Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the silly season.
That first day in November, when players contracted until the end of the following season are suddenly permitted to negotiate with clubs twelve months in advance, is soon to arrive.
Of course, the average footy punter has as much faith in the honesty of the system as coaches believe that they have the full support of the board for the duration of their contract. But, for the purposes of continuing the NRL soap opera into the off season, ticking this date on the calendar means that agents can openly play some of their negotiation picture cards with bidding clubs and the media.
Who holds the best hand?
Is it the clubs offering the deals, or the players offering their talents? Forget discussing the agents. They always get their coin, no matter the destination.
Last year we witnessed the Eels move past a spoon season, past November 1, past January 1, then past the season kick off with the majority of their squad and the coach unsigned for the following year.
To me, that was unprecedented.
And it wasn’t as if the pressure wasn’t applied.
The Arthur, Gutherson and Moses contracts were the first to feature in the media.
Ultimately, Arthur’s deal was the first to be finalised. It was soon followed by Gutherson and then Moses. From there, others were quietly extended, whilst Mannah retired, Ma’u moved to the ESL and Moeroa crossed codes to the Waratahs.
Impressively, the Eels picked up Blake mid season and Campbell-Gillard for 2020, with Penrith paying a chunk of their salaries. If rumours are true, the Riff are essentially adding around half a million dollars to the Eels cap for the next four years.
How is it that the team coming off such a disastrous season were able to keep their key players, whilst making significant purchases?
The NRL themselves offer this insight when explaining some of the anomalies queried by many of us when certain clubs consistently recruit marquee players:
Some clubs will attract players on the basis of what the club can offer a player’s career rather than just money. Other clubs may need to spend more money to attract the same level of player.
Many factors affect individual players’ remuneration levels. Some of the reasons why a player may sign with a club include:
Staying close to the player’s home town and family.
The chance to work with one of the top coaches in the game.
Being part of a winning team and the potential to play in the Telstra Premiership Finals Series or Grand Final.
Increased opportunity to play NRL with that club due to a lack of competition for the player’s preferred position.
The increased profile a player may enjoy in a one-team town.
The number of support staff, their expertise and the support facilities.
Education and welfare support structures.
Without question, coming up with a competitive contract figure would be a major factor in determining whether a player signs. But whether papers are inked at just below, or just above, market value can be influenced by some of those factors listed above.
On that note, it’s worthwhile examining the likely selling points of the Eels as they head into the player market to strengthen their squad for next season.
From half back to full back, the Eels have arguably one of the most potent backlines in the premiership.
And it’s still evolving.
Ferguson, Blake, Sivo and Brown are all new to the team. When you consider Blake’s late arrival and the injuries to Brown, Fergo and Jennings, there’s been minimal time to hone their combinations.
The entire backline have been rewarded with representative selection at the end of the season. And there’ve been other achievements during the season itself. Moses finished third in the Dally M awards and received the gong for half back of the year. Sivo was the top try scorer. Fergo returned to Origin footy with Gutho becoming a shadow player for the Blues. And Dylan Brown is undoubtedly the most exciting Eels five-eighth since the legendary Brett Kenny.
In the forwards, Mahoney and Brown earned rep stripes whilst the likes of Lane and Paulo have both received accolades for their form and their leadership qualities. Niukore has established himself as an impact interchange forward. It’s also fair to say that Kane Evans has begun to fulfil the potential that attracted the Eels attention two years ago.
Why is this squad a selling point?
Players want to join strong teams. They want to achieve personal goals such as playing finals football or donning a rep jersey. This past season has proved that the Parramatta club can develop a player and enhance his reputation. Playing for the Eels can lead to rep footy.
Importantly, the departure on Manu Ma’u can be sold as a starting team opportunity.
Of course, backing up this year’s performances next year becomes crucial. The good work can be undone with a poor season, especially when measured against finals residents such as the Roosters and the Storm.
Maintaining a strong squad via consistently strong seasons must be the goal.
Coaching and Support Staff
I can already sense the doubters. Arthur and our staff have yet to win a title or prove that they can consistently coach a team to finals football. Though many of us believe that such results will be achieved, the average punter might continue to have questions.
However, this is where the rugby league network works for a quality coach – the players become the best sales staff.
Word travels in the footy community about what it’s like to be mentored by particular coaches. A well respected coach and his staff can help the club to attract players at, or just below, market value. Without that reputation, it might cost a little more.
