The Cumberland Throw

Rookie Watch 2023 Part 3 – NSW Cup

Rookie Watch 2023 concludes with a look at the NSW Cup squad and who could emerge from reserve grade to boost the Parramatta Eels in the NRL next year. Fans will be familiar with young talents like Sean Russell and Samuel Loizou after their 2021 NRL debuts and both will absolutely be in the mix next year. However, given they have already debuted for the Eels I will put the focus on other players today.

The complexion of Parramatta’s NSW Cup squad could vary wildly next year with a number of exciting Flegg prospects looking at serious time in the senior grade. Even so there are some established players that are right in the frame for a NRL debut. Today we look at Toni Mataele, Tevita Taumoepenu, Zac Cini and Jayden Yates with each player bringing something different to the conversation.


Toni Mataele – Edge

Few if any prospects are better positioned to challenge for an NRL debut in 2023 than Toni Mataele. Parramatta’s pressing needs for both a starting edge forward and an impact bench forward combined with Mataele’s raw physical gifts mean that he is primed to make a serious push for a NRL debut in the upcoming season.

Mataele played the majority of his footy in 2022 on the left edge in the NSW Cup. The powerful edge runner logged 8 appearances in reserve grade after fighting back from a preseason injury that sidelined him until Round 11. Importantly, he looked physically ready for senior footy as he quickly established himself as a bruising carrier of the ball. Toni comfortably averaged over 100m a game (117m/g) and showed not only a fearless streak running both crash and decoy lines into the teeth of the defence but also guile and nuance on the timing and angles of his runs.

It feels like a copy/paste job for just about any prospective NRL rookie but defence is easily the biggest concern for Mataele. While his involvement rates were more than fine this year there is definitely room to tidy up his missed tackle rate. Still, he banged out a tick under 23 tackles a game and showed quite clearly that he isn’t one to shirk his workload.

He is currently on a Development Contract, but a strong preseason could be enough to catapult him into contention for a bench spot later in the season. Even though he’s likely to miss out in those early rounds, a productive start to the year in the NSW Cup will have him firmly in line for a promotion should form, injury or suspension open the door at any point.


Tevita Taumoepenu – Prop/Lock

I honestly can’t say that Tevita Taumoepenu was on my radar when he joined the Eels by way of the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2022. A Flegg eligible middle forward, Tevita started the season in that grade in his one and only game in Round 1. He then made the jump to the NSW Cup where he would go on to play 20 games across the season. Tevita didn’t impress because of flashy plays or gaudy numbers but because he quickly became a reliable factor and a player that simply did his job every week.

Tevita Taumoepenu

While we all adore gamebreakers teams there is always a need for the workhorses and rocks in the middle. Taumoepenu consistently punched out between 80 to 100m off the bench and made his tackles at an incredibly efficient rate of 98%. Neither of those should be scoffed at.


Tevita brings a high floor to the team with his reliability so the follow up question becomes how high is his ceiling? Can he find add something to his offensive repertoire? Or can he go to the next level as a workhorse and begin pumping out elite numbers? Should he find that point of difference he could quickly become a legitimate NRL factor for the Blue & Gold.


Zac Cini – Centre/Wing

The Eels have built a legitimate case over the last half a decade or so that they might be the premier club when it comes to finding overlooked stars, diamonds in the rough and simply putting supposedly lesser players in a position to shine. Isaiah Papali’i, Marata Niukore, Reed Mahoney, Tom Opacic, Andrew Davey, Will Smith, Ray Stone, Nathan Brown, Jai Field, Maika Sivo, David Gower, Shaun Lane…while there is variance in the calibre of their contributions the list is quite lengthy.

Cini at training

Zac Cini could be the newest name to be added to that list in 2023. Cini joined the Eels late in the 2022 preseason and quickly cemented a place in the starting backline in the NSW Cup. His uncanny ability to beat a defender with late footwork coupled with his impressive post contact drive made him a highly productive contributor week in and out.

