NRL fans wondered how Parramatta could get any worse after plummeting to 16th place in 2012. The 2013 Eels answered that question by winning fewer games, scoring fewer points, and conceding more. Everyone has their pet direction for pointing the finger but the fact is there are too many moving parts to accurately apportion blame for the on-field fate of a sporting team, and ultimately fortune – ill and fair – plays a significant role.
Therefore, 2014 again looks like another year on the up (‘How could they get any worse?!?!?’) with the signing of a new backline star, two new players in the spine, and a considerable overhaul of the bottom-to-mid levels of the club’s roster. The large volume of young players are a year older and better, and the club has a new coach with a 33% winning record (2 from 6 as caretaker in 2012) at the club; an improvement on the previous two coaches. If anything, shifting the blame should give the playing group some initial confidence.
Parramatta’s strength this year remains the potential for individual brilliance; however there are questions over those brilliant individuals. The edge forward position remains a weakness, yet there is potential within the roster for it to be an asset. Despite the ten NRL debutants produced last year, there are four members of the squad yet to play first grade, plus others in the NYC squad that have trained and trialled with the NRL team over the pre-season. The biggest questions surrounding Parramatta’s 2014 season are what impact the new hooker will have on the team’s ruck speed, and whether injuries to key players will significantly disrupt the Eels for a third straight year.
Where they can win it
The main thing Parramatta have going for them in 2014 is individual brilliance. A handful of players on the Eels roster – Hayne, Tonga, Hopoate and Sandow – are capable of creating opportunities from nothing, but there are legitimate question marks over these characters, both individually and as a group. The first thing that must be said is that, aside from Will Hopoate, the rest were part of Parramatta’s roster during the recent back-to-back wooden spoon seasons.
Hayne and Tonga were laid low by injury, missing 21 and 32 games (respectively) during the 2012-13 debacles. That said, Willie Tonga lacked spark in attack in the games he has played since coming back to Parramatta, though that could be attributed to his carrying too much weight. He looks a lot leaner this year, and was very sharp in Auckland. The main concern for him this year is the prospect of further injury – has his incredible injury misfortune passed? Or has his 30 year old body reached its use-by date? Jarryd Hayne’s form was generally excellent when he managed to take the field, and he is only 25; it is far less likely that injury proneness has become an enduring feature of his career.
As for Chris Sandow, his form since joining the Eels has swung wildly between brilliant and disinterested. His outstanding form behind South’s pack contrasts starkly with what he has done with the meagre opportunities afforded by the Parramatta forwards. What’s more, other than the now defunct shoulder charge, defence has never been his strong point. The question facing him isn’t just whether he will play well, but whether he will play at all – Luke Kelly appears to have the edge in the competition for the number seven blouse, with the signing of Corey Norman ensuring there is no room for both Kelly and Sandow in the Eels’ starting 13.
Finally, the question hovering over Will Hopoate relates to how quickly he will get back to the 2011 form he displayed as a 19 year old prodigy. He arrived for pre-season sorely underweight but has already made impressive gains, and his professionalism has been lauded by coach Arthur in numerous interviews.
Where they may struggle
Since 2010 the edge forward (second row) position has been a distinct weak point for the Eels. Ben Smith spent most of 2011 at centre and missed 32 games through injury during 2012-13, while both Maitua and Horo defended poorly on the left hand side. All three offered little in the way of go-forward, being most effective in a backline role. Daniel Harrison is a low-impact toiler who is possibly better suited in the middle.
Justin Horo joined Manly last year where less was required of him and he performed well. Reni Maitua has joined the Bulldogs. Right edge forward Smith is still at the club and might play a full season. Harrison is still on the books but there are numerous talented options to fill the left side position; however they all lack experience – Tanginoa and Edwards made impressive debuts last year, while Mau and Pauli are yet to appear but impressed in lower grades. Along with Pauli, Kelepi Tanginoa is still eligible for NYC this year, but he looks to be the pick of the bunch to partner Ben Smith in the second row.
This is a team that in 2012 ran last as soon as Jarryd Hayne played less than 20 games, and proved the concept the following year when Hayne went down again. The Plane/Train/Crane was outstanding for NSW and dominant for Australia in the World Cup, and led the Eels in a few key statistical categories despite only playing 15 games. The young Eels squad looked like they had already given up by the opening whistle whenever Hayne didn’t play, though ex-coach Ricky Stuart certainly made it easy for them.
Rookies to watch
Four members of the Parramatta NRL squad have never played first grade, and all four have come off outstanding seasons in the State and Holden Cups. Bureta Faraimo starred for Mackay in their inaugural QLD Cup premiership season, Manu Mau looks too good for NSW Cup, and both Pauli and Santi were dominant in the NYC, though these competitions are a long way behind the NRL for quality. Pauli Pauli’s name alone makes him the heir apparent to Fuifui Moimoi; he just might have to wait a year if the Eels have some luck with injury. Of the four, ‘Chairman’ Mau looks most likely to debut first. NYC squad members John Folau and Zach Dockar-Clay played in both trials and it seems to be only a matter of time before they make their NRL debuts, although 2014 may be too soon.
The big plays
The key change at Parramatta since last year is the addition of Nathan Peats. He was signed to replace Matt Keating, who couldn’t score a contract anywhere despite 130 NRL games and a grand final appearance under his belt, and only being 27 years old. Keating’s fate is illustrative of the increased importance – over the last five years – of the number nine to a team’s fortunes. It is hoped that Peats’ dummy half work can provide more favourable match ups for Parramatta’s tight forwards, generating the ruck speed that has been conspicuously absent from Parramatta’s play in recent years.
The other variable that most impacts Parramatta’s fate in 2014 is the availability of four members of the top 17 that have been mostly injured during the two recent disastrous years. As well as the aforementioned Hayne, Tonga and Smith, Jacob Loko has missed 45 games since his 2011 debut (as an 18 year old), including all of 2012. While he was on the field in 2013, Loko was among the NRL leaders in tackle breaks.
Likely Team - Round One
1. Jarryd Hayne 2. Ken Sio 3. Will Hopoate 4. Willie Tonga 5. Semi Radradra 6. Corey Norman 7. Luke Kelly 8. Tim Mannah 9. Nathan Peats 10. Mitchell Allgood 11. Manu Mau 12. Ben Smith 13. Peni Terepo
Interchange: 14. Joseph Paulo 15. Kenny Edwards 16. Fuifui Moimoi 17. Darcy Lussick