Saturday 20 January 2018 / 12:35 AM

HOW DOES HAYNE FIT INTO PARRA’S PUZZLE?

Jarryd Hayne returns to Parramatta in 2018, but the blue-and-gold landscape is very different to the one he left three years ago. How does coach Brad Arthur reconcile Hayne’s standing at the club and his mega-profile with the fact he is a long way from being the best player in the squad?

After travelling the world in search of his dreams, Parramatta’s prodigal son Jarryd Hayne has finally returned home as it was always meant to be, bringing in his NRL career full circle. His stay at the Gold Coast was underwhelming — and shorter than expected, released from the final year of his two-year deal that he opted into earlier this year — leaving the next chapter in his career in flux. It does feel rather fitting that after such a turbulent journey he ends up where he began.

The polarising figure carries one of the game’s highest profiles and a hefty price tag for a player of his (current) calibre, but the Eels were willing to throw him a lifeline due to his past successes when he appeared devoid of options.

Hayne’s history and connection with the Eels is well-documented, but it would be remiss to not point out the most immediate cause for this transfer — the fans. The Eels’ interest in Hayne unequivocally stems from the fond memories of the peak years of his career where he scooped up two Dally M Medals and led the club to their most recent grand final in 2009, capturing the hearts of the blue-and-gold faithful in the meanwhile. But this isn’t the same player that left as one of the NRL’s truly elite in 2014.

The difference? Football isn’t easy for Jarryd Hayne anymore. Once able to pick his spots and wander in and out of games, inserting himself with displays of game-changing individual brilliance, the post-peak version of the ‘Hayne Plane’ is much more ground-bound.

Some of that is to be expected: age brings a natural athletic decline that causes every player to drop off, and those who were as athletically gifted (and dependent) as Hayne on that quality will feel that hit more than most. His journey, whether it be the NFL or a brief stint in Rugby Sevens, added both mileage to ageing legs and weight to a usually springy frame (and Hayne would be ‘older’ athletically than the average 29-year-old, having played first grade full-time since he was 18). Whilst there are crossover skills between these sports, all are very specific in their priorities and the smallest tweaks are magnified at the highest level. The change in his body was instantly noticeable upon return.

Some of it is self-fuelled delusion: Hayne was unwilling to adapt, believing he could step in and be the same player he was when left and that he could command the same kind of special treatment that allowed him to become the star he was. In late-2016, an eye-catching Titans debut against the Warriors and a match-winning field goal against the Tigers masked his decline.

The praise and adulation he received was mostly noise: in his return spell, Hayne has been a minus — a former superstar skating by on past glory without adding anything new to the resumé. Two good games across the entire 2017 season saw him picked as a NSW centre in all three Origin games, a fact that seems incomprehensible in hindsight.

The trouble re-adjusting to such a hyper-competitive league should spell the end of his run as a fullback. And realistically, it’s hard to determine what his best position is at the moment, which complicates the matter further. Hayne’s versatility is helpful here, and his experience playing in all outside-back positions mean he should be able to slot in comfortably at centre or wing.

Brad Arthur originally publicly declared his intentions to play Hayne at right centre, appearing to kill all fears of an unnecessary backline shuffle. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? The latest to come from the Eels coach is that he can only promise to make Hayne the best player possible. The change of tone is slightly concerning, opening up the possibilities.

I can’t make this any clearer: The Eels simply cannot move Clint Gutherson from fullback. He was a revelation once given the reins at the back, integral to the Eels’ mid-season surge that took them from finals contender to top-four status. They won seven of the nine games he wore the No.1 jersey and looked like a completely different team. He is their brightest prospect (and quite possibly their best player already) and should be one of the first players picked. Not to mention Hayne simply isn’t good or consistent enough to command a place in the spine.

Hayne’s arrival is going to displace somebody, so he has to earn his spot. There isn’t a player in the Eels’ backline Hayne was better than last season. Kirisome Auva’a offers a better defensive option on the flank and Bevan French has already surpassed him as a player. Michal Jennings is a pure centre and one of Parramatta’s best strike weapons. Brad Takairangi has gone from makeshift centre to a legitimate all-round contributor – and Kiwi international – but his versatility makes him the easiest to move, even though their current back-row stocks should render that totally unnecessary.

Seriously — Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa, Peni Terepo and (a focused) Kenny Edwards are all starting-calibre, Beau Scott still has plenty to offer, and David Gower and new recruit Tony Williams are useful back-ups.

Viewed through that lens, and taking in the ample proof suggesting his deficiencies anywhere else, I personally wouldn’t be considering inserting Hayne anywhere but the wing. He was, after all, the worst player statistically at his preferred position (fullback) and is a complete defensive liability in the centres.

The latter point is subject to change: Arthur is renowned for his team’s defensive work, and even Mitchell Moses turned things around under his watch. But whilst there is hope for improvements, the issue isn’t as much whether Hayne will be good, rather if he presents a better option than one of their existing players. If he doesn’t rise above his level of play last season, then criticism will quickly mount against him. The flank is a low-risk way to find a place for him in the line-up with the highest chance of success.

The rest of it is attitude. The biggest adjustment Hayne has to make upon his return is fitting into Parramatta’s culture that has continue to build under Arthur and has underlined their rise back to relevance. There are — despite Parramatta appearing to have a stronger roster and more prior success — some parallels that could be drawn between the Titans pre-Hayne and the current state of the Eels. Neither party can afford for history to repeat here.

Once he linked up with the Gold Coast Titans, their success, which to that point was built upon a team-oriented synergy that carried them into the post-season, slowly eroded under the pressure and scrutiny of Hayne’s arrival. Granted, not all of that was his fault, but there was undoubtedly a downturn in both performance and culture. The Titans fell from 8th to 15th this year. The blame for such significant regression again can’t entirely fall on Hayne, but he has to handle the lion’s share of the responsibility. His play on-field was sub-par, his off-field battles made headlines that hovered over the club and the outrageous size of his salary prevented them from upgrading in more important areas.

All the “this is my house” business was fun, but Hayne has to pull back on his love of the spotlight — he’s a final (and very small) piece of a bigger puzzle for a team trying to compete for a title. He needs to fit in to the what they’ve already built, not try to be the headlining act. Knowing, and accepting his role is half the battle. If anything, I’ve got faith he can tick this box, and that ‘BA’ will know how to integrate such a big personality into his team.

Parramatta have done an exquisite job building a wholesome roster, so much that they were able to withstand a host of injuries to key players and remain competitive right through the back end of the year. One false step of this magnitude can bring all that good work down.

The stakes are high, and Parra need this to work out: not because Hayne is a franchise destroyer — those blaming him for the current state of the Titans are buying into a media-driven storyline that has no merit to it — but because the decision to bring in an underperforming player on significant money at an already well-stocked position will look reckless when other positions (namely front-row) could use a boost.

Hayne has the rare opportunity of rewriting the end of his story. His efforts for Fiji in the World Cup took a step towards regaining standing with general fans and he’ll always be revered at Parramatta, but a successful return to the club that handed him his debut as a precocious teenager would completely change the trajectory of the final stage of his career.

[YouTube – JBP SPORTS EDITS]

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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