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Disappointment has marked the 26-year long premiership-drought of the Parramatta Eels, and that has been quite accurate of the seasons following their remarkable grand-final run three years previously.
Questions are continually imposed on the team that have both debased and undermined their confidence and performances - can they provide exciting attacking football? Can they defend starchly? Can Jarryd Hayne return to his dizzying heights? And can the Eels live up to their weighty expectations? The new-look Eels have an unsurprising answer, no longer tainted by uncertainty and disputes; to recall the past is to rebutt the future.
The team has fought bitterly to satisfy the demands of their increasingly expectant supporters, and now their determination to prove that they are a different breed has truly begun to gleam through the murky depths of recent struggles. Unity in the staff-room, the field and in the army is the most important asset that the Eels have, something that has oft been lacking from their frequent attempts at premiership glory. The Blue and Gold city is rallying behind their team for the oncoming season; and as a result the Eels are the most heavily-backed team to win the premiership in 2012. With belief strong and confidence steadily increasing, the primary objective of the Eels will be to cement a top-eight finish. Beyond that, as the moniker is quite often true of the NRL, the field of dreams is open to all for thunderous glory.
The drastic changes to the squad will surely see a strong improvement in the Parramatta Eels this season. The arrival of star recruits Chris Sandow, Ben Roberts and Willie Tonga will prove to be the most pivotal aspect of re-asserting their attacking presence, and the additions of Esi Tonga and Cheyse Blair could be very important if the squad is to maintain its drive through adversity. A new attitude in defence and in maintaining pressure throughout games will be the main areas of opportunity for Stephen Kearney, with the play-making genius of Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow in both kicking and passing a requirement of any successful title tilt. Meanwhile, the strong forward pack boasting props that are the envy of the league in Tim Mannah and Fui Fui Moi Moi, as well as club legends and stalwarts such as Nathan Hindmarsh and Ben Smith, will look to maintain their strong performances.
But despite the overwhelming optimism that swathes the Eels in a wreath of potential, there are surely causes and justification for doubt and distress. Some of their recruits have been criticised as being reserve-graders, under-performers or aged at their former clubs; even club legends such as Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt have not escaped calls for retirement. The side may look strong on paper, but there are still many question marks over the ability of the head coach to control and effectively unleash the attacking potential of the side, the defensive weakness of key players such as Chris Sandow and Luke Burt, and the capability of the Eels board-room to unexpectedly and quickly implode. It is also quite apparent that every other team also has similar causes for hope and, equally, disappointment. Easily the most distressing news to come out of the pre-season, and a damaging factor in the club's title hopes, is the potentially season-ending injury to starlet centre Jacob Loko, who earned rave reviews in his NRL debut season in 2011. A leg injury to star fullback Jarryd Hayne in the Eels' final trial match will also be a cause for concern.
Still, there is nothing in the NRL quite alike to the reverberations of thousands of chanting Eels fans decked in blue and gold, waving banners and flags with both pride and fervour. Under Kearney, the Eels have displayed tantalising glimpses of what is possible despite a hugely weakened roster - now strengthened - and were seen as the unluckiest team in the competition last season in terms of results, as many close games were lost in the final seconds or by a mere point at the close. That they nearly defeated many teams that finished higher above them on the table is a clear indication that they are not as fragile as they once were.
Despite the challenges that face the Eels and the odds stacked against them, one thing is clear; they will never relent, and they will not show mercy.
Why they can win it
The hugely promising combination of new recruit Chris Sandow and Eels' superstar Jarryd Hayne. The Eels have struggled throughout recent seasons to effectively place pressure upon their opponents in crunch moments as well as scoring points, despite the presence of the 'Hayne Plane'. With the removal of much pressure on the young fullback due to Sandow and Roberts' arrival to control the attacking game, as well as the points-scoring machinations of Sandow himself, the Eels promise to dazzle and entertain with a potential maelstrom of try-scoring.
