Sometimes you’re the hammer, and sometimes you’re the nail. While the Parramatta starting side certainly hammered St George-Illawarra in the early stages last weekend, ultimately the Eels ended up the nail as they suffered the only real loss you can have in a trial: a season ending injury. Haze Dunster was primed for a big year and will be missed, and now Brad Arthur has one week to determine whether Sean Russell, Hayze Perham or another young gun is the answer to a gaping hole in the starting lineup.
Arthur has traditionally used the last trial as a dress rehearsal, and aside from the injured brigade this looks like the starting 13 that BA has said “picks itself” throughout the off season. Russell is getting first shot at the wing and Ryan Matterson continues his shift to the middle in place of Nathan Brown, the only one of the injured crew expected back for the opener.
The real interest here for fans is the bench. All contenders bar Wiremu Greig (resting a minor calf injury) will get their shot, and with only Marata Niukore and (likely) Ryan Matterson secure in the 17 there is a lot for Makatoa, Kaufusi, Stone, Cartwright, Rein and even Jake Arthur to play for. I should have known better than to take anything Sixties reports lightly, but I had largely ignored his case for Jake Arthur as the first grade bench utility. That all changed when Greg Alexander mused on the same idea in commentary last weekend, usually a sign that somebody is talking. Maybe Brandy (or whoever briefs him) just reads TCT. Hi Brandy, hope you have to call the Eels beating the Panthers this year, I want to hear that pain.
Date: Saturday February 26, 2022
Venue: Penrith Stadium
Kick Off: 5:00 PM, AEDT
Referee: Ben Cummins
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Sean Russell 3. Will Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Bailey Simonsson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shane Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Ryan Matterson. 14. Makahesi Makatoa 15. Oregon Kaufusi 16. Ray Stone 17. Jake Arthur 18. Mitch Rein 19. Marata Niukore 20. Ofahiki Ogden 21. Jordan Rankin 22. Brendan Hands 23. Ky Rodwell 24. Bryce Cartwright 25. Hayze Perham 26. Solomone Naiduki 27. Tom Opacic 28. Sam Loizou.
1. Charlie Staines 2. Robert Jennings 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Sean O’Sullivan 8. Moses Leota 9. Api Koroisau 10. Spencer Leniu 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Scott Sorensen 13. Matt Eisenthuth. 14. Mavrik Geyer 15. Chris Smith 16. J’maine Hopgood 17. Jaeman Salmon 18. Eddie Blacker 19. Sunia Turuva 20. Taylan May 21. Mitch Kenny 22. Soni Luke 23. Arthur Crichton.
You shouldn’t take much from how a team is named for trials, but seeing Bryce Cartwright wearing a number in the 20s might mean he needs a big day to secure a bench spot. Marata Niukore’s 19 jersey is better explained by his pending suspension for round one. Ryan Matterson is named in 13 for Nathan Brown, indicating he will start in the middle, but I’d expect the plan of late last year for Isaiah Papali’i to spend time in the middle will be in effect in 2022 as well.
A COVID outbreak has knocked a few starters out of the Penrith team, while Nathan Cleary remains touch and go for round one and is absent here. They’ve proven a good measuring stick the last couple of years in this trial and I don’t think that changes here just because Cleary, Edwards, Fisher-Harris, Martin and Yeo are missing.
What to watch for
This week is all about two things: finalising the bench and running out the cobwebs. While there are plenty of young stars named on the bench, their game time will be restricted and chances are they aren’t forcing their way into round one calculations in a limited run. There is still plenty going on with the first grade contenders, so let’s take a look at a few “individuals of interest” for round one.
Bailey Simonsson had a mixed debut, bombing a try with poor positioning on a kick but also defusing one in defence, while his carries were solid without being spectacular. He’s locked into a spot now, but we did go another week without seeing his alleged breakaway speed. Get him in space, guys!
