When you’ve got something to prove, there’s nothing greater than a challenge.”
As the dust continues to settle following the Storm’s comprehensive semi-final shut out of the Eels, the formal and informal post mortems are now being formulated. We all enjoy debating a breakdown of the season over a beer or a coffee. And for staff and players, it sets some goals for what lies ahead.
This past weekend has been tough for Parra.
The immediacy of a loss which signals a team’s exit for the year is all about emotion. Eels players, staff and supporters would be hurting. Everyone had hoped, whether they were being realistic or not, that this team could go a step or two deeper into the finals.
And though a 32 to nil obliteration is hardly the way the Eels wanted or deserved to conclude the season, I believe that there are blessings to be found.
Back in 2017, a top 4 finish, followed by a controversial loss to the Storm and a second week exit against grand finalists, the Cowboys, probably papered over the deficiencies of the Eels team.
In contrast, Saturday night’s comprehensive loss to Melbourne, which the history books now record as the sixth defeat from six starts against the Storm in finals football, emphasised that Parramatta were not ready to be genuine contenders.
So where are the Eels at?
On reflection, they’ve probably proved a point or two this season. But whilst there has been a challenge or two met, without doubt new challenges have also been set.
Challenge 1 – Erasing 2018
Let’s keep this brief.
Last season had been a massive fall from grace. To go from Top 4 to bottom of the ladder is a dead-set shocker in any one’s language. It impacted self esteem, performances, attendances and potential revenue.
The Eels became the butt of jokes and lost respect in the rugby league world.
Climbing back to finals football within 12 months spoke volumes about the dedication and hard work of the staff and players. It didn’t prove that the spoon was undeserved, but it certainly proved that the Eels should have been better than that.
And on the back of a better season, attendances, revenue and reputations all bounced back.
Hopefully there’s a lesson that’s been learnt about resting on one’s laurels. A quick slide awaits anyone who chooses that path.
Challenge met – thus far.
Challenge 2 – Nurture Defeating Nature
The age old psychology debate of nature vs nurture.
Let’s turn this into rugby league parlance – talent vs experience.
If we address talent, there’s plenty to be excited about. The backline is brimming with potential. Older hands like Jennings and Ferguson are complemented by the potential of Sivo, Brown and Blake. Moses and Gutherson are on the verge of producing consistent, mature football.
Moving forward, the pack has its own share of emerging talent. Mahoney, Niukore, Stone and Lane are forging careers alongside more seasoned players like Paulo, Evans, Brown and Alvaro.
That said, the departure of Moeroa, Mannah and Ma’u leaves a hole. Takairangi looks likely to continue his transition to the forwards. The recruitment of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and the elevation of Utoikamanu and Kaufusi could fill the holes. Again, the talent isn’t the question.
But we all know that talent just isn’t enough.
It’s simply impossible to ignore the fact that the Eels are a relatively inexperienced football team. Going into 2019, the spine of Moses, Brown, Gutherson and Mahoney had all of two games of finals football on their resume – Moses having played in the two finals losses in 2017.
That lack of experience showed up in the first half against the Storm when Gutherson gave away a seven tackle set after kicking early during the Eels first genuine attacking opportunity. It was a crucial moment.
The only true finals campaigners in the Eels semi final team were Ferguson and Jennings, and even Fergo would admit that his performance was well below his best.
You can’t wave a magic wand and suddenly become battle hardened finals players. It’s something which is earned.
Nature must be nurtured and I’m going to drop a key number on you.
Taking out the four games lost via the departure of Ma’u and Moeroa, 30 games of NRL finals football has just been added to the Parramatta squad. Though it would have been brilliant to have gone deeper into this year’s finals series, the roster will start next season with that experience under their belt and we should, repeat should, see the benefits.
Is nurture winning over nature? For mine the challenge is still being met.
Challenge 3 (The Big One) – The Next Step
Let’s begin with the tangible. Mahoney and Sivo have just experienced their first full season of NRL football. Dylan Brown has hit double digits in his NRL appearance list. Newcomers such as Lane, Ferguson, Blake and Paulo (returning) have started to forge combinations.
Now the intangible.
Young players on the fringe such as Parry, Kaufusi and Utoikamanu are about to embark on their second NRL pre-season. You can even throw Brown and Sivo into that group. The importance of consolidating pre-seasons, after the lessons of that first one, cannot be underestimated.
External recruitment will happen. This post won’t dig into that topic. It’s deserving of a dedicated discussion.
For now, we have to consider whether the currently confirmed roster is ready to take the next step.
And the answer to that lies between the ears.
The form on display in the final game against the Storm was not the best that the Eels were capable of producing. Melbourne played as a unit, the Eels did not.
Despite some of the best preparation I’ve witnessed, too many players began that match on what seemed to be self-determined personal missions. Individual attempts at “big plays” left the team vulnerable, with errors and penalties costing both territory and possession.
It was only when Arthur could reset them at half time that the team produced something that resembled “Parra footy”.
The Melbourne Storm has clearly defined the next step, the next challenge for the Eels.
Being pumped up for a big performance is not enough. It can lead to being overawed by the big occasion.
Being focussed on consistently producing your best, knowing your role, owning it and taking pride in it, removing the external noise – all of those things happen in the head. When you get the head space right, the difference between your best and your worst becomes minimal.
That’s the next step.
Only when that is achieved can the Eels become, like the Storm, finals regulars and genuine contenders.