Sterling Gold: How the Eels got their groove back
When the Parramatta squad was named for their opening clash against the Warriors, it wasn't a line-up of "who's who" but more just a case of "who"?
With two youngsters on debut and another two starters having played just seven games between them in the top grade, it seemed almost mission impossible to cross the Tasman and take on the seasoned and physical New Zealanders.
Throw in a rookie coach when it comes to the NRL, and the task was a challenge of the highest order.
Not that it appeared the Eels themselves were fazed. For the first 60 minutes of the contest they were as controlled and methodical as any Parramatta team in recent memory, which enabled them to establish a match-winning lead.
When Stephen Kearney took over the reins he did so in the unusual position of being a national coach before a club coach. The fact that he steered New Zealand to be current World Cup champions was an indication of his ability but it was more his apprenticeship under Craig Bellamy that instilled confidence that he was a career NRL coach of the future.
That association also begged the question as to whether there would be a Melbourne-type influence brought to the Eels, and after watching their opening victory the answer is a resounding yes.
A disappointing 2010 campaign highlighted a number of problem areas for the blue and golds, most notably around their halves, the role of Jarryd Hayne and a high-risk attacking approach that relied heavily on passes "sticking".
The way they went about their work at Eden Park indicates that these areas have been addressed.
For a start, the input of halves Jeff Robson and Daniel Mortimer has been simplified and fine-tuned.
Both players rarely touched the football in their own half, allowing the forwards and wingers to work it out of the danger end.
Most importantly, once they were in an attacking zone they were conscious of taking the ball to the line to commit defenders. This is something they failed to do last season which allowed the opposition to slide comfortably against them.
The Luke Burt try in the 57th minute was a perfect example of the improved execution.
Taking the ball second man off dummy-half Casey McGuire, Mortimer took the ball to the line to commit Simon Mannering. In turn this put pressure on James Maloney to deal with Justin Horo, who was subsequently used as a decoy.
Another second-man pass found Jarryd Hayne in space with an overlap unfolding, and making the right choice the fullback threw a face pass to Luke Burt to cross in the corner.
The role played by Mortimer was exactly that of Ben Hornby in the Dragon's highly successful left-side raids.
The awareness of the halves to take the ball forward was demonstrated as early as the 3rd minute, when Robson recognised a poor defensive move by Brett Seymour and took advantage. When the Warriors' number seven shot up and then in, his opposing number was able to dart into the hole left inside Lewis Brown.
The improved roles of the seven and six had a profound effect on Jarryd Hayne, who was able to play a more Billy Slater-like game and benefit from the work around him instead of feeling the need to initiate everything himself. He seemed more relaxed and instinctive, as though a weight of expectation had been lifted off his shoulders.
It was interesting to see him as part of one of the Storm's pet plays which usually involves Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Slater.
On a couple of occasions McGuire took steps to the open before delivering to either Robson or Mortimer, who immediately threw a short ball back on the inside to a flying Hayne running the same line. We've certainly seen that before.
All of this attacking work was done inside the Warrior's half. In fact remarkably no Parramatta forward threw a pass within his own 50 metres or released an offload during the entire 80 minutes.
By playing such mistake-free football it enabled a high completion rate and made sure that there was plenty of petrol in the tank when they were called upon to defend.
Despite the impressive performance not everything will have pleased coach Kearney, especially when what was unfolding as a comfortable victory was turned into a nail-biting finish.
The right-side defence experienced some problems with both the Warriors' running tries coming down that side.
The warning bells were ringing in the 27th minute when Robson and new centre Ryan Morgan were caught shoulder-to-shoulder both marking up on decoy Feleti Mateo, exposing Etu Uaisele on their outside. It was only a poor Lewis Brown pass that saw the dangerous movement break down.
The home team got it right eight minutes later when Mateo's presence again did enough to attract Robson and Morgan and Lance Hohaia was able to hit Ropati, with Uaisele again forced into no-man's land.
Ropati crossed for his second in the 66th minute when young Morgan showed his inexperience by being caught centre-field as a marker. Clever attackers will identify any player so far out of position and immediately send the ball to where he should be defending before he can recover.
A late lack of discipline will also have displeased the coach.
With under five minutes to go and the Eels hanging on to a 6-point lead, Fui Fui Moi Moi gave away an unnecessary play-the-ball penalty when he grabbed Aaron Heremaia from behind.
Then in the final 60 seconds Daniel Mortimer got personal with Lance Hohaia after he resented a harmless cuff to the face. The resulting penalty saw the Warriors start their last set of six 58 metres away from the Parramatta line instead of 80 metres.
Both infringements could have proven extremely costly and should be a lesson well learnt.
There was a lot to like about the Eel's first outing, only time will tell if it is an approach that can be maintained and be consistently successful against the better sides. Physically it could prove very difficult.