As an Eels supporter, my approach to most seasons is quite similar. It usually features a vast gulf between my hopes and my realistic expectations. This season was different. Those aspirations and expectations were on a par as I viewed 2016 as a genuine Premiership window. Unfortunately, history will record that the Eels breached the Salary Cap and it’s impossible to erase that from the documentation of this year. It will probably remain the yardstick by which many critics will judge Parramatta in 2016.
Nonetheless, this season should still be seen as a window of opportunity of another kind, and thankfully one which has been taken. Under the guidance of Max Donnelly, Parramatta has taken the reins for instituting excellence in administration and undertaking governance reforms.
So, as I write the review of a season marred by off-field dramas, I do so in the knowledge that the future offers so many positives.
This was meant to be the big season. Outstanding recruitment had resulted in the best spine in recent memory, a backline of speed and potency, and a forward pack that contained both power and mongrel.
Watching the Eels go through their pre-season paces, my positivity was strengthened by the attitude of both the players and the coaching staff. Key to this was their work ethic and their self-belief. My only lingering doubts came from the regular absence of Foran from any opposed sessions. His training was modified due to a concern for a long-term hamstring injury. Even so, the first of many whispers surrounding his off-field issues reached my ears before the first trial. I dismissed what I heard as absurd and threw it into the ridiculous rumour basket. It would prove to be more than a rumour.
As I concluded my pre-season observations, the certainty of a finals appearance coloured my early season posts. A top four finish was not beyond this team, and from there a real tilt at the title. This was going to be a good year …..
Auckland Glory And A Star On The Horizon
For long-suffering Eels fans, the success in the Auckland 9s was a much needed fillip after too many years of Premiership failure. For many, it provided a glimpse of the attitude and the team bonds that would prove to be characteristic of the Eels this season.
The excitement of victory in this tournament was enhanced by Bevan French’s individual performance. Within the club he has long been regarded as the next big thing. On this weekend in New Zealand, he announced that promise to the rugby league public. It was the shape of things to come.
Early Season Successes Erased
On the field, the first 9 rounds had the Eels entrenched near the top of the ladder. A victory over the Cowboys, a thrashing of the Raiders and two wins against the Bulldogs were amongst the highlights of a team which was already playing under the imposing shadow of a likely Premiership points deduction. Some of Foran’s personal dramas were already in the public spotlight, but resilience was becoming a hallmark of this team.
When that 12 point penalty was first announced, there was a curious mix of both hope and resignation – a similar feeling to how many Eels supporters begin each season. There’s the hope of reaching some unrealistic target coupled with the resignation that it’s highly unlikely. As much as the club would tell us that there was some hope, the truth was that all of the achievements of the year to that point had been stripped from this team. Could it really get much worse?
Goodbye to Mates
The dynamic of a team runs much deeper than the individual and the collaborative skills which they take onto the field. There are bonds and deep friendships that exist within the playing group. They support each other like brothers and they genuinely want to be able to look each other in the eye and know that they’ve earned respect. It’s a curious mix of professionalism and old school footy attitude.
The departures of Peats, Paulo, Foran and Morgan, coupled with the retirement of Watmough, was an incredible challenge for the Eels players to face. In purely dollar terms, it was heading towards three million dollars of the cap. For blokes who had busted their guts alongside their mates, it was a tough blow.
Dealing with the dramas became the daily challenge for Brad Arthur. His ability to meet the challenge would soon stamp him as a coach of exceptional quality.
Injuries And A Suspension Add To The Woes
Every club experiences significant injuries at some point. Usually, season reviews will show that the more successful teams will be those who’ve experienced the least impact from injuries.
For Parramatta, significant periods without Jennings, Takairangi and Radradra were compounded by the injuries to back up players Toutai, Folau and Faraimo. This resulted in blokes like Ma’u, Edwards and Scott filling in backline positions. Throw in long term injuries to back up halves Kelly and Cornish along with forwards such as Hasson and Tanginoa, and the depth of the club was severely tested.
As if the injury situation and the departure of players was not significant enough, the lengthy suspension of Corey Norman would prove disastrous. The silver lining of Clinton Gutherson’s emergence as a quality utility player was the consolation to be taken from the suspension. We should also acknowledge the mid season return of Jeff Robson to plug the haemorrhage in the halves.
Resilience – And Then Some!
It would be easy enough to say that this Eels team is a resilient group. It’s certainly an expression of praise but it doesn’t truly express what this team delivered.
