The Review We Had to Have
When Parramatta Eels Chief Executive Officer, Bernie Gurr, announced 4-5-weeks ago that the Club was undertaking an 8-week Football Department review, it was met with mixed reactions across the Eels fan base. Some questioned the need for a review so early into our relatively new Board’s tenure, while others applauded the acknowledgement of the results from the current systems and the need for change.
It’s a strange position we find ourselves in right now, particularly given the heights of the 2017 season – it very much feels like a ‘two steps forward-one step back’ situation on the surface – but herein this situation lies an opportunity to identify the source(s) of our team (club) performance, and how we can go about remedying the situation for sustained success across our football program.
Just like the internal review being conducted, I’ll conduct my own “brief” review of the nine areas of our Football Department review, with the aim of providing insight to our current situation, and some suggested changes that can help us move forward. These nine areas include:
- Governance and Leadership
- Recruitment and Retention
- Player Roster Management and Salary Cap
- Coaching and Support (NRL, Intrust Super Cup and Junior Representative Program)
- Parramatta Junior League
- High Performance
- Player Wellbeing and Education
- Medical Support
Now, those of you on here who have followed my work on here know that when I use the word brief, it can be an oxymoron of sorts and I must admit, this is subject-matter that I will find difficult to contain to the canvas of an article (in fact there’ll be a couple of articles covering the nine areas), but in the interests of our readers, I’ll do my best to keep it succinct.
Why the Review?
Whether it’s a transnational corporation on the global scale or your local corner store, every business will undertake a review of sorts at some point in time in their lifecycle and the Parramatta Eels National Rugby League Club is no exception.
There’s a connotation, rightly or wrongly, that comes with undertaking a business review. To many it means the need to implement mass change, to others, a slight adjustment in day-to-day operations – but to all it should mean simply this – doing what we do better and doing it more effectively.
Every aspect of operations within the Parramatta Eels should be done with one main purpose – to support the facilitation of our rugby league program. The Parramatta Eels are a rugby league club first and foremost, so all of their actions should be done with the view of creating and maintaining a sustainably successful football program that wins NRL premierships.
When you regress as we have on the field in 2018 and no immediate cause can be identified, it raises a series of questions. So, in order to get the most out of the review, these questions have to be effective and solution-focused.
If it were me undertaking the review some of the questions I’d be looking to ask across our nine Football Department areas would be divided over three main review areas: What happened? Can we win again? How will we win again?
- What happened?
- A review of the results, on and off the field, with a cause-and-effect focus
- Why we produced the results we have?
- What could have been done differently – and when?
- What we could have achieved had things been done differently?
- Can we win again?
- All things above considered, what will it take for us to win again?
- Do we have the staff to take us forward in this situation? If/ if not, what changes need to be made?
- Do we have the resources to take us forward? If/ if not, what resources need to be brought in?
- How will we win again?
- How will the club go about winning and achieving the above?
- What will the club do in its day-to-day operations to win again?
- What will the club do in the short-term, medium-term and long-term plans to win again?
- What is the best case-worst case scenario for the club?
- If those results and expectations aren’t met, ‘what will be the process to redirect the course of the ship?’ and how will we ensure it’s ‘just a blip on the radar?’ Who will be held accountable to these results? And what will be the ramifications for achieving/not achieving results?
And this is just scratching the surface.
Governance and Leadership
The terms ‘Governance’ and ‘Leadership’ are interesting choices of words for a football department review. In layman’s terms, governance and leadership would generally connote things from a board perspective. However, given this review is football department-specific, one would have to assume this is from a hierarchical point of view, as well as the structural resources implemented (or not) from a leadership standpoint – for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll treat them as such.
But before I tackle those talking points, I’m going to address something that may be slightly controversial – and what I believe to be, at least partly, the genesis of this merry-go-round the Parramatta Eels have been riding since their last premiership year in 1986 – our culture.
Our Culture and Identity
For a long time, the Eels have been running from their identity.
It seems under the guise of winning multiple premierships in the 1980s (and the massive following of support that ensued) we quickly developed the notion and idea that we were a ‘super club’ – Hey, we were flush with cash, resources and players wanted to wear the Blue and Gold. It meant premierships and representative jerseys (and by god does it make a great headline for modern day clickbait. Nothing like 80s nostalgia to reel the reader and viewership in, particularly if those readers and viewers support the Eels – I digress though).
