Without a doubt, the Eels were the highlights of this years Nines tournament. Not only did they take home the trophy – their first silverware of any kind since a Sevens win in 2003, or a minor premiership in 2005, depending on how you count it – but their victory was also particularly emphatic and well-deserved. While there were some matches when teams came from behind in a freakish and unexpected way – Shaun Johnson’s last-minute try against the Broncos was the best moment of the tournament – the Eels were consistent from the beginning, churning out a combination of strong forwards, agile backs and consistent outside halves to feel like decisive contenders for the final victory from their very first appearance. While their win was touted as something of a surprise, then, it really felt like a strong possibility from the outset. In fact, one of the disctinctive things about the Nines is how the compressed format tends to defy expectations and predictions: it’s only really when the teams get out on the field that it’s possible to gauge any sense of how things will play out. By the same token, because the play is so compressed, you can often get a pretty good sense from Day 1 as well – and by the end of their first round the Eels already felt like one of the teams who should win, even if they didn’t make it to the end of the second day.
First and foremost among the Eels squad was captain Corey Norman, who rightly took home man of the tournament. Ever since arriving at Parramatta, Norman has matured as a player and leader, but he came into his own in a new way last weekend. One of the reasons that the Nines are such an important venue for young guns is that their intensified gameplay can force a player to articulate their style and signature in a rapid and efficient way, but the same goes for those players who are looking to consolidate their voice, as well as their leadership vision. While publicity focused on the Eels’ victory over the Warriors, it also bears mentioning that they were only able to get that point after beating the Roosters, the Rabbitohs and the Storm in the Waiheke Pool over the first part of the competition. Sure, none of those teams were fielding their strongest players, but that doesn’t mean that their mystique is any less intimidating on the field. Puncturing some of that prestige should put the Eels in a good mindset for the upcoming season, and Norman was critical to that effort, often recalling Cameron Smith in his ability to be everywhere on the field at once, and seeming to assist virtually every player and position when it really counted.
If Norman was first, then Semi Radradra was a very close second. In fact, while Norman was arguably the shining light of the Eels in this particular Nines – both as captain and for his consolidated gameplay – it was Semi who felt responsible for the Eels’ evolution towards this moment over the course of the Nines as a whole. As the tournament’s current top tryscorer, he’s demonstrated time and time again that the Eels are more than viable in this shorter football format, and that what tends to let them down in regular NRL isn’ necessarily a lack of talent, charisma or vision but the stamina needed to sustain it over eighty minutes. Given their hard luck over the last decade, the Eels have been more in need of a salvation figure than any other team, and in many ways Semi has been the most successful candidate in filling this role. Granted, he doesn’t have the evangelical presence of a Will Hopoate or a Tim Mannah – it’s surely no coincidence that the Eels are also the most Christian team in the whole competition – but his incredible zero-to-hero story feels like a bit of an aspiration for the Eels at large, which has made him something of a rallying figure over the last couple of years. Seeing him take Parramatta into the international spotlight on the Nines stage just continues that story, and further cements Semi as one of the most important myth-makers in the Eel’s current brand image. His presence was all the more noticeable in that so many of the teams chose to rest their big players for fear of injuries, which of course is one explanation for why Parra was able to sail to the top so effortlessly, but also says something about their own grit and determination as well.
Of course, one of the main appeals of the Nines is seeing the younger players having a crack at the big League (no pun intended), and young gun Bevan French felt like a natural wingman to both Semi and Norman. On the one hand, he played brilliantly alongside Norman in the halves – seeing them together totally captured the democratic spirit of the Nines, one of the few venues when a team captain and a player who hasn’t even seen one match in the NRL can handle a ball side by side. At the same time, Norman himself has matured relatively late as a player – even during the last part of his stint with Brisbane he still felt like something of a novice – and while that’s made his maturity with Parra particularly important, it also gives him a youthful presence on the field that gelled quite naturally with French. On the other hand, Bevan joined Semi in notiching up another Nines record in the Eels, this time for the number of tries scored in any single tournament, totalling eight over the course of what really only amounted to the duration of a single footy match. Whether or not French goes on to become a part of the Eels’ regular 2016 squad is anyone’s guess – my sense is that they’ll gradually phase him in and see how he goes from there – but there was no doubt that he represents the forefront of the next great Eels generation.
All in all, then, the Nines seemed to offer Eels fans the burst of hope they’ve been waiting for over the last decade. Time and again, we’ve been offered some great new hope for Parramatta, but last weekend was the first time in a long time that it really felt as if things were consolidating. As perennial wooden-spooners, or potential wooden-spooners, there’s something about the sheer length and dispersed momentum of the NRL season that’s particularly debilitating to a team like the Eels, and the short, sharp format of the Nines seems to have shocked them into a new kind of purpose. Perhaps they’re a team that would work better in the more limited season of a code like the NFL, making you wonder how Hayne would look in a Nines outfit, let alone the rest of the current Eels outfit. More and more, the Nines seem like a way of showcasing the best and most venerable players in Australian Rugby League, regardless of whether or not they happen to be playing for the NRL, so it does only seem to be a matter of time before Hayne turns up to play in Auckland, especially since this seems to be one of the few venues – probably the only venue – where the Eels brand is prestigious enough to work as a backdrop for his star power without detracting from his commitment to the NFL either.
In fact, the Nines have synced up in an interesting way with the Super Bowl this year, partly because in both cases a team has come from behind to take out the trophy in quite an unexpected fashion, but also because of the Hayne connection. On the one hand, this is the first Super Bowl in which Hayne has been invested as an actual salaried NFL player. While he was always fairly vocal about NFL on social media, 2016 has been the first time where it really feels as if he’s commenting as an insider. At the same time, however, Hayne has reiterated his allegiance with the Eels in the wake of the Nines, reminding the media that if he ever returned to the NRL, it would be to play for Parramatta once again. Whether or not that sentiment is motivated by the Nines victory – or designed to add some PR to the Nines victory – is hard to tell but it has definitely contributed to the sense of a revived Parra, and an Eels outfit that would be worthy of Hayne once again. And yet what was ultimately glimpsed last Sunday was a team that are just starting to get over the Hayne Plane, as well as a future generation of Eels that no longer need him, and are no longer playing with a crushing sense of his departure. And as much as they might love Hayne, that has to be encouraging to Eels fans.