Be it forwards or backs, players that consistently win the advantage line are always valuable and Cini was dominant in this regard at the NSW Cup level. At 189cm and 90-odd kilos it is easy to see why he is so difficult to bring down but I do wonder if it also opens up some positional versatility in the backrow down the road.

Tom Opacic’s departure has shaken up the depth charts in the backline and I could definitely see Cini coming into calculations as attrition sets in through the 2023 campaign. Technically, given that Bailey Simonsson (shoulder) and Haze Dunster (knee) aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be fully fit for Round 1 – perhaps he be in the mix sooner that I think.


Jayden Yates – Hooker/Lock

Ray Stone proved there is absolutely a place for an ultra-fit, ultra-competitive utility hooker/lock at the Parramatta Eels. With Stone moving on to the Dolphins Jayden Yates becomes his spiritual successor at the club. Unlike Stone, Yates is now afforded an opportunity Stone never got in serving an apprenticeship under Josh Hodgson in 2023.

Yates in action at dummy half

Yates brings grit and gumption by the truckload and while Stone may be the better technical defender (Stone was a borderline genius in that regard), Jayden is a far more polished dummy-half. If he can hone his craft under the tutelage of Hodgson then his apprenticeship might go from one shared on the training paddock to one shared in the NRL as Hodgson’s deputy.

Jayden will of course be competing with Mitch Rein and Brendan Hands to steer the NSW Cup team around the ruck. Rein is the crafty old head while Hands brings an intriguing skillset to equation himself with his ability to cover the halves. How Nathan Cayless manages the splits between these three players is above my pay grade but hopefully Jayden Yates can force his way into a serious share of playing time.




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23 thoughts on “Rookie Watch 2023 Part 3 – NSW Cup

  1. Colin Hussey

    What a great read at the end of the season forty.

    Not being in a position to see much of the lower grade games (actually only one Televised) however, of those names, the only one I can remember is Hands, who I saw in one of the games and I saw his abilities then, the others not so much, although Cini’s name did come up at times but I did not see him play.

    I believe though that with next season now racing up, that we will see a strong team, in both NRL and the lower grade as well, hopefully on more occasions.

    To those who pen these reports for the supporters, I would like to extend my gratitude and for all to have a wonderful and safe Christmas.

    1. sixties

      Forty has done a brilliant job with the rookie watch series. There are players on second tier deals and Dev contracts that will be interesting to track this year. Merry Christmas to you too Colin.

  2. Anonymous

    Zac Cini must be faster then he looks. His big frame and full on effort must put him in the frame. Been saying for a while that Yates will be the new Stone except with actual DH skills.
    Hands seems to be the wild card. Im hoping to see a lot more of him.
    Also hope to see more Moretti next year.

  3. pete

    Great read Forty20.
    It just looks like Parra is building depth nicely across the club.
    It’s a long game that demands results and each year we seem to be better than the last. That’s what makes me confident for ’23!
    Thanks again

  4. Shaun

    I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Zac Cini. Not sure why he never has been able to make that jump to NRL as he has talent. Don’t know much about the others but now that I do, will watch with interest in 2023.

    1. Sayad

      Interesting with the development cap going up to650 thousand, what players move up on to development contracts as there is only currently three players on these contracts

  5. HINDY111

    Forgot about Morretti. Come with a few wraps but had a very dissapointing 2022.
    Tevita I liked the look of. I see more potential in him then in Grieg or Rodwell.

  6. Leigh

    Zac toured with Bradman Best, Stephen Crichton, Jason Saab, Tom Dearden, Jock Maden, Jason Saab & Bronson Xerri in the 2018 Australian U/18 side to England.
    NB: Matthew Doorey and Luca Moretti were also in that 22-man squad.
     Interestingly; Our other up-and-coming centre, Sam Loizou toured the following year.

      1. Anonymous

        Sam should be playing Flegg and to see if he can dominate it. Hasn’t shown much in last couple of seasons in any grade…

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