Eels duo in battle for no.1 jersey
Parramatta Eels coach Brad Arthur is set to hand Bevan French first crack at fullback ahead of big-name signing Jarryd Hayne, in a move that will pit the NSW star in a head-to-head selection battle with incumbent Kiwi Test centre Brad Takairangi.
Even with Clint Gutherson to be kept on ice across the opening rounds as he recovers from his second ACL rupture, Arthur is so flush for talent out wide that fitting three representative centres in Hayne, Takairangi and Michael Jennings into his final 17 looms as his biggest round one headache.
Arthur brought Hayne home to Parramatta on a one-year deal in December following an underwhelming tenure on the Gold Coast, but has indicated that 22-year-old speedster French is the front-runner for the No.1 jersey Hayne made so famous during his first stint out west.
"Gutho, I think he won't start the season. We know he won't be ready until a couple of rounds in," Arthur told Sky Sports Radio on Thursday morning.
"That'll give Bevan an opportunity. He's done a lot of weights and put on a bit of size and strength. He's worked really hard on his fitness.
"He knows that there is an opportunity for him to start the season at fullback."
Installing French at the back for their season opener against the Penrith Panthers would alleviate fan fears that Hayne's arrival could force French from the club and pitch the NSW representative into a fight with Takairangi for a starting centre berth.
Gutherson's early-season absence also opens up the possibility of Takairangi and Jennings being retained in the centres, with Hayne's second coming at the Eels starting from the wing.
Also in the mix for the left flank spot vacated by Semi Radradra are Josh Hoffman, Kirisome Auva'a and young gun Greg Leleisiuao, while Will Smith is being sized up as a bench utility.
With Arthur indicating Hayne's future could lie in the centres, a tough call potentially looms for Takairangi, who has proven himself one of Parramatta's most reliable performers in recent years and rose to New Zealand Test honours during their ill-fated World Cup campaign.
Hayne meanwhile has plenty to prove in the eyes of many following his release with a year remaining on a marquee deal with the Titans, a move which led to the 29-year-old sacrificing around $700,000 this season.
Hayne has been back on deck with the Eels for the past fortnight now, with his first appearance for his new club to be against Newcastle in a February 24 trial in Maitland, as revealed by NRL.com earlier this week.
Arthur praised Hayne's return to pre-season training despite US rape allegations set to persist until trial in April.
"He's been really good with his effort areas and attitude towards the conditioning," Arthur said of Hayne.
"I just want him to make sure he continues to work hard to give himself every opportunity to get the miles in his legs so he can have those 20- or 30-metre sprints more often and be more effective.
"He's been really good for us and he's going to give us that extra bit of class.
"But we're not also going to be relying on him. He just needs to be Jarryd Hayne and play his role and fit into the team.
"He can play centres for us. If we get an injury in the halves, he can cover halves.
"He can play fullback, but we've got a lot of flexibility with blokes covering our halves and that fullback role so all our key spots we're really comfortable with the depth we've got there."