The Parramatta Eels are currently undertaking a mid-season review of their football operations. Whilst the scope of the review has not been made public, there is a major component of the football program which should definitely come under the microscope. That component – the joint venture with the Wentworthville Magpies – is the subject of this week’s spotlight.
The history of the Eels/Magpies joint venture dates back to 2008 when the Wenty club first fielded Parramatta contracted players in the NSW Cup of that year. Success was immediate as the team, led by current Origin star James Maloney, took out the inaugural premiership in the revamped competition.
Putting that success into perspective, the Eels had been Premiers in the competition’s predecessor – The Premier League – from 2005 to 2007. It was a promising start, built on previous successes, but the good times have been rare since.
This may not be a popular stance. It may not be possible in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it is my belief that Parramatta’s joint venture with Wentworthville should be scrapped – and the sooner the better.
This is not meant as a criticism of the Wentworthville Club, or shifting some of the blame for Parramatta’s failures on the Magpies, but it is clear that this arrangement is not beneficial for either party.
Let’s consider some of Parramatta’s likely motivations for the current arrangement.
The Wenty ISP squad consists of both Eels and Magpie contracted players. The staff are contracted to both clubs. The matches are staged at Ringrose Park. There is undoubtedly a bottom line saving for Parramatta based on these costs alone.
With Parramatta playing as a tenant at larger stadiums, it’s no longer possible to stage three grades of football at either ANZ Stadium or the new Western Sydney Stadium. Some weeks, only one match is played. Having the joint venture with Wentworthville provides a satisfactory home ground for both the ISP and the Jersey Flegg sides.
Correct. I am listing fear as a motivator. There has long been the fear that not locking in a venture with Wentworthville would effectively leave a very wide open door for a club like the Storm to set up camp in the middle of the Parramatta District through the Magpies.
This is understandable. The Raiders are now set up at Mounties. Manly took Blacktown Workers from Penrith. It’s not ideal, but regardless of any senior arrangements with these clubs, their juniors still participate in their local leagues.
For Wentworthville, the benefits are not as clear.
The Magpies are a rugby league club supported by a massive and successful Leagues Club. That club isn’t burdened with financing an NRL team, but it’s charter would include the propagation of rugby league in the district. An arrangement with an NRL club would provide a pathway for junior and senior players, as well as putting the club in an elite NSW competition at a reduced cost. Beyond that, it would still be a financial burden.
So what aspects of the joint venture are a concern?
Let’s begin with Wenty. As the minor partner in the venture, the Magpies are subject to the decisions of the Parramatta Eels. The Eels determine which players will be made available each week, and this can be changed at the last minute.
If the Eels had all players available, the Magpies could literally be filled with Parramatta contracted players. This rarely happens, and last minute changes to the team filter down through all levels of Wenty’s senior teams. Every grade can have major disruptions, and as a club they have minimal control over this.
The downside for the Eels is more profound, as it impacts development pathways, and in my opinion, the identity and culture of the Parramatta club.
Parramatta have a junior pathway that commences with under 14 and under 15 talent development squads. The junior elite then transition through the Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions with the Jersey Flegg Cup the last port in their age team journey.
What then happens?
After wearing the Parramatta jersey through six years of junior development, they then don a black and white Wentworthville jersey. How does this make them Parramatta aspirational, or benefit the culture of the Eels?
And it doesn’t just impact juniors on their pathways. At the top end of the Eels roster, players in the top 30 who don’t make the top grade, who train in blue and gold with their NRL mates, are then further separated from their colleagues by being handed the Wenty jersey. Furthermore, they are then asked to play on a separate day at a suburban venue.
The counter to this concern is a club like the Melbourne Storm who pack their lower grade players onto a plane to Queensland at the end of the week to play on parks up north. It hasn’t impacted their development or the club’s success.
To that, I would argue that the Eels shouldn’t do what they don’t need to do, and there is far more to gain from having a development pathway which engenders a deep association between the player and the club. NRL teams such as Penrith, St George, Newcastle, Canterbury and the Warriors have all tinkered with a joint venture feeder club. They’ve now taken back their “reserve grade” identities. All bar the Bulldogs are now enjoying an NRL resurgence.
As a someone who’s watched a fair share of Wenty games over years, I would also question the benefit of playing young Eels players in an ISP team carrying Ron Massey Cup players.
In a traditional reserve grade team, there would be a mix of senior graded players with a few age team players on their path to first grade. For Wenty, we see young Parra players playing alongside park footballers every week.
Case in point, a number of weeks ago Jaeman Salmon was selected in the centres for Wenty in a match at ANZ Stadium. He’s a versatile player, and the coaches probably wanted to see how he handled that position. Unfortunately, the Wenty contracted halves that day performed poorly and as a result Salmon had little to show.
To clarify, this post is not meant to bag Wenty contracted players. There are some whole-hearted footballers who give their all. I enjoy watching matches at a venue like Ringrose as you hear all the calls and feel the big hits.
However, every player in our system should either be capable of at least filling in for the NRL, or be under consideration for an Eels senior contract in the future. This is not the case for virtually every Wenty contracted player. They don’t have to meet the same training requirements. Their performances don’t enhance their prospects of playing first grade or earning an NRL deal. They aren’t Parramatta players. They are lucky to train once per week with their team.
Last week Peter Wynn visited the Eels captain’s run. I witnessed him showing a collection of different Parra jerseys, including the Famous Grouse jersey, to the players. Eels media shared the images with supporters.
Peter was sharing the Blue and Gold identity with the players. Successful teams have players who take pride in wearing that team’s colours. Parramatta have the opportunity to bring talented young players through their system and have them aspirational about wearing the Parra jersey, not a black and white strip. To have time out from that goal, when they’re only one step away, seems illogical.
When most considerations of the joint venture are examined, it literally becomes a question of cost savings vs hampering pathways. When the lack of NRL success also impacts costs, and with a club that needs to develop better players in a winning culture, I would argue that Parramatta can no longer afford the Wenty cost savings. It sounds odd but it’s true – we can’t afford the savings!
Developing Parramatta aspirational players is paramount. When they’re on the verge of NRL, playing them alongside better quality Eels players in an Eels jersey must be our goal.
At this crucial time of assessing our football operations, I hope that this significant aspect of our pathways is not ignored.
(Credit to Steve Little for the Jersey Flegg photo)