So, with all these things working in our favour, we slowly become complacent. Short cuts were taken. We start looking for the ‘get rich quick – Instagram-famous – overnight-success golden ticket’ by chopping and changing football staff and players – and either side of the Brian Smith era, it bit us on the arse – hard.
The proof is in the pudding. Since our last premiership in 1986 up until Brad Arthur’s appointment for 2014 (not including the Brian Smith era), the Eels have had 9 coaches who averaged 2.1 years in the role as Head Coach. When one considers that glorified coaches Jack Gibson (7th season), Wayne Bennett (6th season), Craig Bellamy (5th season), Des Hasler (5th season), Tim Sheens (6th season) didn’t win premierships with until x-years of first grade coaching, it’s easy to see part of the reason why success has evaded the Eels. Coaches need time at clubs to build.
Similarly, coaches need the resources, both on and off the field to support the club build and it is for this reason we need to reclaim our identity from a governance and leadership perspective, because from a macro-level the club has remained dormant on consolidating its greatest strength – it’s identity – but more on that later.
For years either side of the Brian Smith coaching era we had been in limbo, trying to find the magic key and if it didn’t work within 2-years that coach and his coaching staff would be gone. All with this pie-in-the-sky notion that we will replicate the success of the 1980s.
So, each time the new guy would come in, not win a premiership, the fans would get restless, the journalists would run articles, an echo-chamber would be created and the witch hunt would ensue until the coach was gone – wash, rinse, repeat.
Same deal with the executive management team and boards. No premiership come election time? You’re out. No results on the field, Mr. CEO? See you later, it’s someone else’s turn.
And it’s easy to see why (and how) people can get caught up in that line of thinking – by 1986 we were a multi-premiership winning club, successful across multiple grades, had generated wide-spread support and had a team full of representative players. When you accumulate that type of success in such a concentrated period of time it re-frames expectations both for the staff working within the club and the members, fans and pundits outside of the club. It’s a mantle we haven’t been able to shed, but desperately need to.
The methodology behind how we do this lies within the direction we moved under the Brian Smith era, albeit with a little bit extra.
So, what is our identity Eels fans? Well, to put it simply, we are a development club.
We create our own talent, bring it through the ranks and then win premierships at NRL level. Simple enough, right?
It is, when you have the right resources in place.
Developing talent was a large part of Brian Smith’s focus when he came to the club and a huge reason why we had a successful football program during his tenure. The majority of the years he coached at the Parramatta Eels the first grade squad was in a position to challenge for an NRL title. The couple of years they weren’t, rarely turned into second years (in fact his lowest ever finish, 12th, was followed up by a minor premiership the next year).
Brian was very much a man ahead of his time. He was zigging when everyone else was zagging.
Rugby league was still moving towards the professional era of sport in the mid-1990s. It was a time of uncertainty for the greatest game of all, as it was confronted with what will probably be it’s greatest ever challenge – the Super League War. It was set to decimate the rugby league world by splitting the Australian rugby league competition in two.
So, in a very public manner players were aligning themselves to one competition or the other and clubs were paying exuberant amounts of money to secure top talent, as they attempted to stack their sides with representative players – hell, we even got caught up in it ourselves, as the Canterbury four (Dean Pay, Jim Dymock, Jason Smith and Jarrod McCracken) defected to the golden west in 1996. And as it came to pass, by 1997 rugby league was split into two competitions – and it was during this time of unrest that the ARL-aligned Eels made one of the most astute coaching appointments in their history.
As the governing bodies attempted to find some type of middle ground to realign the teams under a unified competition for the 1998 season, clubs were still very much focused on recruiting the best talent they could buy. Some bankrupted themselves, either having to fold or merge with other sides, while others could afford it, and had teams that regularly challenged for (and winning) premierships, footing large bills for star players in the process.
Out Parramatta-way however, Brian Smith adopted a completely different approach. He found that the Eels already had the resources to be successful – a vast junior rugby league catchment area that housed some of the best up-and-coming talent in rugby league. All that was needed was a way to tap into it – a pathways and development program towards first grade rugby league.
