The Cumberland Throw

The Rise of the (Blue and) Golden West – The Brad Arthur Future Retrospective Part 2

Brad Arthur’s Eels

The abstract concept of a sporting identity is equals parts straight forward and fiendishly complex. When distilled down to their most basic elements, the themes at the heart of all great sporting identities usually amount to common sense principles. Yet they are often extremely difficult to implement organically – almost paradoxically so given the simple themes laid out.

All the great teams, regardless of code or era, possessed an identity that set them apart and maximise their potential. The New England Patriots, much like the NRL’s own Melbourne Storm, are famed for their ruthless efficiency and willingness to push the interpretation of the rule book. The Cronulla Sharks clawed their way to a breakthrough NRL title in 2016 on the back of a gritty forward pack and aggressive dummy half play.

While there are exceptions, the one core tenant universal to all great identities in my experience is a great defence. While a flashy and effective offense usually draws in the fans and media attention, the defence is where games so often start and end. Aggressive defence will set the tone in high stakes matches while it is also the means in which you disrupt the tempo of the opposition in an era where every coach and team covets an 80%+ completion rate.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Eels have been built from the inside out and front to back to become a defence that is equal parts industrious as it is aggressive. Anthony Watmough and Beau Scott were clearly recruited to spearhead this change in the Eels while core recruits Nathan Brown and Kane Evans absolutely fit this profile (which is a little tidbit to keep in mind for later!).

Year by year the Eels have made consistent improvement in defence under Brad Arthur and in many ways it provides the impetus for identifying and nurturing the sort of attitude and temperament in players that they covet (again, keep note of this as well!).

Parramatta’s commitment and application to defence might mirror their contemporaries like the Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters, North Queensland Cowboys, Cronulla Sharks and Brisbane Broncos in defence but Arthur has chosen to take a different tact when his charges are in possession.

The Eels certainly employ the systems and attacking structures that are prevalent in the modern NRL. Block plays have their place at Parramatta while the importance of the fullback as the fulcrum out wide is acknowledged in our attacking patterns. However, Arthur has introduced two important differences to the Eels.

Firstly, he eschews the conventional methodology that favours a split halves approach. While the #6 and #7 at Parramatta individually have responsibilities pertaining to their left or right edge, they often operate as a linked pair in a stacked backline. Parramatta’s ability to play sideline-to-sideline has proven to be a thorn in the side of some of the better defensive teams in the NRL. The paired halves, in tandem with the stacked backline, allow for greater misdirection through the interior of the field and thus the opportunity to create mismatches on the edges.

Conversely, the threat of the loaded openside paves the way for blindside opportunities – an area in which the Eels lead the NRL in both opportunities taken and execution. Corey Norman has shown plenty of nous in this regard but the addition of Mitchell Moses truly elevated the Eels in this regard.

It isn’t quite the well-oiled machine yet though. Parramatta have suffered from a lack of efficiency in the red zone and that represents a significant stepping zone for the Eels in 2018. Still, as you break down how the Eels utilise an unbalanced approach in both the stacked openside and short blindside, you begin to appreciate the manner in which they are deliberately positioning their opposition to create mismatches.

The second and perhaps most unique manner in which Arthur has shaped the Eels’ attack is that he simply encourages his charges to take risks. The caveat here is that Arthur expects whoever takes a shot to own up to any mistakes in defence but he is content for his play-makers to attack any opportunity the opposition presents them.

The most fascinating aspect of this tenant is that it seemingly contrasts so heavily with the goal of an 80%+ completion rate – something that ‘BA’ definitely subscribes to. Thus, we can only assume that the Arthur weighs the opportunity cost of throwing something opportunistic and unexpected at the opposition greater than the baseline value of a high completion rate.

Indeed, Brad Arthur has made references to raising ‘footballers’ regularly to the media when speaking of the likes of Clinton Gutherson, Bevan French, Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman. I think here lies the distinguishing aspect in the identity that ‘BA’ has crafted at Parramatta. You can definitely see the formative influences from his tenure under Craig Bellamy at the Storm but Arthur’s determination to blend both structured and heads-up attacking footy separates him from his mentor – and most of the NRL.

