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There is no doubt that the last 2 seasons have been a major disappointment for the Parramatta Eels. In 2001 they were statistically one of the greatest sides in the history of the game, breaking all sorts of records. They lost only four round games that season and looked set to record their first premiership since 1986 only to be defeated at the last hurdle going down 30-24 to Newcastle. This led many to believe a ?decade of dominance? would follow however the flowing year they finished sixth in the regular season before being eliminated from the finals in the first week. In 2003 the Eels woes further continued, failing to qualify for the finals something a Brian Smith coached Eels side had never previously done. Of course there were reasons for the struggle. Massive injury tolls as well as the effects of the salary cap have all played their part. But despite this the Eels on paper still have a very talented side and should have performed much better than they did.
The days of 2001 are over and I think Eels fans and management alike are beginning to realise it. As of next year there will be only seven members of the 2001 grand final side remaining, that being Luke Burt, Jamie Lyon, David Vaealiki, Nathan Cayless, Michael Vella, Nathan Hindmarsh and Daniel Wagon. The game has also changed a lot over the last few years and the Eels have not been able to keep up. They must use the experiences of 2002 and 2003 as a learning curve and rebuild for a successful 2004.
In my opinion the Eels have recruited very smartly for next season. A major buy was Aaron Cannings from Manly. Cannings is a great prospect and could be the Eels answer to their problems in the forward pack. He is big, strong and surprisingly quick for someone his size. Other recruits like Chris Muckert, Shane Muspratt and Corey Pearson could also prove to be very effective. All are very solid players who will do a mountain of work. Brain Smith has also taken a few risks. He has signed a 22 year old English man by the name of Chris Thorman from the London Broncos. Chris is one of the rising starts of English rugby league but he will have to step up a level if he wants to make it in the NRL. The halfback/ five-eighth has ample skills and a good kicking game and if he finds his potential he could be a regular in the eels starting side. Another potentially risky purchase is that of Eric Grothe Jnr. Ever since suffering a major knee injury in 2000, Eric has never lived up to his massive potential. He has showed glimpses and still many believe he can return to being the player that was selected for NSW in 2000, but he will have to play consistently well to prove this. Other purchases include Wade McKinnon (Souths), Mal Kaufusi (Roosters), Wise Kativerata (Souths), Junior Langi (Storm), Craig Stapelton (Dragons), Jeramiah Pai (Warriors) and Fui Fui Moi Moi (Souths). These players will have their work cut out to make the top grade but provide excellent depth for the club, and will keep the front line players on their toes, knowing that if they do not perform they will be replaced.
2003 was an injury plagued year for many of the Eels stars with Nathan Cayless missing four months with a broken arm, Nathan Hindmarsh missing 14 weeks with ankle ligament damage, Luke Burt missing all but 3 games with 2 broken collar bones and Chris Armitt missing more than half of the season with a knee injury. There were also extended periods on the sidelines for Michael Vella, Lee Hopkins, and Adam Dykes. In fact only one player managed to play in all of the games, that being John Morris. Those injured players will all be looking to make up for lost time in 2004 and stay injury free.
There were some positives to come out of the disappointments of last season however. The introduction of 19 year old Michael Witt proved a success with the half back appearing as he may have the potential to be the answer to the Eels half back problems. His game is still raw but his confidence will be high and with a full off-season behind him, he will develop further. The introduction of another 19 year old was also a positive move. Front Rower Justin Tsoulos looks like he may have a big future in front of him. He is big boy who makes plenty of metres and tackles hard. Expect to see a lot more of him in 2004. John Morris and Lee Hopkins also proved to be great buys for the Eels club with both being two of the Eels best players all year.
The experiences of the last two seasons should have taught the Eels a lot, not only about themselves but also about the game itself. They have witnessed the Roosters win a premiership based on their solid defence and the Panthers show that it doesn?t matter how many points you concede as long as you score more. The vital thing for Brian Smith is that he finds the right game plan to suit his team and makes sure they implement it properly. Again the Eels look like a good side on paper, but remaining relatively injury free will be a major deciding factor in how their season eventuates. However as long as they aren?t hit as heavily as they have been in recent years, they should be able to survive with solid backup being available.
It?s hard to predict where the Eels will finish in 2004. If again they fail to live up to their potential it could be another long season for their fans. However if they put the past two seasons behind them and move forward, they have the ability to finish in the top four and challenge for the premiership. I guess we?ll just have to wait and see which Eels side turns up to play.