Fast forward a few years and some of the following players made names for themselves after coming through this pathways and development program overseen by Brian Smith. Some debuted under his coaching, some not until after he left the club and others did so at other clubs:
Chris Armit, Jack Afamasaga, Luke Burt, Nathan and Jason Cayless, Josh Cordoba, Brett Delaney, Ashley Graham, Blake Green, Eric Grothe Junior, Weller Hauraki, Jarryd Hayne, Nathan and Ian Hindmarsh, Michael Hodgson, Daniel Irvine, Krisnan Inu, Jamie Lyon, Feleti Mateo, PJ Marsh, Casey McGuire, Wade McKinnon, Adam Mogg, Dennis Moran, Fuifui Moimoi, Luke O’Dwyer, Joel Reddy, Pat Richards, Chad Robinson, Andrew Ryan, Ben Smith, Tim Smith, Zeb Taia, Willie Tonga, Justin Tsolous, David Williams, John Williams, John Wilson, David Vaealiki, Michael Vella, Michael Witt.
A pretty handy list of players there (and there’s plenty of names missing) but created within our own club were 8 x Australian Internationals, 6 x New Zealand Internationals and 11 x Origin players. Additionally, 1 x 300+ NRL game player, 9 x 200-299 NRL game players, 19 x 100-199 NRL game players, the club’s top two highest try scorers, its second highest point scorer and its most capped player in history – a damn good effort and all this because we focused on developing our own. We may not have generated any premierships from it, but in 6 of the 9 Brian Smiths coached seasons at the club, we were very close.
The beauty of Brian Smith’s tenure was that he was an innovator. While other clubs focused on buying, we focused on developing – and we were doing so at rates other clubs weren’t.
But therein also lies the problem. Other clubs eventually caught on and we became complacent. As we started to go through a string of coaches, staff and executive managers, the foundations Brian Smith had created crumbled, with the systems regularly changed and altered before the flowers could push through to the surface.
Times have quickly changed since the Brian Smith era and rugby league is now a mega-multi-million dollar business. The clubs that are the most successful are those who have settled on their identity, while conversely the ones that are wishy-washy have struggled.
We’ve seen clubs like the Penrith Panthers embrace their development club identity and forge ahead with their rugby league academy, while it seems as though ‘super clubs’ like the Sydney Roosters can continue to buy whoever they want on the open market.
Since Brad Arthur’s appointment, we’ve slowly started to move back towards a development club identity. This has happened both behind the scenes in our junior development programs, as well as within the first-grade team itself, with some players finding their way as either debutants or inexperienced players, developing into first grade quality NRL players in the top-grade itself.
But the opportunities that existed during Brian Smith’s time no longer exist. As I said earlier, teams have caught on and progressed with these identities. They’ve implemented full-scale hierarchical structures that have their football program buzzing along, regularly producing players ready for the rigours of NRL in a variety of positions (see Panthers, Penrith). These structures operate with some of the best rugby league resources and infrastructure that you have seen, allowing players to not only develop, but thrive, and they do so playing under a unified club banner across all grades of football, with the knowledge that should they perform, an opportunity to play NRL will become available to them.
This is where the Eels have become unstuck, because as a club they haven’t fully committed to this identity yet and from an executive and financial level it needs to be fully supported before we can accurately judge the efficacy of Brad Arthur’s first grade results. To be honest, he’s done a fantastic job to date with the resources he’s had, but 2018 has also been underwhelming and there are things that he will be ultimately accountable for and to.
We began 2018 under-resourced from a staffing perspective. The football management team has to oversee approximately 56 staff in the junior development program, while trying to coach the first grade and reserve grade teams themselves – it’s one hell of a job, particularly without a Football Manager to oversee it.
They currently operate out of demountables, while other teams have academy’s and centres of excellence housing the best rugby league resources in the country.
