Jeff Dickinson-Fox reviews the campaign which saw Melbourne Storm crowned premiers in 2017.
4 days ago
Season 2001 saw the Parramatta's players dubbed the `Baby Eels' en route to winning the NRL's minor premiership and a place in the grand final.
Seasonn 2004, they have become the `Monster Eels'.
Coach Brian Smith said some of his forwards who lost the grand final to Newcastle in 2001 had bulked up over the off-season while the club had embarked on a deliberate recruitment drive for beefy players to add more grunt to the pack.
"We've added a lot of big people," said Smith about his recruitment strategy in response to changes in the game since the Eels' grand final flop.
"The name of the game changed dramatically during the course of 2002 and last year it became smash-em-up football really."
Smith conceded the Eels were outmuscled in 2003 and he has recruited a group of no-nonsense forwards who, while not stars of the game, will provide the Eels with the aggression they have lacked.
Coach Smith points out that former Manly prop Aaron Cannings weighs 116kg while "one mother of a boy", teenager Justin Tsoulos, tips the scales at 119kg.
Add to that Adam Peek plus recruits Corey Pearson (Wests Tigers), Craig Stapleton (Dragons) and Mal Kaufusi (Roosters), and the Eels have the size to front up to any pack in the NRL.
"On our extended roster of guys training with us we've got 10 front-rowers," boasted Smith.
"So we ain't going in understaffed this year."
There's workhorse ex-Cowboys Shane Muspratt and Chris Muckert while Smith said Michael Vella, Nathan Hindmarsh and captain Nathan Cayless had beefed up in the off-season.
In fact the depth of front-rowers has forced prop Cayless to the second-row.
It'sa bonus for the Eels to have the muscle up front but they also require players who can run, pass, kick and set up the play.
Last year injuries decimated the backline, with Brett Hodgson, Luke Burt, Paul Green and Adam Dykes all spending significant time in the sickbay.
It meant a player like halfback Michael Witt, then 19, was thrown into first grade before he was ready but he handled the pressure with style.
"He did a pretty good job of it and it certainly was a good experience for him," said Smith.
"Whether he's ready for it this year or not, only time will tell."
In case the Eels are again struck down by injuries, Smith has a back-up plan for the halves.
The best feeling for Smith is that the Eels are entering 2004 relatively injury-free.
"That's a huge difference from last year," he said.
"This time last year we had seven blokes recovering from off-season operations."