Jennings the key to Eels backline reshuffle
All eyes have been on Eels game-breaker Clint Gutherson of late, with fans wondering how the popular playmaker will fit into a full-strength team when all other playmakers are fit, but the Eels' successfully-rejigged backline actually came about largely due to the return from injury of veteran centre Michael Jennings.
Explaining the line-up changes after a 24-10 win over the Dragons on Sunday, Parramatta coach Brad Arthur said a lack of quality ball in a poor loss to the Cowboys last week denied Gutherson a chance to show what he is capable of in the centre position.
Nevertheless, the players available for Sunday's game made moving fullback Bevan French to the wing the best option.
The return of Jennings meant playing Gutherson at centre was no longer the best option; the absences of outside backs Josh Hoffman and Kirisome Auva'a meant a wing spot needed filling and French was the best man for that job, according to Arthur.
Crucially, specialist left-side centre Jennings was shifted to the right to help out half Mitch Moses on his inside as well as makeshift winger French on his outside.
The move also allowed centre to return to the left where he formed such a potent combination with Semi Radradra in 2015.
"We've used 10 backs this year and only two of those have played every game," Arthur said.
"Eight of those players have been out for extended periods and at the moment blokes have got to jump in and play a position [that is] probably not their preferred position but they've got to do what's best for the team."
This was epitomised by French, who took the news of his shift to wing in his stride and threw himself into training to ensure he was ready for the task defensively.
"He had the choice to sulk about it and he didn't and that's the sort of kid he is. He worked really hard all week at training with Jenko on that right edge," Arthur said.
"I thought they did a great job in defence and Bevan nailed a couple of big moments for us. They put him under pressure and maybe he was the difference in the game for us. He was really good.
"He put his body on the line. He's not real heavy or strong at the moment but his decision-making was good and having Michael Jennings inside him with his talk and experience probably helped Bevan with some confidence."
Despite the strong outing from all the backs, Arthur said there was no guarantee Sunday's structure would remain once Auva'a and Hoffman are available in the near future.
"Bevan's best position moving forward is fullback but he's still only young, still learning his trade and at the end of the day we need to put the best possible team out there every week to try and win a footy game. Gutho's just a footballer and I don't know where his best position is to tell you the truth, you just need to have him on the field somewhere."
The improved right edge defence came down to the efforts of both Jennings and Moses, Arthur added.
"[Moses] was great. There was [one defensive mistake when] he went from marker but that was a technique thing. He's worked really hard during the week, he's carrying a bit of an injury which has prevented him from doing a bit of contact work but he really went about his business this week and did a lot of extras.
"I think Michael Jennings is probably the key for us too, just put him on that right edge. It gives the boys a bit of confidence. Jenko's one of the best defensive centres in the game."
Right-edge defence is an area where the team had struggled even before Moses arrived, Arthur said.
"We needed to do a bit of work there but Jenko's one of the best defensive centres in the game so why not have him there."
The result leaves the Eels in equal eighth place on the Telstra Premiership ladder (ninth on for-and-against) with a chance to make a charge with two byes in the next four rounds plus winnable games coming up against the Bulldogs, Tigers and an Origin-depleted Melbourne in Round 18.
"[The win] was important for us. Real important," Arthur said.
"We probably deserve to be where we sit. We've played some good football and we've played some football we're not real happy with. We're a middle of the road team at the moment and I think we probably sit in the middle of the road."