Meanwhile our reserve grade team doesn’t even play in our colours, with players who aren’t contracted to our club, at a ground that isn’t affiliated with the Eels. It alienates those who are club contracted players, but not playing NRL, and it breaks the bond and identity these players can develop with the club. Players coming through our grades should only wear blue and gold with the Eels logo on their chest. Is it any surprise that we went from 4 back-to-back premierships under the Eels banner (the last one our first in Wenty colours in 2008), to not even looking like reserve grade premiers since that point in time? Meanwhile the Panthers go from strength-to-strength in that competition since they severed their relationship with Windsor and St. Mary’s respectively, re-centralising their reserve grade operations to the club, regularly producing NRL quality talent.
To say we’re behind is somewhat of an understatement and if this season highlights anything from a governance and leadership perspective for the football department, it’s that we need greater resources in terms of personnel and infrastructure to survive and thrive.
What the Football Department review needs to produce from a Governance and Leadership perspective?
- A General Manager of Football: A well-experienced, credentialed operator who can oversee the program holistically (The club has already indicated that this will take place, if you fancy yourself capable of the job, feel free to apply here).
- Strategic placement of select middle level managers in the football department to support the General Manager of Football: This may just require the re-organisation of people or the introduction of a couple more heads as opposed to mass-hiring. Focus should be placed on management of the salary cap and budgetary considerations, contract negotiations across all grades, football operations that support NRL, reserve grade and the junior representative programs, the junior league, game development, strength and conditioning/physical performance, and player well-being and education (including media training and public conduct).
- Coaching resources: The NRL team lost a lot of rugby league experience when Assistant Coach Peter Gentle moved to South Sydney and Head Trainer Ronnie Palmer to Wests Tigers. It’s a truckload of rugby league knowledge and expertise that wasn’t replaced until well after the 2018 season commenced – and has likely had some effect on performance. Ensuring that these resources are in place prior to the start of pre-season 2019 and beyond will only help our cause.
- Infrastructure: It’s become abundantly clear that we need some form of Centre of Excellence and it should be our strategic priority following the successful transition to Western Sydney Stadium. Our fans will get the best from 2019 onwards, now it’s time our players did too. Identifying and committing to a site, as well as the establishment of a revenue-generating operation, specifically designed for the purpose of creating our own Centre of Excellence is paramount. Just how we go about doing so is a discussion for another time.
- Reserve Grade returning to the Eels: Sixities has written a couple of articles about this already here and here. If we are to return to and fully commit to the identity of ‘development club’ all players should be wearing our colours and our logo for the reasons he cites in his articles and the ones in this article above.
Recruitment and Retention
Recruitment and retention of players will always be an exciting point of discussion amongst the supporter base, but we mustn’t be remiss in thinking this doesn’t extend to football staff as well. It’s imperative to have the right people involved at all levels, but for the sake of this discussion piece, I’ll focus purely on the player aspect.
Leading into the 2018 NRL season both Eels fans and media personalities questioned our lack of size in our forward pack. For the most part they felt it was the missing piece in our quest for premiership glory, but the truth of the matter is you need tremendous balance across your whole roster to put yourself in a position to consistently challenge for the premiership and this relies on so many caveats such as the current salary cap position, the ability to recruit players (internally or externally) into the senior squads, as well as the balance in personnel across the senior squad(s).
Ideally, you have a certain type of player for each position in the top 17 team somewhere within the club’s roster. An example of how this may look is the following:
- Fullback: The supportive fullback pushing up on each play or the additional playmaker to support the halves.
- Winger: Big wingers who can finish off backline movements and ruck the ball out of the red zone consistently, or if your team can support it, a smaller winger with blistering speed that will score the second they’re in open space.
- Centre: Defensively strong and can finish off a backline movement through either pass or run.
- Halves: Strong kickers who either consistently set up other players through their passing game or through their running game.
- Middle forwards: Bigger attack-orientated middle forwards who can consistently make metres but may be defensive liabilities or a smaller defensive-orientated middle forward who doesn’t get over the advantage line as consistently, but rarely misses a tackle.
- Edge forwards: Attack-orientated edge forwards that run hard lines and pose a threat as a runner and decoy but may miss the odd tackle, a larger playmaker who can defend closer to the ruck or two or defence-orientated edge forwards act as guards for defensively weaker halves, never missing a tackle, but unlikely to be consistently damaging in attack.
- Hooker: A creator with great passing service who can generate a threat from dummy-half through either their passing/running game or a tackling machine who provides quality service to the halves.
