Goodbye season 2018. Never darken my door again.
How did this Parramatta team, predicted by a multitude of experts to challenge for the title, finish the season with the Wooden Spoon?
The simplest answer is to video package the bookends of the season – the first two rounds and the last two rounds. Present that compilation to any sports lover, anywhere in the world, and ask them to predict where the team in Blue and Gold finished, and it’s a pound to a penny that the majority of those people will respond “last”.
Whatever happened between those rounds was simply the filling. The Eels literally started and ended the season in similar fashion.
The high expectations of the pre-season were understandable. The same squad and coaches were a genuine threat to the Storm in 2017, and deserved to beat the Premiers in last year’s finals series. It was reasonable to expect that the team would be strengthened with the return of Hayne and a full pre-season for Mitch Moses.
So what went wrong to produce the type of wretched performances which placed our Eels at the bottom of the ladder?
I’ve looked for reasons, not excuses, because I believe that it was a combination of factors. Some problems have already been rectified. Some are yet to be addressed.
Dysfunction Does a Disservice (or the Halves vs Halves Not)
When dissecting the 2018 season, it is impossible to ignore the dysfunction of the Eels halves pairing of Moses and Norman. For mine, the start and end of Parramatta’s woes are located here. It stifled the attack and resulted in the instability of other players across backline roles.
Your halves are the true leaders on the field. Other players might bear the “C” next to their name, but the spine is where it’s at when it comes to conducting the football orchestra. They lead the team around the park, barking orders as they go. In 2018, the Eels were on a mystery trip every time they entered the arenas.
To that end, should the Eels enter 2019 with the same halves combination, I would expect a continuation of our misery. Like oil and water, they will never mix and one of the two needs to be moved.
Both are under contract, and probably both would be under pressure if the decision to extend their deals had to be made right now. Therefore, to release both before 2019 would cost the club a fortune. To part ways with just one will still mean significant coin for the Eels.
This might be one of those times when fans will have to accept the club losing money to release a player, because it would be absurd to have another season of musical chairs with backline positions.
Who should that be?
Moses was given the opportunity to own the team. His game against the Dragons was outstanding, but every match from that point left much to be desired. In the meantime, Norman fluctuated between fullback and wing during matches, before returning to five-eighth for the final round.
Do the Eels keep a specialist half or a player capable of playing multiple positions?
My ISP and Jersey Flegg reports document my support for halfback, Dylan Brown. I believe that it would not be prudent to hold him back next year. On that basis, Moses moves into the danger zone.
This was only evident in hindsight. This roster had been responsible for battling against the odds and delivering courageous performances during the salary cap dramas of 2016. They built on that by reaching the top four in 2017. Few would have doubted their credentials going into 2018.
However, form and injuries would conspire to expose the flaws in the squad.
Key players began the season out of form, or on the injured list. The resilience of previous years was missing as the team stumbled to loss upon loss, with certain players retaining their place despite inconsistent efforts.
Selections were made difficult as the type of errors or the players responsible seemed to change on a weekly basis. Each match produced its own villain or problem to be rectified.
Nonetheless, without singling out individuals, a case could be made that it was only through loyalty (and/or the salary cap) that particular players retained their place in the top grade.
A poorly performing ISP team provides an NRL team in need of change with few options. I’ve written three posts about the need to end the ISP venture with Wentworthville, so this post won’t go over old ground.
But a point needs to be made in relation to this year.
At various times during this season, up to one third of the Eels Top 30 roster sat on the sidelines. This meant that the ISP team was filled with as many as nine Ron Massey Cup players. Therefore, the remainder of the Eels squad – mostly Rookie contract players if not Flegg players – were taking the field alongside part-time footballers. The dearth of suitable players in the halves and dummy half some weeks was diabolical.
Furthermore, these players were all coming from one club – Wenty. This restriction to utilising RM Cup players from the one club is not conducive to either developing Parramatta’s best young talent, let alone support fringe or returning first graders in regaining their form.
Ultimately, any players under consideration for promotion to first grade were coming from a losing ISP team, and that was never going to work out.
Track Work Trends
I don’t produce training reports during the season proper, but I attended virtually every field session. It was interesting, if not frustrating, to watch these sessions as the season unfolded.
During media calls, it became common for the players to speak about how well they prepared but how poorly they executed.
I can report this to be true.
Apart from a period between rounds 3 to 5 when their execution at training was a bit clunky, the team looked the goods and maintained a strong work ethic.
Arthur changed things up during the season – times, scheduled days, drills, structures, methods, staff – keeping things fresh. Eels legends visited ETC and spoke with the squad.
In previous seasons, with a couple of exceptions, I could regularly correlate form at training with match performances. Sometimes it would be how sharp they trained, other times it might be their intensity. I could normally predict what they would deliver. This year, I couldn’t and I stopped trying to do so.
It was infuriating to watch plays and defensive choices drilled, then not implemented. It was equally frustrating to watch players receive personal coaching from kick specialist Damien Hill, only to deliver performances like the kicking in the Roosters game.
The team entered the season on the back of the most thorough pre-season I’ve ever witnessed. They hit the ground running with a trial which reflected how they prepared. Maybe the players got ahead of themselves. Maybe they thought it would just happen – it didn’t!