In the past I’ve written about what players have said to me about being coached by BA. In some cases I’ve chosen not to write about it, because it’s too personal in terms of the assistance and guidance he’s provided.
Importantly, it’s not just Arthur that has been praised by players. It’s been a range of staff. The Eels are one of the benchmark clubs in player welfare, meeting current and future needs via a range of programs including education.
Having dedicated, caring staff has been critical.
Therefore, I’ll leave you with a quote provided to me during the last 12 months. It was made by a first grade player:
“Parra might not have the best facilities, but they have the best people.”
Which leads perfectly into the next selling point.
A number of years ago, the Eels had to move away from training at Parramatta Stadium to having sessions at Richie Benaud Oval and about four other venues. There were no player rooms. It was primitive conditions for a major sporting team.
The development at Old Saleyards put the operation at a single venue, but the demountables were still a far cry from those clubs with high performance centres. Furthermore, Eels administration found themselves in rented space inside the old Masonic Club premises. Unfortunately, the Old Salesyard land would require re-zoning to be developed any further and realistically, the space required for a COE and administration headquarters was going to be found outside of the Parramatta Council area.
Thank goodness for the Hills Shire Council.
The $35m Kellyville Centre of Excellence is a game changer.
Stage 1 of the development will see the Eels housed in facilities that are comparable to Penrith. This should be in place when the team returns to pre-season work after the Christmas break.
From there, the following Stages will see the lower grade match venue constructed followed by the full COE and community facilities structure.
Importantly, this new home keeps the club in a major Eels catchment area which just happens to be enjoying significant commercial and residential growth – the Hills District.
It will be a major selling point for the Eels.
Ground sharing seems inevitable, but after calling this place home for 70 years, this superb stadium will always be recognised as Parra’s home ground.
Very soon, players won’t need a tour to check out what it has to offer. Most will have played at the venue, experiencing the player facilities, not to mention the atmosphere the home team enjoys playing in front of big crowds.
It’s no coincidence that the Eels played their best footy at home this year. Players love to perform on the big stage. You don’t have to be a league expert to understand the difference running out to a full house at Bankwest compared to empty stands at ANZ Stadium.
The Eels averaged just over 21K for their Bankwest Stadium home crowds this year. It’s become the envy of every Sydney club.
In the past, this has been a double edged sword.
The Parramatta Eels have never really worried about their viability to field an NRL team. Unlike other clubs who’ve relied on NRL bail outs or private investors, or even those who’ve merged or examined relocation, the Eels have always met their financial responsibilities.
However, having Parramatta Leagues Club as its wealthy benefactor has seen the Eels literally haemorrhage money. In 2016, the salary cap drama exposed a club that had promised and (poorly) executed player payment schemes that resulted in ILGA removing the Leagues Club Board of Directors and appointing an administrator.
From a long term perspective, this was critical.
Max Donnelly’s new Leagues Club Constitution guarantees that the club will provide ongoing funding for the Eels NRL operation.
Additionally, in the three years under the control of an appointed Football Board and Bernie Gurr’s management, Eels operational losses have been shaved from $12.6m down to $3.6m. In reality, massive operation losses are not sustainable for any organisation. The return to Bankwest Stadium and finals football this year should see even better final figures for 2019.
It’s brilliant to have a benefactor who guarantees continued funding. It’s even better when the football operation is less reliant on such handouts.
At a time when some clubs might face uncertainty, the Eels enjoy much greater security.
(PS – let’s guarantee this by supporting future votes for a merit appointed Leagues Club Board)
Will This Translate Into Marquee Signings For 2020 And Beyond?
Talent identification – matching the team’s requirements against the qualities that a potential signing brings – is the first step. In a previous post, we’ve discussed the Eels current need for a quality back rower to replace Manu Ma’u. We’d like to believe that a signing will come from the list contained in that post.
Determining how to pitch the deal is next. Despite media speculation, there are players that the Eels can’t negotiate with until after November 1.
For some of those players, money may not be determining factor. Dollars might be matched by their current clubs or by competing bids. Other factors, such as those suggested above, might become crucial.
Competing against perennially successful clubs like the Roosters and the Storm might still come down to money. In retaining some stars, they can’t keep them all – see Blake Ferguson. Dollar amounts and contract lengths might lure them.
What can’t be denied is that players, be they new recruits or extensions, often receive similar offers – and other factors determine who they decide to sign with.
Though we don’t yet know who it will be, the Eels will add to their roster for next year.
And it doesn’t hurt negotiations when the club has more than money to offer.