Why they may struggle
Inconsistency of key players. Whilst the Eels' attack pioneered by Jarryd Hayne, Chris Sandow, Ben Roberts and Willie Tonga certainly seems to have the mark of a points-scoring force, there are many justified concerns over the consistency and mixture of the halves combination. Sandow, despite finishing the 2011 NRL Season as the third-highest points-scorer, was often harshly criticised not only for his defensive ineffectiveness but his oft tendency to drift out of games at key moments or perform poorly through the whole of several games. Though his effort and passion are never in question, his execution could prove to be a major concern. To add to this, Sandow's halves partner, Ben Roberts, has received few call-ups in recent seasons due to consistent injuries and the arrival of new halves, Kris Keating and Trent Hodkinson at the Bulldogs. His performances have often been uninspiring when he has made appearances in the NRL, and his consistency is as serious an issue as it is with Chris Sandow. If the halves fail to perform consistently and combine well to direct the attack, the Eels could be in for yet another torrid year.
Player to Watch
Jarryd Hayne - He has often been criticised in recent years for not emulating his devastating form from the 2009 season, however it has become increasingly apparent since that season that Jarryd has rapidly expanded his capabilities and role within the team. In the lowest-scoring team of the 2011 season, Jarryd Hayne still managed an astounding 24 try-assists - equal second with Benji Marshall - and 23 line-break assists - the third highest in the NRL. What makes these statistics even more imposing is that each player that finished ahead of him in those fields both played in the finals and was a five-eighth or halfback. What many Eels and even neutral fans are most excited about for Jarryd's future is the introduction of star halfback Chris Sandow for the 2012 season. The imperious combination of Hayne and Sandow promises to re-ignite not only the classic attacking flair of the Parramatta Eels, but the true strength of the dynamo who has too often been tasked with more responsibilities than he can handle as both the try-line custodian and points-scoring mastermind is set to be re-imagined. With less pressure to control the attack, Jarryd Hayne is set to potentially reclaim his title as one of the top five players in the NRL.
Rookies to Watch
Peni Terepo - An aggressive and daunting sight for any opposition is the hulking presence of the young Eel, his graduation from the the Eels' youth systems placing him in contention not only for a spot in the NSW Cup Senior side, but the NRL first-team as well. He combines great strength with effective leg-motion to form a very imposing selection choice to add to an already extended list of quality props at the Eels.
Marmin Barba - Easily the most dynamic attacking force for the Eels NYC team in Season 2011 and one of the most exciting prospects for the Eels in recent seasons, Marmin's agility, pace, skill and footwork have earned many comparisons with his older brother, Ben Barba. Though his size is an issue, his ability to play in multiple postions - including fullback, five-eighth and halfback - will no doubt see him earn his first senior appearance sometime throughout Season 2012.
Cheyse Blair - An exciting addition from the Sydney Roosters, Cheyse has been earning rave reviews in the Eels' tough pre-season from staff and his peers alike. He is a powerful centre that will likely be competing with Esi Tonga and Ryan Morgan to earn the right-side centre jersey for Round 1 of Season 2012.
2012 Roster Changes
Comings: Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs), Willie Tonga (Cowboys), Ben Roberts (Bulldogs), Esi Tonga (Titans), Taulima Tautai (Sharks), Nathan Smith (Bulldogs), Jake Mullaney (Tigers), Jason Seage (Rugby Union Sevens), Jamil Hopoate (Sea Eagles), Jon Mannah (Sharks), Cheyse Blair (Roosters), Daniel Penese (Dragons)
Goings: Joel Reddy (Tigers), Carl Webb (retirement), Chris Walker (retirement), Chris Hicks (retirement), Tom Humble (Tigers), Daniel Mortimer (Roosters), Jeff Robson (Sharks)
Best Line Up
1. Jarryd Hayne 2. Luke Burt 3. Willie Tonga 4. Esi Tonga 5. Ken Sio 6. Ben Roberts 7. Chris Sandow 8. Tim Mannah 9. Matt Keating 10. Fui Fui Moi Moi 11. Nathan Hindmarsh (c) 12. Ben Smith 13. Reni Maitua
Interchange: 14. Casey Mcguire 15. Justin Horo 16. Mitchell Allgood 17. Justin Poore