I never thought I'd make 200: Jennings
On the eve of his 200th NRL game, Eels flyer Michael Jennings says he still feels lucky to have played once in first grade and can't believe how quickly life goes by.
Jennings believes a much-needed shift from his long-term home of Penrith at the end of 2012 was the wake-up call he needed to get out of his comfort zone and continue his development as a player as he evolved from the flashy – and occasionally irresponsible – speed machine to Test and Origin stalwart.
"I didn't think I was going to make 200. My goal was just to make first grade and play one first grade game. To play 200 is a great milestone," Jennings said ahead of his team's Thursday night trip to Brookvale to face the Sea Eagles.
Jennings was moved on from Penrith by club supremo Phil Gould at the start of 2013 amid questions about his attitude and was picked up by the Roosters where he flourished, making six of his seven Kangaroos appearances and featuring in eight of nine Origins (missing one through injury) in his three season there.
He also helped the club to the 2013 premiership and three straight minor premierships before joining the Eels at the start of 2016, where he started a little slow but produced his best performance to date in blue and gold last weekend with two tries against Canberra.
"[Leaving Penrith] was just the learning curve of my career and the stages of life that you go through. I had to go through all that to kind of straighten me out and kind of put my focus and all my energy into footy and not really take it for granted and not get comfortable," Jennings said.
"Leaving Penrith was a good move and it really exposed me to a lot and it really challenged me as a player and as a person.
"I think coming through that development at Penrith and having all that talent and being young and just getting comfortable, a change was what I needed and it really changed me as a player and as a person."
Reflecting on his 199 games across 10-seasons, the now 27-year-old said he remembered his 2007 debut as an 18-year-old clearly. He scored a try from the wing in a side where just four players are still in the NRL: then-centre Luke Lewis is a Sharks back-rower and Lewis's centre partner that day, Peter Wallace, is still at the club (via a stint with Brisbane) while Michael Gordon is now a teammate of Jennings at Parramatta.
"It's just gone so quick. It doesn't feel like I've played 200 games. I still remember my debut, debuting at 18, now I'm 27, you don't realise how quick life goes. Now it's just all about not taking anything for granted and enjoying my time here and having fun," Jennings said.
The pacey centre continues to manage a knee injury that restricted his pre-season training and in turn his chances to earn the respect of his new clubmates but Jennings hopes that he's been able to achieve that despite needing a few training sessions off.
"That's exactly what I wanted to do was come over and earn the respect from the players, train hard, do all the things that you want to earn the respect of the players but at the same time for me as an athlete if one thing's wrong with my leg I don't get the full potential out of my ability," he said.
"If I have something wrong with my knee I won't be at top speed and stuff like that. I want to get that back to 100 per cent. As long as I'm turning up and doing the job and doing my part for the team he's happy to do whatever it takes for me to get on the field."
Jennings' pace was on show in his two-try effort against the Raiders as Parramatta's left edge clicked into gear. His first was standard fare, backing up a Corey Norman line break, but the second – hitting a sublime short pass from Norman at pace – was very much a set play that shows the hard work at training is paying off.
"We've been working hard on our combinations. We've been so close over the past three weeks with getting that combination right," Jennings said.
"I think this week [against Canberra] we made the right options and our plays really came off but I think our go-forward is what gives the space on the edges. You can't go away from the forwards doing the hard work in the middle and getting the quick play the balls which makes it easier for us on the edges and gives us more space.
"I think there were a lot of opportunities before that week where he didn't hit me on that line and he wanted to make sure his first ball when we ran that play was to hit me so it was good to come off. Those are plays we've been doing for a while."