Round 3 Drink Of Choice – Gentleman Jack
Round 3 has been something else. Collectively the NRL had induced some sort of terrible curse upon the entire competition with injuries and general carnage piling up across the six games played so far. The Roosters suffered critical losses on Friday night while the Canberra Raiders were left reeling after a barrage of injuries reduced them to just 14-men for 65 minutes of play. The freight train of injuries kept on rumbling right into the clash at Bankwest Stadium as the Cronulla Sharks came out of half-time armed with the knowledge that they would play the second half with absolutely no one on their interchange bench following a suspected PCL injury to Sione Katoa and three failed HIAs to Wade Graham, Will Kennedy and Briton Nikora.
Round 3 has been a wholesale slaughter on an unprecedented level and while the Eels were impacted as well – they are extremely fortunate to escape without any long term complications. Mitchell Moses sustained a heavy concussion on the back of an awful tackle attempt that saw him ruled out of the game while Maika Sivo also had to under an assessment – that he ultimately passed – on the sidelines following a heavy (but completely legal) tackle that resulted in his head hitting the ground with some considerable force. Will Smith got some battlefield treatment on a dislocated finger while by some divine providence Blake Ferguson dodged the pervasive black magic and somehow kept his snoz intact.
While I will go on to eventually commend the Parramatta Eels for closing out this game solidly by a margin of 28-4, it is hard not to feel for the Sharks. They were dealt an awful hand and showed plenty of heart and grit to keep the Eels at bay until the 69th minute of play. They had every right to roll over in face of tremendous adversity but refused at every turn until complete exhaustion set in.
I will salute to that.
Eels still turn a profit without their prophet
It was a struggle for long stretches but the Eels blended persistence with patience in order to overcome the Sharks after Mitchell Moses bowed out of the game in the 26th minute. There was a noticeable lack of direction from the blue & gold without Moses guiding the team around the park. However, the combined efforts of Clinton Gutherson, Reed Mahoney and Will Smith Parramatta were enough to get the Eels home.
Gutherson and Smith in particular deserve high praise tonight. The fittest man in the NRL belted out a whopping 279m from 21 carries on top of pristine clean-up work AND while pulling double duty as the primary playmaker. He is a phenom in his own special way and his importance to this franchise grows with each passing game.
Smith by contrast has been something of a bit-part player during his time at the Eels and while he has certainly been valuable he has never really locked down a role in a team. Now we are three games into the 2021 season and Will Smith has sewn up a spot in the team by virtue of the fact that he has no role. Go figure. Seriously though, Smith has played the part of super utility for Brad Arthur across three games after moonlighting at hooker, lock and halfback. He showed plenty of spark and a surprising amount of poise tonight with a deft kicking game that heaped pressure on the embattled Sharks and played a crucial role in securing the victory.
Dylan Brown was disappointingly quiet and while it doesn’t exonerate him of that fact – it is worth remembering that even though he may be an established veteran within the team, he is still only 20. The Eels are an extremely well balanced team and as such could thankfully absorb both the loss of their general and a sub-par game from their lieutenant. Still, Dylan will need to start taking greater ownership of the team as he continues to mature because on other nights the loss of Moses will prove to be a greater hurdle to overcome.
Way back on TLT I questioned how a depleted Parramatta bench would be utilised against a relatively beefy Cronulla pack. With Marata Niukore and Isaiah Papali’i drafted into the starting line-up it was left to the likes of Oregon Kaufusi, Keegan Hipgrave, Will Smith and Ray Stone to carry the torch from the bench. Smith has already garnered praise above for his role in the victory but Kaufusi and Stone might as well been Marvel superheroes for their efforts.
The Big O, the only recognised prop on the bench, popped off for 161m from 14 carries and was stalwart in defence with just the solitary missed tackle among 21 other completed tackles. Oregon’s season high 47 minutes was the best indication yet that he is ready to stand alongside the likes of Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard as a legitimate presence around the ruck.for the blue & gold.
If you are going to really commit to the role of a superhero though you need to enter the fray at the pivotal moment. Never too early but always in time to save the day. That was Ray Stone in Round 3. Not only did the he add a season highlight reel when he left Connor Tracey grasping at thin air with a beautiful step and head-fake but the rugged backrower proved to be an offensive threat equal to Thor with a staggering 146m from just 11 carries. Stone obviously was the beneficiary of a fatigued opposition but his cracking try was a just reward for a team favourite. If by some how you didn’t know that, the massive pile up of players and Gutherson’s exuberant post-try celebration night have clued you in to that fact!
Council Calling – Metremen Hit Their Quotas
When your coach demands 2000 running metres what do you do? You crank out a cool 2392m. Again, the circumstances around the game certainly hindered the Sharks but the Eels played the cards they were dealt and that is no fault of their own. Only four of Brad Arthur’s men failed to crack 100m and one of those was Moses. Mahoney, Hipgrave and Smith were the three others and if you remove those four players the average metres gained over the remaining 13 players is a whopping 171m per person.
Parramatta might have been unpolished at times in the legitimate war of attrition that was taking place but they never shied away from one of the strengths of the team. The Eels ability to win and even dominate the ruck is very much a core tenant of this team and they should never forget it.
Marata enters centre stage
Parramatta fans have been telling the rest of the NRL about how good Marata Niukore is for years now. In 2020 he was arguably the most impactful interchange player in the competition and while he earned acclaim last year, his move to the centres in the last two games has seen him explode into the spotlight.
Niukore’s consistent excellence in attacking down the right edge will have surely given ‘BA’ food for thought for when he eventually shifts back into the forward pack. Even if it operates through the middle on a full-time basis, like Junior Paulo I can see Marata getting dispensation to roam the edges in attack and even designed looks and plays in that same vein.
Now to temper all the excitement around Marata’s stellar deputy work at centre, the Sharks did have some success deploying their speedy fullback Will Kennedy at him. Niukore wasn’t completely overmatched but it is something to consider as teams potentially look to exploit a possible weakness.
Still, how often do you see a centre power to 188m from 17 carries with just one short range line break to their name? Throw in the big-time flick pass for the try assist to Blake Ferguson and you have an absolute weapon that the Eels need to keep unleashing.
The Final Word
The 28-4 scoreline really doesn’t do the Sharks justice but sometimes that really is how footy do be (pardon the internet colloquialism). Parramatta keep the record clean and more importantly don’t add to their injury ward as the rest of the NRL seemingly burns to the ground. Moses and Ryan Matterson are tipped to be fit for the Easter Monday clash against the Wests Tigers while Bryce Cartwright’s return to training this week means he could be an outside chance at his first action in the blue & gold in NSW Cup.
The Eels have all kinds of good problems at the moment. Marata is starring in the centres. Papali’i was has been excellent in the middle and on an edge. Will Smith has been clutch in the utility role. Role players like Tom Opacic are doing their jobs with aplomb while core cogs to the team like Reed Mahoney are taking that exciting next step.
Their primary focus needs to be keeping the wave of momentum rolling past the opening month of the season and that means dispatching of the Tigers next week. Team List Tuesday should be plenty of fun with the returning troops and with the NSW Cup squad posting a first-up win, reinforcements for that grade are just as exciting!