Unsung Parramatta Eels halfback Luke Kelly may not have been grabbing the headlines after Parramatta’s seven-tries-to-three demolition of New Zealand, but some quality touches showed why coach Brad Arthur was happy to give him first crack at the blue and gold No. 7 jersey ahead of maligned playmaker Chris Sandow.
With a big upset win in the bag, each winger bagging a hat-trick of tries, high-profile recruit Will Hopoate playing his first NRL game in the blue and gold (along with fellow big-name buys Corey Norman and Nathan Peats) and NRL debutant Manu Ma’u cutting the Warriors to shreds down the left edge, the subplot of who donned the Eels’ halfback spot was never going to dominate headlines.
“We’re happy with the win but there are always things to work on,” Kelly told NRL.com after the game. “I’m sure Brad [Arthur] and the coaching staff will let us know on Monday and point every little thing.”
With out-of-favour halfback Chris Sandow scoring a try and kicking five from seven in a win for Wentworthville earlier in the weekend (and the Eels could have dearly used Sandow’s goal kicking prowess on Sunday night) Kelly knows there will continue to be pressure on his position.
“It’s healthy that there’s competition; you’re always on your toes to play well and hopefully I can do that,” he said.
But the 24-year-old former Melbourne Storm NYC captain from the Northern Territory justified his inclusion with a number of quality options and looked to complement high-profile former Brisbane playmaker Corey Norman in the halves.
Kelly produced a quietish first half which also included one costly blunder – fielding a long Warriors kick-off with his foot over the dead ball line, which should have earned the Eels a penalty on halfway, an eagle-eyed referee noticed Kelly’s foot came down a fraction of a second after he caught the ball, consigning the Eels to a line drop-out from which they quickly conceded their first try of the match.
But Kelly made amends after the half-time break. With the side somehow only up two points at the interval despite seeming to dominate the first 40 minutes of play, Kelly made a blistering start to the second stanza with a generous helping of support from blockbusting Fijian winger Semi Radradra.
First, in the 42nd minute, a towering Kelly bomb put Warriors fullback Sam Tomkins under immense pressure from Radradra speeding through to contest the footy. The winger came away with it and scored next to the posts to set the tone for the half.
And just five minutes later Kelly produced an action replay, only this time it was fullback Jarryd Hayne speeding through to challenge Tomkins. Hayne didn’t quite get there but Tomkins spilled the ball which again ended up in the hands of Radradra who bounced away to score and put the Warriors right on the back foot.
Arguably his best touch of the half, though, came with 20 minutes remaining and the Warriors having clawed one try back and threatening a comeback.
At the end of a nothing set in which the Eels were camped on the Warriors’ line but didn’t seem to threaten the defence, the ball came to Kelly on the last play. Spotting an opportunity out wide Kelly shunned the obvious high kick option and fired a bullet cutout pass across to the right, where a classy catch and pass from centre Will Hopoate put winger Vai Toutai over unmarked in the right corner, and the Eels never looked like losing from there.
“I thought we defended really well, that’s the main thing we can take out of it,” Kelly said.
"I thought it was a really gritty effort tonight, we turned up in defence and I think that’s the thing that we’re most happy about but I think the key thing for us is to do it consistently."
Of his new combination with five-eighth Corey Norman, Kelly said that while the pair had not yet played a lot of footy together they had done the work at training.
“It’s going to take a bit of time but it’s nice when the moves come off. Consistency’s a big thing for us now so hopefully we can put some more performances together.”