If you can generate a roster that has balance across all these positions, with all these different types of players, mixed with a combination of experience in key positions and youth rounding out the squad, you’re going to be well positioned to challenge for a premiership.
The last time the Eels were doing as such across all their senior teams was 2005 – for the record, the NRL team were Minor Premiers (knocked out in grand final qualifier), Reserve Grade were Premiers and Jersey Flegg were Grand Finalists. Listed below is a copy of team lists across our NRL, Reserve Grade and Jersey Flegg teams from that year:
2005 Parramatta Eels Squad
|Position||NRL||Reserve Grade||Jersey Flegg|
|Fullback||Wade McKinnon||Joel Reddy||Michael Basan|
|Winger||Luke Burt||Matt Peterson||Jarryd Hayne|
|Centre||Ben Smith||Ashley Graham||Ben Farrar|
|Centre||Timana Tahu||Brett Delaney||Krisnan Inu|
|Winger||Eric Grothe||John Williams||Simon Micallef|
|Five-Eighth||John Morris||Jeremy Smith||Blake Green|
|Halfback||Tim Smith||Marcus Perenara||Kris Keating|
|Prop||Nathan Cayless||Adam Peek||Weller Hauraki|
|Hooker||Mark Riddell||Ian Henderson||Matt Keating|
|Prop||Paul Stringer||Aaron Cannings||Craig Heslop|
|Second Row||Nathan Hindmarsh||Daniel Wagon||Jack Afamasaga|
|Second Row||Glenn Morrison||Henry Perenara||Zeb Taia|
|Lock||Chad Robinson||Luke O’Dwyer||Kurt Sorenson|
|Interchange||PJ Marsh||James Storer||Scott Jones|
|Interchange||Dean Widders||Chris Muckert||David Williams|
|Interchange||Michael Vella||Josh Cordoba||Broderick Wright|
|Interchange||Fuifui Moimoi||Justion Tsolous||Tim Wynn|
As you can see across all three grades there was tremendous balance within the squad and players who fit all types of position descriptions. Is it any surprise we enjoyed the success that we did that season? We were well stocked for each position with each type of player – this is the model we have to move back towards.
And why? Because for too long we’ve been avoiding our identity – we’re a development club.
What the Football Department review needs to produce from a Recruitment and Retention perspective?
- Greater balance of players across our three senior squads: As mentioned above, the balance of a squad is imperative to it’s long-term success. To succeed like this there is a need to identify the core group of 7-10 players for a 5-10-year period, while using the systems to facilitate the spots around them. It’s something the Melbourne Storm have done to tremendous effect for many years now (even if they weren’t salary cap compliant for a period of that time) via external recruitment of role players, and it’s something we can replicate with our juniors internally in years to come.
- A variety of types of players within the rugby league programs: If you have too many of the same type of player or you’re missing a certain type of player within your football program, it leaves a hole in your club – and your NRL team is ultimately going to be affected at some point. For us in 2018 it’s been the regular presence of two big-bodied players in our back three to ruck us out of our red zone and to develop some momentum for our forwards to play on the back of. If one of your main players go down, you want as close to a like-for-like replacement as possible. When you ensure there’s variety of players you can prepare for a variety of game plans against a variety of different teams – another thing Brian Smith coached sides did to great effect.
Player Roster Management and Salary Cap
Player roster management and salary cap very much ties into the discussion above about balance in the squad and the recruitment and retention. The equation is relatively simple – ensure we have as much balance in the squad as possible at all times. This protects limits the amount of deficiencies in our game across the season, as we have players capable of stepping up to first grade to fill the void.
Let’s use our wingers as an example to illustrate this point.
At almost all points of 2017, bar our opening 6-games, we had at all times, two of our back three (fullback and both wingers) as bigger bodied players who could ruck the ball out. This generally a combination of either of the following:
- Bevan French/Will Smith, Semi Radradra and Kirisome Auva’a
- Clint Gutherson, Semi Radradra, Kirisome Auva’a/Josh Hoffman
Our win rate with either of those forms of combinations was 14-wins, 6-losses (two of which were our finals games), with a differential of +36. Conversely, our win-loss rate with two smaller players in the back three was 2-wins, 4-losses with a differential of -18 – a 36% swing.
