Former Parramatta Eels player Michael Jennings has been suspended for three three years for breaches of the NRL’s anti-doping rules.
I’m an Eels fan. Wholeheartedly! And am I a Blues fan? Absolutely! But first and foremost I’m a fan of the game that I love.
There have been plenty of times I’ve stuck up for a Queenslander over a New South Welshman for the love of the game. I honestly defended Dylan Napa’s hit on Korbin Sims. A Rooster put a shot on a Broncos player who at the last second dropped his body height before contact so far that the defender had no time to pull out of a tackle. He correctly wasn’t suspended.
On Thursday night I watched my team take on the Broncos. It was the opening or the reopening of the reduced 20-round 2020 season.
A mate of mine who is a Broncos fan messaged me about the clash. He asked, “How do you reckon this six again rule going to be for your mob?”. That was ten days before the game.
I responded that I thought it would benefit Parramatta. They rely a lot on quick play the balls in their attack. I just hoped that referees would use the new six again rule wisely in the opposition 30 or 40 zone and would give the penalty for more obvious holding-down infringements in a team’s own half. I was worried about a six again on the first or second tackle after a half break from Maika Sivo or Blake Ferguson in our own half.
My Broncos fan friend was worried about the bigger packs, like Parramatta with the likes of Junior Paulo, Dylan Brown and Kane Evans, not having the biggest engines.
I reminded him of Brown’s ability to play 80 minutes if necessary. I also raised that Paulo’s fitness had increased significantly since returning from Canberra, where he averaged only 101 metres per game and only 17 tackles in 2018 – hardly the numbers expected of a $750,000 prop. I was highly critical of signing at that price.
But in 2019 423 metres were gained from Paulo’s offloads. He’s hardly a guy you want to have fewer players in a tackle on. He had increased his average run metres to 131 metres per game in 2019.
The statistics aside, I had felt anecdotally that Brad Arthur had been coaching the team to be fitter in defence to rely less on the ruck wrestle – a tactic Melbourne had invented and the Roosters had matched or even surpassed – to give the team time to reset. Maybe that’s me talking with my Eels glasses on?
I thought Brisbane would win. Yes, David Fifita or Tevita Pangai Junior were huge losses for Brisbane, but Nathan Brown to Parramatta over the past two years has been as big a loss as both of them combined. A big call, I know. But whenever Brown is out for Parramatta, their middle defence seems to lose all its structure in defence and metres get made.
My hope was Parramatta could manage a really high completion rate. I told my Broncos mate that if I were Brad Arthur, I’d be asking for a game plan of kicking for the in-goal to get repeat sets to keep the ball in Parramatta’s hands as often as possible.
It was like Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown or Arthur had read my mind. Parramatta managed the possession – with help early on from six again calls for lazy laying in the ruck calls – to perfection. The possession mounted up. The score at half-time could have been 24-6. Two 50-50 calls on obstruction and a forward pass went against Parramatta. Both Anthony Milford and Sivo bombed tries. At half-time the scoreline read 12-6.
The second half opened and it was game on again for Parramatta. They were managing the game as good as Melbourne Storm teams of the past. The only difference was that Brisbane’s outside backs, including a Darius Boyd, were scrambling for their lives. Against other sides the first 20 minutes of the second half could have seen 20 or more points conceded. The stoic Brisbane defence, in spite of an avalanche of possession, conceded a classy try to Clinton Gutherson and a gutsy jinking try from Michael Jennings.
Shaun Lane and Waqa Blake crossed in the last 15 minutes to blow the score out to close to what the possession and game dominance should have dictated.
But make no bones about it, this Brisbane Broncos side is quality. Real quality. With a young pack, including the likes of Payne Haas, Tevita Pangai Junior, Thomas Flegler, Patrick Carrigan, Jamil Hopoate and Jake Turpin at hooker, and with the older heads of Alex Glenn and Matthew Lodge, this Broncos side is in its own window for a title.
That would have been hard to imagine at the start of 2019. There was plenty to chastise Anthony Seibold about last year, but a lot of roster position changes are starting to bear fruit. What can he add to this back line with Darius Boyd’s money next year? That, along with Jack Bird’s million-dollar contract, open up a lot of possibilities to retain some of these forwards and gain a badly needed back.
Parramatta is as close to being in their own window as 1980. While Mitchell Moses has his spectacular days, he also has his diabolical days. Dylan Brown is still young but very exciting. Parramatta doesn’t come close to boasting a single million-dollar player. There are no forwards of the ilk of Jason Taumalolo or Payne Haas. No halves of the calibre of Johnathan Thurston, Joey Johns, Brad Fittler or Cooper Cronk. While King Gutho is a local superstar who can play anywhere between one and seven, he’s no Tommy Turbo, James Tedesco or even Roger Tuivasa-Shek.
Look at the guns Parramatta has:
But that’s the way I like it. Only Reed Mahoney, who they should find a five-year deal for, is the missing link in the puzzle to sign long term, after which this team would be pretty much complete for the next few years. They are in their premiership window right now. This squad can win the 2020 title. But because Parramatta recovered from their own salary cap scandal – as ridiculous as that was – and didn’t go paying overs for potential superstars. This current Eels squad isn’t just in a window to win a title; they’re potentially in 1980-81 territory for a dynasty.
Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Eric Grothe Senior and Steve Ella weren’t out-and-out superstars at the end of the 1980 season, just as the entire 2020 Eels side aren’t at the start of the season. But things are looking ominous, and Moses, Brown and Gutherson seem to have plenty of time behind this pack to put strike power the likes of Blake, Jennings, Sivo and Ferguson through plenty of holes for a whole lot of points this year and several more to come.