In a way you could argue that Brad Arthur has perfectly captured what lies at the heart of the classic ‘Parra footy’ reaching back to the golden era of the 1980’s. A tough, hard-nosed pack punching their way up the guts to pave the way for an electric back line. In the one moment the Eels are looking to dissect their opposition with a well worked set piece to a backrower but equally so the next they are flinging to French on the wing who is kicking ahead for Moses.

Above all the defensive and offensive talk though, Arthur has stayed true to one creed ever since he became the commander-in-chief at Parramatta. When all is said and done, win or lose, the responsibility falls on himself and his men. No matter how strong their opposition were, no matter how poor the officiating, the very first thing the Eels should be doing in the wake of any game is examining their own efforts.

You could have forgiven Arthur for straying, even just once or twice, from this path given some of the rough games the Eels have worn from officials in their climb to the upper echelons of the NRL. Yet ‘BA’ has steadfastly stayed true on his course and it now reflects in his charges. The accountability for any win or loss lies purely within the ranks of the team and that is a far, far cry from the dark days of the Pre-Arthurian era.

It took Brad Arthur the better part of four years to fully instill the playing identity he desired at Parramatta, further highlighting the difficult nature of the task. The wild rides of 2014-2016 finally gave way to a fruitful 2017 as the Eels, Brad Arthur’s Eels, exploded on to the main stage in a big way.

 

Recruitment & Retention

As I noted indirectly earlier, one of the biggest flow-on benefits of an identity is the streamlining it intrinsically brings to both your recruitment and retention. Every staffer at the Eels knows what Brad Arthur is looking for in a player. This trickles down to the Intrust Super Premiership and (formerly) National Youth Competition, and even as far as the District Representatives. These teams, despite their youth and lesser rosters begin to take on that same identity of their NRL counterparts.

Anthony Field has taken on this task with gusto, wholeheartedly embracing the direction in which Arthur has taken the club. Field’s recruitment and retention work in the juniors leans heavily in the frame work provided by ‘BA’ and provides a superb selling point for the Eels as they attempt to recruit and retain the best young talent in a highly competitive market. Having the luxury of being able to point to a system that has consistently brought out the best in a wide range of talent has proven crucial in a number of key pick-ups in recent times.

For further information on Anthony Field’s role at the Eels, checkout our Tip Sheet Podcast interview with him here. 

Just as the identity of our NRL squad filters the pathway to first-grade internally, by the same token it allows the Eels to narrow down their focus on external recruitment in the NRL. Arthur and his recruitment staff have a clear profile for the type of footballer they want and a heightened awareness of positional needs. Just as Nathan Brown and Clinton Gutherson were identified as under-rated assets by these means, so too was Kane Evans scouted to fit the defensive profile of the team as well as fill a positional need at prop.

The goal to all this of course is to foster in a system that provides a seamless transition of talent at the NRL level. Just as the Melbourne Storm usher in waves of talent around their core players, so too are Parramatta angling to be able to plug-in players as the need arises because multiple levels and layers of scouting have shown them to be a system fit.

 

Coaching the coaches

As I mentioned above, it took ‘BA’ the best part of four years to facilitate the entire process leading to the events of 2017 and beyond. His journey to this point as a NRL coach is well documented by all types of media but it is the ground work effort he continually puts into the Eels that has wrought about the wholesale changes in culture from top to bottom at the club.

It is far from uncommon for a NRL coach to stay in touch with his junior pathways but Arthur has made a point of immersing himself with every major talent levels at the Eels. From the inception of the Junior Elite Talent Program (JETS) to his extensive work with skills coach Joey Grima – Arthur is tirelessly working to ensure that the entirety of the club is humming within his vision.

For further information on Joey Grima’s role at the Eels, checkout our Tip Sheet Podcast interview with him here. 

