Life is like a roller coaster. You can either scream every time there is a bump or you can throw your hands up and enjoy the ride.
Without question, the major talking point about the 2019 Parramatta Eels has been the desultory performances delivered in nearly half of their matches this season.
Described as the Jekyll and Hyde of the NRL, the disparity between the best and worst of the Blue and Golds has been stark. We’ve witnessed the team fluctuate from the breathtaking demolition of opponents one week to embarrassing capitulation the next.
Yet, as we hit Round 15 of the 2019 NRL season, the Parramatta Eels currently sit in 8th place. They’ll need to defeat the Raiders to stay there. Yet credit where it’s due, a win in Round 1 against the Panthers saw the Eels begin the year in the top 8, and at the conclusion of each of the 14 rounds they’ve remained there.
Along the way, supporters have been taken on the wildest roller coaster ride, where the adrenal gland rush of excitement at most BankWest matches has been almost eclipsed by that slingshot of velocity from steep performance falls in clashes away from home.
Yet it might surprise punters that a similarity exists between the past three seasons.
Back in 2017, Parra finished the regular season in the top 4. However, there was nothing special about the first half of the season with the team only posting a modest win/loss record of 7/7 by Round 14 that year. The Eels would go on to find tremendous consistency and win 9 of their last 10 matches to qualify for the finals in fourth place, taking their tally to 16 victories.
Of note was the points differential after 14 matches that year. In scoring 258 points, but conceding 308, Parramatta came into the last ten rounds with a negative 50 differential. It’s worth comparing that to what followed in 2018.
Last season was an absolute disaster, but there was something familiar about it. On the back of only 3 wins in the first 14 rounds, it was logical that a negative points differential would be the result. And if you’re not winning, the chances are you’re not scoring too many points. And this was the case with the Eels attack only registering 194 points by Round 14.
However, conceding 312 points conjures a sensation of déjà vu.
Let’s now bring our timeline forward into the current season.
As of Round 14, 2019, the Eels defence has leaked 306 points.
That’s 308 points in 2017, 312 points in 2018 and 306 points in 2019.
For a team renowned for their inconsistency, that’s a remarkably consistent 22 points per game over three seasons. Boasting the second worst defence in the Premiership is not something you want to highlight on your resume, but for a point in time indicator, it’s interesting to note.
So what’s different? Why does this year feel like a theme park ride.
Captain Obvious replies, “It’s the attack.” And he’d be right.
For the first 14 matches, the last 3 years of attack stats reads thus – 258, 194 and 311 points. Those 311 points in 2019 currently positions the Eels attack as the fourth best in the comp. The additional 117 points found this year certainly haven’t hurt the team’s efforts to improve on the failures of last year.
In looking to provide some insight, I’ll offer some observations from training in addition to a number of relevant statistics.
The attacking drills and games at training have naturally varied over the last six seasons. No team would repeat drills, plays and shapes year upon year. However, the constant over those years has been the time dedicated to developing the passing skills of the forwards and the encouragement provided for every player to play what’s in front of them.
As a supporter who attends training, the hair-tearing frustration of match days has been watching the team when they fail to execute during games – especially last season. The offloads and support play in evidence at Old Saleyards rarely manifested in the heat of battle in 2018.
So let’s dig a little deeper. There are a number of significant statistics this season that require your attention.
The club currently sits 3rd in offloads (11.1 per game), 2nd in run metres (averaging 1547m), and here’s the sweet, sweet number – 1st in generating ineffective tackles (19.8 per game).
Back in December, resident stats wiz Colmac identified the Eels inability to generate ineffective tackles as being a key metric to improve going into 2019. Over the previous three seasons, our returns had been 15.1 (2016), 15.3 (2017) and 14.2 (2018). A jump to 19.8 ineffective tackles per game in 2019 has been an outstanding improvement.
Finding more offloads has been the result of both recruitment and coaching. To that end, Junior Paulo has been a key addition.
With 34 credited offloads for the season, Junior currently ranks second behind Andrew Fifita who has 39 to his name. With a match average of 2.6 offloads per game, that’s almost one quarter of the total Eels average.
And it’s the manner in which Paulo offloads that does the damage. The more players that are drawn into an ineffective tackle on the big unit, the more the defence line is left short in numbers. Throw in solid back up from Nathan Brown (1.7) and Manu Ma’u (1.6), and the quick shifts often following an Eels offload results in the likes of Jennings and Sivo featuring on the NRL top try scorers list. The prospect of the newly recruited Waqa Blake being the beneficiary from some of these open spaces adds a mouth watering component to the end of season matches.
Where does this leave the Eels in the run home?
The attacking statistics speak for themselves.
The points scored are the best return for the last five years and equal the points scored back in 2014 when Jarryd Hayne produced a Dally M medal season, and topped the NRL try scorers list with 20 – closely followed by Semi with 19 four pointers.
If the Eels can find some defensive resilience, a finals berth probably awaits.
Without finding it, the amusement park ride that is our current season will still be carrying passengers.