This article was first written and published for NRL.com.
If you‘re a Parramatta Eels fan, there‘s plenty to be excited about in 2018.
On the back of their most successful year since 2009, for the first time in several years I know many Eels fans are heading into this season genuinely looking forward to what the team can achieve.
A second finals berth in a row is certainly an expectation and I’m hoping to go at least one better than making week two of the playoffs.
The good news is the Eels will have plenty of consistency heading into the new season, particularly in key positions like Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses in the halves.
There’ll also be many familiar faces in the squad including fan favourites like Clint Gutherson, Tim Mannah, Bevan French, Manu Ma’u, Cameron King, Ken Edwards and Brad Takairangi.
However, the team that managed to make the top four for the first time since 2005 also has a couple of new faces.
None of those faces has been spoken about (and I predict will be spoken about) more than Jarryd Hayne.
I’ve been a Parramatta tragic since 1998. When I picked the Eels as my club, it worked perfectly in my home where everyone (other than my mum who hates footy) loved the team as much as I did.
As youngsters, Dad would threaten not to feed us if we even entertained the option of switching clubs.
Over my years supporting the club, Hayne has never been a player which I would call a favourite.
I respect his talents immensely. I also felt exceptionally privileged to have watched him grow from an 18-year-old rookie into one of the most talented players in Blue & Gold history.
But my favourite players have always tended to be underdogs. Those who may not have had as much natural talent, but were known for being hard workers on and off the field like Clinton Schifcofske, Brett Hodgson, Jeff Robson, Shane Shackleton, Matt Keating, Ben Smith and David Gower.
When Hayne left the Eels at the end of 2014 to pursue his NFL dream, I wished him well and was very grateful for the tremendous service he had given.
I kept half an eye on him in the United States and recognised his athletic ability – managing to be selected for the San Francisco 49ers despite having played the sport many years less than other men who were hopeful of securing an NFL contract.
But when it was announced he was returning to the NRL to play for the Gold Coast Titans, that’s when my view of him slowly began to sour.
Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t actually want Jarryd coming back to the Eels.
But I thought it was poor form to have said to Eels fans before he left that if he came back to the NRL it would be to the Eels, and then to have the audacity to suggest that when he wanted to return the Eels didn’t make him an offer. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say the Eels had made him an offer … just one that wasn’t big enough.
Since then, there have been plenty of allegations that he is a “coach killer”. That he is “lazy”. That his best years are behind him.
Even with all these accusations being thrown around, this week was the first time in many years I felt any sympathy for Parramatta’s latest recruit.
The catalyst was all the talk about his performance at pre-season training, reportedly finishing last in a 5km obstacle course, while Brad Arthur finished in the top 10.
My immediate thought was – how fit is our coach (and can we get him on the field)?
With Hayne, pre-season performance is not necessarily an indicator as to how he will perform on the field.
When is endurance something we have associated with him? Hayne is a player I have always associated with raw skill and speed.
In American football, there is a lot of focus on strength and speed. Endurance is probably not something he has had to focus on much in the last couple of years.
I’m certainly someone willing to offer criticism of Hayne when appropriate, but I don’t think all the talk about his pre-season performance is one of those occasions.
When it was announced the Hayne Plane was en route to Parramatta, I was exceptionally nervous and this remains.
What gives me some level of confidence is for the last couple of years, I have had faith in Arthur. He has been charged with looking after one of the most important things in my life – my footy club – and he has not disappointed me.
As for Hayne, when it comes to his fitness, I’m willing to take a leap of faith (along with Arthur) and give him an opportunity to perform on the field before I make an assessment of his value to the Eels.
And speaking of that, there’s just 34 days until the season kicks off. Not that I’m counting.