Around this time every year, The Cumberland Throw keeps you up to date with junior system players to follow. We try do this with a little bit of knowledge and from a place of passion.
It’s never been an onerous task given that attending Junior Rep matches and following the lower grades pathways is in our DNA. As supporters we have always been proud that our Parramatta Eels can rightly claim to be a development club.
Unfortunately, this post is not one of those player watch articles.
Over the course of this off-season, the trickle of talent flowing away from the Eels development pathways has rapidly transformed into a flood with the shocking announcement today that Stefano Utoikamanu will be joining the Wests Tigers in 2021.
In our opinion, the term “Development Club” cannot be applied to a system that could more appropriately be named The Wests Tigers Academy.
Is this an exaggeration?
Consider this list of Eels players who have been recruited by the Tigers from Eels lower grades and Junior Reps in just this year alone:
Stefano Utoikamanu, Salesi Fainga’a, Tyler Field, Joe Taipari, Tyrone Faulkner, Vea Tapaatoutai, Etu Vinny Lui.
And the list of departures doesn’t just end with the Tigers. Tui Afualo, Bailey Biondi-Odo, and William Kei have signed with the Bulldogs, Trey Mooney has signed with the Raiders, and Jesse Cronin has joined the Titans feeder system.
In the case of Tyler Field and Trey Mooney, that’s two current Australian Schoolboys players who participated in the Australian Schoolboy Championship as unsigned free agents – essentially allowing the tournament to showcase their talents to the entire NRL!
To be fair, there are players on that list who were recruited into the Eels system from other territories. And there were players listed who were unlikely to reach NRL level at Parramatta or another club. The development system is like a funnel – you will inevitably lose players because there are limited places available in any NRL roster and you certainly accept that you simply can not keep every talented junior in your system.
Even so why should we fire up about this?
The names of some of these players may not be familiar to the average supporter, and their departure might cause few ripples. However, whether these players were locals, or whether they were brought in from elsewhere into the Eels development system, there has been a massive investment made with minimal return. Such investment includes the JETS scheme – elite juniors who receive additional coaching and guidance by Eels NRL staff.
The aim of any investment should be to get a return. In the ideal world this comes from producing an NRL level player. Put a big green tick next to Stefano’s name there – he will play NRL.
For others, they fill places in Canterbury Cup or Jersey Flegg teams. When you are a development club, it makes financial sense to fill places with players from your system. With so many departures, including players who were still at SG Ball level, the time and money spent on them has – to put it in layman’s terms – literally been pissed against the wall. Worse still, the club has lost its opportunity to evaluate whether they would reach the NRL level, an introspective process equally as important as the development of the players themselves.
Left with a void of playing talent, the Eels now have to scramble to fill their vacated places across the various rosters with an array of inexperienced talent, lesser quality players, or those who will potentially cost more money.
Impact On The Junior System
Here there are plenty of negatives to be found. Let’s consider just two of the most obvious.
Firstly, the message to those in our system is that their future is not with the Eels. This is not a head in the sand comment. The reality is that the Eels can never keep every talented player. However, if the club allows two of its three current Australian Schoolboys players to leave, and comes very, very close to losing the third, the message is crystal clear that our club doesn’t value achievement.
How does this play out with the families of these players? Do they feel any love from the club? What lessons do the managers learn? Word travels quickly in the rugby league community. As you may have figured by the tone of this piece…the current word is not positive.
Secondly, the impact on junior development staff cannot be ignored. There are huge numbers of people, including volunteers and part time staff, who passionately dedicate their time to the young players in the Eels system. We can guarantee readers that there are many who are devastated by the current exodus. How will this play out should the departures not abate?
Impact On The NRL Team
There will probably be minimal impact this year given that this is an area in which the club has excelled in recent times. However, should the cause of the departures not be addressed, the piper will ultimately have to be paid. The club will be reliant on external purchases to maintain a strong roster and historically we have simply been unable to compete against the glamour clubs and their superior TPAs in this regard.
Maybe we can match other clubs. Is there a problem in trying to do this?
It is a problem if you’re basing your philosophy on being a development club but spending your resources on addressing significant shortfalls in pathways players. If we are choosing this path, then we need to establish a better recruitment system and stop spending significant time and money on players that we won’t retain.
The Big Question – Who Is Responsible?
Without question, the Eels processes have become very slow and very measured. It should be mentioned that this has proven beneficial when re-signing elite NRL talent but by the same token you can’t use one tool for every job. Parramatta’s inflexible negotiating approach has clearly not proven to be so wise with the junior elite.
Young talent such as Stefano Utoikamanu, Oregon Kaufusi, Dylan Brown and Reed Mahoney have been allowed to remain unsigned after November 1. The Eels could not, nor should not, have matched the Tigers offer for Stefano. But they need not have got to this stage. The talented prop could have been locked up for less money earlier in the year.
At this point, the other three are yet to commit for 2021 and beyond. Our concern is that Kaufusi will be the next to leave as rivals circle the talented bookend. Given that the talent pool below the NRL squad has been greatly diminished, the future is not as bright as it should be.
Has somebody dropped the ball?
Have we got the processes wrong?
Supporters deserve answers beyond “we couldn’t match the offer”. Because, if you get your processes correct, those bigger offers don’t come into play as often for the incumbent club.
We await a statement from the club, particularly from the Head of Football.
The Cumberland Throw