As they get ready to face their long time finals nemesis the Bulldogs; a team they have traditionally struggled against at this time of year – the Eels have one advantage they didn’t have in previous years: Michael Hagan.
While the astute teachings of Brian Smith over the past decade have helped lift the Eels to a regular NRL Finals contender; the school teacher and sometimes over analytical style of Brian Smith has at times hindered the Eels at crucial times of the season.
The granular detail of the game plan, the tense pre-game speech and sometimes baffling substitutions would all contribute to the nerves among Eels sides in previous years. The Smith coached Eels became experts at beating themselves at times.
Enter: Michael Hagan
Denis Fitzgerald and the Eels chased Hagan for one main reason; his cool and calm persona under any conditions. Many questioned the decision to chase and sign Hagan – some Eels faithful crying foul when Jason Taylor was let go in 2006. But it seems Fitzgerald and the Eels have got things spot on.
Never was this more evident that last week against the NZ Warriors. In a classic finals style Rugby League game – the Warriors and Eels slugged it out with limited scoring opportunities. With 15 minutes remaining and no points on the board, the Eels clawed their way back. Parramatta players later claiming they always had belief they could get over the top of the Warriors. In one period of the match the Eels defended 6 consecutive sets from the Warriors; while their strength and ability has come from years of Brian Smiths regime – their coolness under pressure and total belief is something Michael Hagan has added to the mix.
With finals demons fresh in some of their minds, Michael Hagan is the perfect tonic for the sudden death bound Eels. Senior Eels players have commented on the surprising calmness of Hagan regardless of the situation at hand; Nathan Cayless commenting that Hagan only raised his voice once in 2007 – during the St George Illawarra upset loss at WIN Stadium.
As the Eels prepare for sudden death this week against the Bulldogs, their relaxed and ice cool coach will be a huge asset. The other ace Hagan has up his sleeve – when he does ‘rev up’ or give the players a serve, they will surely sit up and listen due to its rarity.
I’m sure the Eels are hoping that Hagan saves that ‘Ace’ for the Grand Final.