Without doubt, the Eels were impacted greatly by their lack of big forwards in the first half of this season.
In 2017, the Parra pack had been praised for their tenacious play, and for the relentless and aggressive manner in which they took on other packs. This was not by accident. The mobile Blue and Gold forwards functioned best when the ball was kept in continuous play.
The early rounds of 2018 saw the refereeing crackdown and the inflated penalty counts. The impact of this was to manufacture a game of frequent stoppages which suited the larger forwards and the associated power plays. In contrast Parra had players who had stripped kilos from their frames.
By the time the Eels were able to adjust as best as they could, the season was gone. The recruitment of larger framed players for 2019 has been no surprise.
The departure of Peter Gentle was unexpected and done after the staff had begun planning for 2018. The targeted replacement was unavailable, so the team entered the season with one less assistant coach than previous years.
Lachlan Wilmot received unfair criticism given that the loss of Ron Palmer left the new High Performance Unit without a rugby league specialist. Contact coach, Brett Bumper O’Farrell was another to leave.
David Kidwell was added to the coaching staff (Arthur, Murphy and Grima) as soon as his New Zealand commitments were finished. Former Storm trainer Adrian Jimenez was also added to the HPU from Round 14.
Corrections have been made, and we assume that changes will eventuate from the review.
Given that a number of the staff also take on responsibilities that would normally fall to a Head of Football, criticism must be made that the staffing was spread too thin for too long this season.
Injury To Insult
There is no denying that 2018 has been a horror year for injuries. The list of players missing for prolonged periods during this season was extensive and significant.
Gutherson, Hayne, Brown, Alvaro, Mannah, Moeroa, Pritchard, Ma’u, Scott, Smith, King, Williams and Evans all missed at least five games through injury. With most of the injuries occurring to Eels forwards, the depth was pushed to its limits.
The up-side to such a full casualty ward was the opportunities that opened up for young players. Hopefully the benefits will be felt in 2019.
I have little doubt that a negative mindset was prevalent this year. The team lost confidence, and a number of matches slipped out of the Eels’ grasp despite an apparent dominance by the team. Essentially the team forgot how to win.
The team’s ego was shaken by the loss to the Panthers in Round 1, then the Brookvale bludgeoning added self doubt on a huge scale.
Although this may seem to be attaching far too much significance to a couple of early season losses, the continued references to those games by the players was evidence of the impact on the team psyche.
When a team finds ways to lose as often as Parramatta did, the negative mindset is impossible to ignore.
The Eels weren’t the only team to play in early season heat, but they were scheduled to begin the season playing at 4pm on consecutive Sundays in temperatures of over 40 degrees.
The team was fit and trained in heat during the summer. But the conditions on those days were extreme, and took their toll. It was horrible to sit in the stands, let alone play football.
To be drawn at those times in the first two rounds was a rough way to start the season. I’d hope that the NRL doesn’t schedule afternoon matches during March next year, regardless of which team that may be.
No Place For No Home
Two years without a home ground – don’t kid yourself about its impact!
Playing at home is worth around 2 – 6 points per game, be it through extra penalties or the odd 50/50 call going your team’s way.
But it’s not just the occasional decision which might fall to a home team’s advantage. The smaller home grounds help a team to draw energy and inspiration from their crowds.
Whilst ANZ Stadium has good spectator facilities, there’s little doubt that a disconnect has developed between players and supporters on match days. There’s minimal atmosphere, built primarily from vast empty sections and the sheer distance between the punters and the field.
Additionally, the traffic on the turf along with match schedules, leaves the Eels (and other tenants) rarely able to hold Captain’s Runs at the Stadium.
Essentially, all home advantage has been removed during the past two seasons. The good news is that the players are excited about playing out of the new stadium.
The Bright Spot
Crazy as this might sound, a horror season was far better than an average one. The atrocious results have culminated in a department wide review and opened the door to much needed change.
Injuries and the team’s poor form have led to the debut of five young players this year. In truth, were it not for NRL regulations, that number would have been seven.
I had only expected two players to be elevated to first grade this year. Their success has paved the way for other young players to follow in their footsteps in 2019.
Niukore, Stone, Mahoney, Salmon, Kaufusi, Brown, Utoikamanu, Parry, Dunster, Fainga’a, Schneider, Dresler, Afualo – these names and others are more likely than not to become familiar to Eels supporters over the next two seasons.
In a market short on free-agent players, the Eels have undertaken a solid recruitment program. Paulo, Lane, Ferguson and Sivo head the list of additions to the roster, and size appears to be the order of the day.
A very different looking Eels can be expected to take the field in 2019, and hopefully it will be backed up by an Eels ISP team and quality mentoring from senior NRL players. With Gutherson and Hayne both returning to injury free football, the signs are positive.
A Final Word
The next two months will be critical.
Before the players return for their pre-season we should see a finalisation of the 2019 roster and the release of the review findings. Further changes to the roster or roles at the club may be likely.
Eels supporters can expect a Head of Football appointment.
I’ll hold off on any predictions about next season until after the team returns to work in November – future directions should be clear by then.
Regardless, my support will remain just as strong.