Sean Russell had a highly visible flub on a clearing kick which was worrying for his general decision making, but he also managed to bundle a rampaging Moses Suli into touch in a tackle well above his weight and size. He looks like the one to get the first shot but Eels fans are going to need to show patience with him. Luckily we’re all well known for being forgiving, particularly of wingers in defence.
Hayze Perham is the most realistic third option, who has spent most of his time in Blue & Gold as a fullback but the skills transfer reasonably well. I’d expect BA will prefer Perham as a fullback or utility, but if Russell struggles Perham could get the call.
I don’t see Tom Opacic shifting to wing or coming into the top side to allow Waqa Blake to shift, but both are definitely options that I think Arthur would take before blooding Solomone Naiduki, Matt Komolafe or Sam Loizou. Naiduki in particular looked as raw as a Rocky Balboa breakfast shake last week.
The Eels are spoiled for choice in the middle, adding depth to what was already a top three pack in the NRL. Whoever takes those bench spots in round one will both have earned them and will need to sternly defend their place, particularly as Marata Niukore returns from suspension in round two. Let’s look at the contenders in more detail.
Ryan Matterson looks to have lost the starting back row spot, but expect him to spend time both on an edge and in the middle. As a middle he has strong ballplaying suitable to the modern lock, as an edge he has a killer offload and is a great line runner. He’ll likely swap with Isaiah Papali’i in those roles.
Marata Niukore was a beast last week, running with plenty of aggression. He’ll be on the bench for sure, but where he plays is still up in the air. Regardless of edge or middle, his game doesn’t change much, and his versatility as a stop-gap centre just adds to his value to the side.
Shaun Lane has a starting edge spot locked down, and I just wanted to call out how good he looked in the Dragons trial. Great line running, aggressive carries, good support, if he brings this to season 2022 then the Eels forward pack just gets all the more exciting.
Oregon Kaufusi looked good last week, getting through plenty of work, running with purpose and even scoring a try. History says a bench spot is his to lose, but he must improve on his 2021 form in both his impact running and especially his ball handling.
Makahesi Makatoa got through a frankly ridiculous amount of work for a trial and appears to be in the good books for at least a round one bench spot. He’s not exactly an ideal bench player (he’s a worker rather than an impact player) but he deserves a spot for his reliability.
Wiremu Greig has unfortunately missed the chance to trial due to a minor injury, and while his effort in the All Stars game was solid it probably wasn’t enough to demand selection round one. He’ll play plenty of firsts this year, but maybe not from day one.
Ofahiki Ogden had one poor error in the play-the-ball last week but was busy defensively. He’s earned himself a contract with the club so they clearly like what they’ve seen. I view Ogden and Greig as similar impact players, and Greig probably has the lead in that battle.
Ray Stone was his usual busy self last week and brings a unique skillset to the pack with his ability to cut a man in half and offer limited cover at hooker. I’d prefer him as a starter, but don’t think there is room for him in the 13 at full strength. If he showed a bit more with the ball he would make things tough for Brad Arthur.
The Low Down
I wish I knew what Brad Arthur was thinking for his bench this year, it’d make this preview so much easier. Will he go with two traditional props? Does the flexibility of Matterson, Papali’i, Stone and Niukore reduce the need for specialists? Will there be a utility, and if so, does BA primarily want hooker coverage, outside backs coverage or somebody who offers enough on their own with versatility as a bonus? Will he just pick the guys who have looked the best in pre-season?
Despite this looking like a first grade side, don’t get too hung up on the performance out there. Defensively we should start to see first grade combinations, but with the ball I wouldn’t expect much beyond individual efforts and the most basic shapes. The first graders should get 50-60 minutes of game time, some of the middle forwards may even get two stints, but the “Ferraris” such as Moses and Gutherson probably sit from half-time.
Even playing against our new nemesis Penrith, this is still just a trial and the result still doesn’t matter. Winning does not get one ounce of vengeance for the finals last year, but at the same time losing means absolutely nothing too. Enjoy seeing who looks to be in mid-season form and hopefully a few glimpses of what should be a bright 2022 ahead. All I’m hoping is we get through unscathed.