Parramatta Eels livewire Bevan French had a blinder at fullback in the club’s only pre-season trial – but talk to him about the claims of the club’s other fullbacks and you get a sense of how he embodies the team culture coach Brad Arthur is building.
The humble Tingha product refuses to accept praise for his starring two-try effort against the Newcastle Knights on Saturday night, insisting that “when the whole team’s playing good and everyone’s firing it definitely made my job easier”.
French has made no secret of his long-term ambition to be a permanent No.1. He reiterates this desire to NRL.com at the club’s Old Saleyards training facilities.
The old “I’m happy to play anywhere as long as I’m in the team” line is one of the oldest cliches in the book but French puts a new spin on it.
Asked about the possibility of Clint Gutherson returning from injury to take that spot – or returning star Jarryd Hayne assuming the role – French not only sang their praises but threw another teammate into the mix as well.
“All three of us can play there and there’s even Smithy [Will Smith] who can slot in. Having that much competition is only going to be healthy for a squad, we’ve got that much depth. The good thing about any of us playing there is if one person plays in that position we can slot in somewhere else,” French said.
Hayne returns to the club where the two-time Dally M winner owned the No.1 jersey for the best part of a decade as a likely centre. The former NFL player spent 20 minutes at the back against the Knights – which included laying on a nice try for French, who had been moved to right wing.
French welcomed the chance to learn from Hayne, and spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of the team’s armada of fullbacks switching positions mid-game.
“I still feel later on in my career fullback is where I want to play but I’m only 22 now, I’ve still got a lot to learn about the game and the physical side of things,” French said.
“Fullback is a position that can take a toll on your body week-in, week-out so I’ve still got to get used to that sort of thing so if I push out onto an edge I’m not going to be too fussed about it.
“We can switch through a game, it doesn’t have to be planned. It’s something we’ve worked on this pre-season, we haven’t just trained in one position, we’ve trained in a few so we’re all ready to go.
“[Hayne] has been very helpful, not just to me individually but to the squad. He’s got a lot of experience and achieved a lot in the game so whenever there is something in video or on the field he hasn’t gone into his shell, he’s quick to say what’s on his mind and he tends to be right most of the time, he’s got so much knowledge.
“He’s not only helped me positionally at the back, but he’s helped other people positionally.”
While Gutherson is expected to return to fullback once he is fully recovered from a knee reconstruction that followed his second ruptured ACL, French said he still wasn’t sure of his coach’s plans.
“I’m not too sure how it’s going to pan out, the only one that knows right now is Brad and he hasn’t let on to anyone else,” French laughed.
The Eels are desperate to get back on the field and start atoning for a straight-sets exit from the 2017 finals after finishing fourth. While a narrow opening-week loss to the Melbourne Storm had a mountain of positive aspects, a sloppy semi-final knock-out loss to eventual runners-up, the North Queensland Cowboys, left plenty to be desired.
French missed both losses (and the last two regular-season wins) with a hamstring injury.
“I was pretty keen to get back on the field after missing the back end of the year but I think everyone was keen to get back out there,” French said.
“No one wants to go out losing a semi-final having not played up to our standards. We played a pretty shocking game that game [against the Cowboys] and losing like that made everyone keen to get back out there and I think that showed on the weekend [against Newcastle], everyone was raring to go.
”It was only a trial match but everyone was pretty physical and pretty pumped about it.”
You can only read so much into a trial but there’s no question the Eels looked slick. There’s also no question that, after catching fire following the mid-season recruitment of Mitch Moses, the team should profit from the former Wests Tiger and halves partner Corey Norman having a full off-season together.
French wasn’t guaranteeing anything but he made no secret the club has the belief they can go all the way.
“We know personally we’re capable of taking it out,” he said.
“We were only beaten last year in the semis because we didn’t perform to what our standards were. If we play to our standards we’ll be confident giving it a crack. We’re confident with what we’ve got.”