We wouldn't swap Norman for anyone: Mannah
On the eve of a new season, Eels co-captain Tim Mannah has lauded high praise on his star halfback Corey Norman, declaring he wouldn't swap him for any other player in the competition.
Given the calibre of playmaker going around including Queensland and Kangaroos stars Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, dual premiership-winner James Maloney and up and coming stars like Anthony Milford, it's very high praise indeed.
It speaks to not only the quality of performance Norman produced in 2016 but his growth as an on-field leader and his importance to the team.
Plenty of astute judges reckon Norman would have been in with a red-hot shake of taking out the 2016 Dally M Medal ahead of Cronk and Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo if not for an eight-game suspension to finish the season.
Set to partner with rookie playmaker Clint Gutherson in 2017, Norman is without doubt the key man for the blue and golds and is raring to go after not having played since July.
Norman had not missed a single game all season before that Round 18 game, in which his pinpoint kicking game pulled the Roosters apart and tormented rookie fullback Latrell Mitchell as Norman created all four of his team's tries in a 22-18 win.
"I wouldn't swap 'Normy' for anyone in the comp - if you offered any player in the comp I wouldn't swap Normy for them," Mannah said emphatically at a squad open media day ahead of their Round 1 clash at Lottoland against Manly.
"He's obviously a very important part of our team. We've got a lot of belief in what he can do and what he brings so I think we're very lucky to have him.
"[Norman] is obviously a key player for us and it's tough to put a lot of pressure on someone like that but at the end of the day that's what it is. He's our key player and we expect a lot of him but he also expects a lot of himself. I've got no doubt he'll have a great season this year."
Norman himself was keen to move on from the off-field discretions that brought himself and his team some poor headlines last year, resulting in his eight-game ban and said he just couldn't wait to get back out on the field.
"It's been a long time mate, I'm just looking forward to Sunday. I just want to play some footy," Norman said.
"[Eight games] is a lot of footy to miss. I've never missed that much before and I'm raring to go on Sunday."
He said a low grade hamstring strain picked up at the Auckland Nines and ruled him out of the final trial against Penrith was fully healed and backed the team's youthful new playmaking combination to get the job done – but cautioned it would take time to build combinations.
"I'm probably thankful I didn't play that last trial. [The hamstring] come along good and is feeling strong now… It was only a little grade one and we just wanted it right for the year."
He wasn't fazed by going into a new season with a new halves partner again after having already done so with Luke Kelly, Chris Sandow and Kieran Foran, with others including Jeff Robson, Gutherson and even back-rower Kenny Edwards rotating through as well.
"The last four years I've been here I've had a few halfbacks over the years anyway, it's normal now so hopefully me and Guth can be here for a while now and like any new combination it's going to take a while," Norman said.
"We're taking responsibility for all our plays. We're going to play a lot of football together and we're going to be swinging both sides of the field. It's exciting and I can't wait.
"It's going to take a while for us all to click but we're working hard and we'll see where we're at come Sunday."
Gutherson said he felt prepared for a full-time switch to five-eighth after spending the pre-season there and was looking forward to building his combinations with Norman and fullback Bevan French.
"Me and 'Norms' have worked pretty hard on combinations with 'Bevvy' at the back as well so we're all pretty new to it but it's going to come," Gutherson said.
"Having [Norman] there, he'll take a lot of the control and I've got to take a little bit of pressure off him.
"If I can do that I'm sure he'll be able to become a better player than everyone knows he is. He probably would have won Dally M last year so he's looking forward to it. He hasn't played for a long time and he's got a point to prove this year so he's going to come out firing."