Obviously, a major part of Arthur’s work below the NRL level is to help groom the next generations of talent coming through the ranks – but so too is he fine tuning the coaching that will take them there. Arthur, along with Grima and the newly installed Head of Athletic Performance, Lachlan Wilmot, are continuously coaching the coaches in order to ward off complacency and stagnation as well as reaffirm the club’s overall commitment to that same identity.

 

What lies ahead

Of course, none of us can truly know what exactly lies ahead in 2018 for the Parramatta Eels but there is little doubt there is cause for plenty of optimism. Starting from the humblest of beginnings in 2014, Brad Arthur has built this club brick by brick to emerge from an era of mediocrity standing tall once more. Armed with their own identity, the Eels have overcome setback upon setback upon setback and are now positioned for long-term success.

All I do know is that this story sure as hell isn’t finished. This is just how one man brought about the rise of the (Blue and) Golden West.

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Anonymous

Awesome read forty!

Colin Hussey

40’s an excellent follow up to pt 1. I certainly look forward to the season ahead, in fact I think 2018 is a very big year as more of a leap year rather than a stepping stone to the future, especially in respect to the playing staff, which also will flow to the coaching staff as well. We have a large number of players off contract end of 2018, and a fair number end of 2019 including BA IIRC. Going forward I see the results of what is seen in the key positions you mention and structures in place on… Read more »

Parra Pete, Thurgoona

I am in awe of your articles. So much thought, so well written…I look so forward to every new article in the TCT. Congratulations Forties….

Manginina

Hear hear

John Eel

I have been urging you for days to post this and I am not one bit disappointed. Great read. You talk about the Storm pushing the letter of the playing rules to the limit. This is true but these are not their only hard decisions. What is well known about the Storm is that they have built a team around a once in a lifetime spine. What is less well known and discussed is how ruthless they are in letting go their journeyman. Bellamy does not fall in love with the players who serve him well and never hesitates to… Read more »

Colin Hussey

John, thanks for the support and agreeing with me re BA. The way the contracts are set almost the whole of the 29 players so far in the eels gallery page are off contract either end of 18 or end of 19, the same as with BA whose contract ends after season 19. IIRC, before BA signed his current contract extension, there were several of the players also off contract, most if not all did not resign until BA had extended his time with the club, I see the very same thing happening this time round, especially with key players… Read more »

John Eel

The fact so many of the critical mass come off contract at the same time as the coach has concerned me for some time

sixties

When the club extends BA, you can be sure that key players will start talking about extending.

John Eel

You have said that to me before Sixties and I believe you. Just my old business instincts coming out in me wanting to tie up loose ends

parra-matters

Great write up Forty, love your work.
Keep us entertained over the summer please.

Peter Zuccolotto

Hi Forty. Any idea on who will replace Peter Gentle as assistant with Burt also departed to the titans.

sixties

Hi Peter, I wouldn’t expect any appointment before Christmas. With a major focus on conditioning, there was no rush on an N.RL replacement. Furthermore, we have plenty of footy department staff to easily take care of the pre-season.

Moff

Great read and spot on.
my conclusion, after reading this.
2018 Premiers

Al

Was there ever any doubt LOL

Trouser Eel

Great read Forty20. BA is a savvy businessman as much as he is a coach. Managing a staff group, balancing the team motivationally and contractually – it’s the work of an actuary.

sixties

Brilliant
Actuary
?

JJ

Wow Forty20 just a brilliant well scripted peice. I tip my hat to you Sir. Plenty of things to like about the way BA, coaching staff, conditioners, recruitment & club management are all buying into this.

sixties

He goes ok does our Forty.
Played strong, done good!

Rowdy Roddy

Dear 40, you look much younger, but hey you certainly write with a mature quill old bird!

That wait was thoroughly worthwhile my friend. Part 2 was the consummate wrap up of the continuing rise and rise of the Western hue in Gold’n Blue.

Thanks Forty your hard work has inspired much joy from this Parra boy!

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