2 days ago
2015 in review - Parramatta Eels
And so ended the 2015 season for perenial NRL battlers Parramatta - almost exactly as the 2014 one did, despite one glaring omission to Parramatta's line-up - that being, of course, superstar Jarryd Hayne.
After an emotionally charged press conference to announce that he was leaving rugby league to pursue a career in American sport's biggest stage, the immediate question on everybody's lips was simply, "How will Parramatta cope without their superstar fullback?"
Inspired by Jarryd Hayne's Dally M-winning efforts, the 2014 Eels limped into 10th place, winning 12 matches, losing 12, scoring 477 points (for an average of 19.875 points per game scored) and conceding 580 points (for an average of 24.167 points per game).
An immediate comparison to 2015 brings similar reading - a 12th place finish, winning 9 and losing 15, scoring 448 points (for an average of 18.667 points per game) and conceding 573 points (for an average of 23.875 per game).
Either way, Parramatta missed the Finals for the sixth consecutive season, but how exactly did the season pan out for the once mghty Eels?
Despite losing one of the game's genuine superstars to the NFL during the off-season, Parramatta showed glimpses in 2015 of potentially being a team that could compete come September - they managed to defeat South Sydney, Melbourne in Melbourne, Manly twice and even the Panthers twice, but a lack of focus and application, as well as external factors, conspired to derail their campaign.
All signs were positive after a strong first up win against Manly and a valiant defeat against Canterbury despite losing Semi Radradra, Tepai Moeroa and Brad Taikairangi to injury; the fighting spirit was there, and the Eels seemed to be no pushovers.
In a frustratingly see-sawing season, there was no single turning point, but it could be argued that the Round 13 loss to the Cowboys at Pirtek was indicative of the 2015 Eels' issues, because after leading 30-6 with fifteen minutes to play, the Eels succumbed 36-30 to the might Thurston-led Cowboys, and the theory that this young and inexperienced Eels squad was not capable of playing for 80 complete minutes suddenly seemed very legitimate.
The emergence of Corey Norman as a key player in the Eels' attack. Despite finishing lower on the ladder than in 2014. and scoring fewer points per game on average, Norman was at the heart of everything the Eels created, combining well with Parramatta's mighty left edge and creating headaches for opposition defenses.
Semi Radradra continued to show why he has so many chins wagging, scoring a club record 24 tries throughout the season - eclipsing Steve Ella's stellar 23-try effort decades earlier.
A lack of a genuine fullback option meant that stopgaps like Will Hopoate and Reece Robinson had to play fullback, and having a player who was clearly not a natural number 1 playing back there clearly showed in terms of defensive positioning and attacking cohesion.
The Eels also exhibited a tendency to only play for 60 (not necessarily consecutive) minutes throughout 2015; they gave the Roosters an almighty scare in Round 23, before the Roosters' patience and genuine class won them the game eventually.
Finally, a lack of a "plan B" in attack really hurt the Eels - "plan A" being, of course, "Give the ball to Semi."
Semi Radradra obviously gets the nod here, scoring an NRL-topping 24 tries and at times single-handedly winning the Eels games in 2015.
Notable mentions were captain Tim Mannah, who performed admirably despite less game time than 2014, and young wrecking ball Junior Paulo who, despite missing 9 games through suspension, became the Eels' dominant forward over the course of 26 Rounds.
It is tempting to immediately place Anthony Watmough in this category, but he performed admirably in defence, and brought some toughness and determination to a young and inexperienced squad.
Chris Sandow, the man who could win you and then lose you a match in consecutive plays, was the Eels' most frustrating player. After declaring to all and sundry that Parramatta would win more games if coach Brad Arthur allowed him to play his own style (all the while knowing that the Eels had some severe salary cap issues and would likely not be able to simply cut him from their roster without penalties), Sandow was content to sabotage his own team's fortunes by refusing to give 100% - culminating in a dreadful performance against Canterbury where, despite a glutton of field territory and possession, the Eels were unable to score enough points to win.
The man dubbed "Mr. Rocks and Diamonds" was shortly after released from his contract, and his position was filled by Luke Kelly.
Daniel Alvaro initially got minimal game time - a product of riding the bench during a tight contest -, but upon enetering the contest, he showed what a determined competitor he is, scoring a spectacular try and getting through a lot of work. Nicknamed the "Polar Bear", his energy and strength revitalised the Eels' bench, and he showed glimpses of a potentially NRL-calibre front-rower hiding under the youthful skin.
Quality fullback to replace Jarryd Hayne? Check, Michael Gordon.
Quality halves partner for Corey Norman? Check, Kieran Foran.
Seasoned NRL veteran with a reputation for defense? Check, Beau Scott.
If nothing else, Brad Arthur has addressed the three key faults that the Eels showed throughout 2015 - defense (and lack of focus), a reliable halves combination and a quality fullback to replace Hayne.
Much has been said about Gordon and Scott's age, and about Foran's lack of a killer kicking game - but if Gordon can position himself properly in defense, nail kicks at goal and finish off breaks, and Foran and Scott can bring some of that professionalism and steel they are known for, then a finish higher than 12th is not out of the question.
Best lineup for 2016
1. Michael Gordon
2. Semi Radradra
3. Brad Taikairangi
4. Clint Gutherson
5. Ryan Morgan
6. Corey Norman
7. Kieran Foran
8. Tim Mannah (c)
9. Nathan Peats
10. Junior Paulo
11. Beau Scott
12. Manu Ma'u
13. Anthony Watmough
14. David Gower
15. Pauli Pauli
16. Tepai Moeroa
17. Danny Wicks
Ins: Kieran Foran, James Hasson, Clint Gutherson (Sea Eagles), Beau Scott (Knights), Michael Gordon (Sharks), Cameron King, Kelepi Tanginoa, Scott Schulte (Cowboys), Kieran Moss (Panthers), Rory O'Brien (Dragons), Mitch Cornish (Raiders)
Outs: Darcy Lussick, Fabian Goodall (Sea Eagles), Ryan Matterson (Roosters), Ben Crooks (ESL - Castleford), Zach Dockar-Clay (Panthers), Chris Sandow (ESL - Warrington), Beau Champion, Richie Fa'aoso (retirement), Reece Robinson (Rugby - Waratahs), William Hopoate (free agent)