheet – Live!
The Cumberland Throw was privileged to kick off the pre-match entertainment on Thursday afternoon with our live podcast at Parramatta Leagues Club. The weather forced our move from Eels Lane to indoors at Pablos, but the capacity crowd of Eels supporters brought a terrific vibe to the venue.
I’d like to thank the club for hosting our podcast. Further thanks to the Eels supporters for filling the room with an amazing atmosphere, and a special thank you to PLC Marketing Manager, Sarah Young, for organising the event along with the fantastic TCT banners.
Of course the real stars of the show were our guests – Mary K from Ladies Who League, Joey Grima from the Eels, and Parra Legend, Brett Kenny.
It’s a bumper podcast that you can still catch via the recording of the show. We captured Mary’s thoughts on the Suaalii ruling and future NRLW expansion, then Joey discussed Junior Reps, his star-studded 2004 team, and impressively nailed his prediction of how the Eels would beat the Storm.
Finally, we had the honour of sharing air time with the legendary Brett Kenny as he recounted tales of his time at the Eels, including stories from behind the stories.
It was the prelude to a great evening, capped by the Eels victory.
What a day! What a week!