A relatively small sample size I hear you say? Well let’s carry the trend into 2018, where we lost Semi Radradra and were down a bigger-bodied outside back to ruck the ball out of the red zone, a place we have notably struggled this year.
4 of the 5 games we’ve won to date have been when we’ve had at least two bigger players in the back three – our biggest coming when we had 3 bigger players in our back three against Manly in round 7. Conversely, our biggest losses have come when we’ve had two smaller players in the back three. The final results? Of our 20 games in 2018 so far, we have won 1 game with two smaller backs and lost 7 with a differential of -120, while winning 4 and losing 8 games with at least two bigger back three players and obtaining a differential of -4.
Now this isn’t necessarily complete causality, but it does seem to suggest having at least two bigger back three players help improve the Eels chances of winning, because ultimately, they’re making more yards and helping improve the teams field position. It also seems to suggest that we’re likely to score more points and concede less as a result of this field position.
So, what does that mean for player roster management and salary cap? We need to ensure we’re in a position to have at least two bigger outside backs in our top 17 and first grade capable replacements through either astute reserve grade recruits or development of junior players within our systems.
Given the recent recruitment of Maika Savo from the Panthers reserve grade side, the development of Haze Dunster within our own systems, George Jennings progression in the NRL team, under 20’s metre eater Greg Leleisiuao and the recruitment of the highest metre-gainer for season 2018 to date, Blake Ferguson, the Eels will be much better served in this area moving forward, having players across the program capable of doing that job and pushing for Top 17 selection.
And this is just an example of one position in the squad. It’s an approach we’ll need to adopt squad wide, as we did during the Brian Smith era, to help position us for sustainable success.
After that point in time, it’s simply about determining who is surplus to needs at any given point of their contract. I.e. if we have a similar player in our system who is capable of taking over the role of a more established NRL player, both are off-contract and the NRL player has been offered an inflated wage to go to an opposing NRL team, we should have no qualms in letting that player seek that deal and replacing them with the similar-styled junior player for less on our roster. Simple in principle I know, but as we’ve shown before, achievable as well.
What the Football Department review needs to produce from a Player Roster and Salary Cap perspective?
- Ensuring that our development players are as close to like-for-like as their NRL counterparts are: I referenced earlier the need for both a balance in the variety of type of player you have, but also the need for balance in like-for-like replacements. Let’s say hypothetically next year our starting wingers are George Jennings and Blake Ferguson. Two big-bodied players capable of rucking the ball out of the red zone. One has a height advantage that can be used for cross-field kicks (Ferguson), the other is a bit more nuggety but is more likely to run the length of the field than the other (Jennings). Should Blake Ferguson go down next year, we ideally have a replacement that can both ruck the ball out and use their height for cross-field attacking kicks. Enter Maika Savo, a bigger-bodied player with height, has scored plenty off cross-field kicks in reserve grade, but is currently bought as an NRL-capable project player for the reserve grade team. Replicating this across our squad will injury-proof us and ensure all roles within the NRL team can be performed when injuries inevitably come.
- Leverage our Juniors to limit Salary Cap expenditure: The beauty of being a development club means that you can leverage the players you develop to offset having to pay “overs” for any players on the market. When a club prioritizes its core group with the salary cap, it means only role players have to be brought in around them. These role players can absolutely push themselves into the core group, should their form warrant it, just as when players age or lose form they can move out of the core group. Ultimately it means the club doesn’t have to bullied into a position by player agents to meet contract demands that will force them to compromise their salary cap position.
The truth of it all Eels fans is that this review probably won’t reveal anything that’s a real major surprise to any well-educated fan. What matters is how we implement systemized structures that allow us to produced sustained success within our football program and give us the best chance to regularly challenge for NRL titles.
Governance and Leadership, Recruitment and Retention, and Player Roster and Salary Cap are just some of the ways we can tighten the bolts and I’d love to hear your thoughts on these discussion points below.
Stay tuned for the next edition where I’ll tackle the Coaching and Support, Junior League, High Performance, Wellbeing and Education, Medical Support and Facilities discussion points.
Yours in Blue and Gold,
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.