Unquestionably, the group of players that finished the season deserved to be playing finals football. If not for bad luck and poor officiating, an injury ravaged Eels should have defeated the Sharks, the Panthers and the Raiders. Even without Corey Norman, this Eels line up was in better form than a number of teams that limped into the finals.
I will dedicate some much deserved praise to Brad Arthur, but for the players to compete in every match the way that they did speaks volumes for their character. Perhaps Arthur’s greatest achievement has been to identify players who have the intestinal fortitude to face and rise to challenges, and importantly to take pride in pulling on the blue and gold jersey. It’s something that’s not gone unnoticed by the fans.
Most supporters love this man because he is blue and gold to the core. Indeed, with family links to the club that extend back to 1947, his pedigree as an Eels man would be difficult to equal. Parramatta is the club that he wants to coach and he has long term plans to that end.
Of course, you don’t survive as an NRL coach without having genuine coaching chops. The role of a coach extends well beyond that of match tactician. Man management is probably a paramount quality in the modern game and the players soon find out any coaches that don’t measure up in that category. How often do we hear the term “lost the dressing room” when coaches are about to lose their job? It’s a common prelude to player initiated change.
In a year that few coaches would ever face, Arthur has cemented his status and respect, not only with the playing group, but with the NRL public. He’s always been a coach to get in the trenches with the team during the tough pre-season work, and this year he became the face of the club at a time when the media seemed to feature an Eels related drama on a daily basis. Not once did the team lose focus on their goals and standards. This was a great testimony to the work of Arthur and his staff. In fact, his coaching staff certainly deserve their share of the praise, and BA himself would be the first to offer it.
Player Of The Year
So many players put their hand up for different reasons. As a hard headed leader, Beau Scott was probably the most important addition to the squad. However, his late season injuries probably eliminate him from this accolade.
If this was a nomination for player of the future, then French wins hands down. His incredible strike rate set the team alight and probably cemented his Parramatta rookie of the year award.
Manu Ma’u would no doubt be nominated for his consistent performances and versatility. To alternate between back row and centre and maintain his high standards spoke volumes for his development as a genuine star.
Corey Norman would have been a shoe-in before his unfortunate suspension. His golden vein of form drew plenty of praise from NRL pundits and rightly so. However, the season is 26 weeks long, so for mine he fell just short.
The player of the year should go to a bloke who improved exponentially throughout the season – Clint Gutherson. With every positional change that shifted him closer to the action, Gutho’s game went up a notch. To transition from winger to five-eighth in his first full season of NRL was an incredible achievement. He was an absolute stand out for this accolade.
For mine, the against the odds victory over the Bulldogs in Round 9, typified what the Eels delivered to their fans in 2016. With injury ravaging the team before and during the match, and television coverage showing nobody on the bench, the stage was set for what should have been a comfortable Bulldogs victory. However, the Eels defence held out everything that the Dogs could throw at them to record a 20 to 12 result.
Back in April I rated this match in my top 10 Eels moments. On reflection it was probably in my top 10 when it came to instilling pride as a supporter. It remains the season highlight for me.
What Needs To Improve?
This is a tough call. Obviously, effectiveness in attack springs to mind. Certainly the Eels were impacted by having to play with makeshift halves for large parts of the season. This was compounded by the loss of Nathan Peats and human wrecking ball, Junior Paulo. Any team would struggle with such obstacles, but critics will point to the fact that the Eels never truly clicked in attack, even when all players were available.
There still remains a positive in the Eels offence. Any supporter would want their attack peaking towards the business end of the season. For the Eels, we saw some of their most spectacular attack in the final two rounds. Though the opponents weren’t the high fliers of the Premiership, it did provide an insight into what the future may hold for the team. Any side that features both French and Radradra will pose plenty of threats in with the ball in hand.
The Crystal Ball
Theoretically, Parramatta could go into next season in much better shape than 2016. With two impact forwards, Vave and Brown, added to to the pack, the Eels promise to be more damaging through the middle. The return (and contract extension) of Corey Norman coupled with the incredible development of Clint Gutherson will see the halves offer more than Foran ever did in 2015. Further strengthening of the squad will occur before the 2017 season begins. No doubt we should all “watch this space.”
Importantly, Brad Arthur’s extension and the self belief that the players will take from this season will springboard the team into a positive headspace. Throw in the removal of salary cap dramas, along with the appointment of Bernie Gurr as Eels CEO, and the potential is there for a finals placing in 2017.
If the pain that Parramatta has endured in 2016 proves to be the catalyst to long term success, then it will all be worth it. I can’t wait for next season to begin!
Images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels and the NRL.