With the recent acquisition of Ryan Matterson alongside Shaun Lane’s breakout season, the Parramatta Eels have two genuinely unique difference makers in both edge backrow slots in 2020. Physically the backrow, and indeed the entire roster, is in its most competitive iteration in well over a decade and primed for a tilt at the Norm Provan trophy.
The question now remains, having honed their physical edge are the Parramatta Eels ready to find their mental edge?
What did we learn in 2019?
Parramatta’s surge to 5th place in 2019 featured a myriad of fascinating results upon further reflection. In games against bottom eight teams, the Eels largely went about their business as they accumulated a dominant 9-4 record with a points differential of +106 (For: 301, Against: 195). An emphatic Easter Monday victory over the Wests Tigers (+45 differential) propped up Parramatta’s differential to some extent but in their eight other victories the Eels still maintained an average margin of victory of just under 12 points (11.75) and only twice finished within one scoring play of their opponents.
In their four losses against non-finals contenders the Eels had margins of defeat that totalled just 14, 7, 6 and 6 points respectively. In each of these games, even the 14 point loss against the Newcastle Knights the Eels absolutely had opportunities to triumph. Just as each loss here represents a frustrating miscue and squandered victory, it also points to a psychological shift that enabled Parramatta to be a position to win each of these 14 games.
The manner in which they played these games certainly wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing but history and the win column cares little in that regard. Parramatta clearly made mental adjustments to how they approached games they ‘should win’ in 2019 and while there is no such thing as an easy game in the NRL, banking any win in which you have any sort of marginal favouritism is one of the cornerstones of sustained success.
On the other hand, Parramatta’s splits against Top 4 and Top 8 opposition show there is still considerable room for improvement for Brad Arthur and his men in 2020. The Eels sported an overall record of 5-6 against Top 8 opponents in the regulation season in 2019 and a 2-3 record when you narrow it down to the Top 4.
These splits suggest the Eels were competitive with the various tiers of talent amongst the Top 8 teams.However the points differential in these eleven games disappointingly finished in the red at -46. As with the Easter Monday game against the Wests Tigers there is an outlier here with the Round 9 shellacking by the Melbourne Storm which handed the Eels a hefty -54 to their for and against. Even so, their five other losses against finals contenders still amounted to an average margin of defeat of 13.2 points – a handicap far too significant for a team seriously looking to throw its weight around with the big boys in the NRL.
It then shouldn’t come as a surprise that we saw both the best and worst of the Parramatta Eels in the 2019 finals. The two teams they faced in the Brisbane Broncos and the Melbourne Storm represented match-ups that were either spectacularly positive or negative in both record and play-style.
Parramatta’s record shattering 58-0 rout of the Broncos was an important psychological step forwards for the coach and team as Brad Arthur earned his first post-season victory while the Eels tasted finals success for the first time in a decade. Critics of Parramatta’s success in 2017 pointed to their straight sets exit from the finals (to eventual grand finalists in the Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys, mind you) and gave birth to the notion that the Eels could not win big games.
Given what transpired in Melbourne the following week in 2019, I doubt that said notion has been completely dispelled from nay-sayers but as I mentioned in my post-game musings following the 32-0 heart breaker, my silver lining to the game was in the attitude and application of the Eels in the second half of that game.
Still, it is almost an inevitability these days that the path to the premiership runs through the Melbourne Storm or the Sydney Roosters one way or another. In 2019 the Eels went a combined 0-3 against these two teams and perhaps more than any other statistic or match-up, this is hurdle that Parramatta have to overcome in 2020.
Stopping The Skid
Consecutive defeats are almost always a back-breaker for any would-be Top 4 team and every blue & gold fan will immediately point to a 3-game skid that started in Round 9 as to where the Eels lost crucial momentum in 2019. The aforementioned 64-10 thrashing at the hands of the Storm in the Magic Round started the rot and was followed by two ugly losses to the Cowboys and Panthers in which Parramatta played some of their worst football of the season.
A loss here and there is understandable but the Eels can ill-afford to repeat such a mistake in 2020.
The MILF Factor
MILF of course referring to maturation, indemnification, leadership and finals (experience) you filthy degenerates!
The 2019 Parramatta Eels were a young and talented squad that over-achieved to an extent. No where was this more exemplified than in their spine where Mitchell Moses and Clinton Gutherson at the tender ages of 24 a piece blazed the trails forward for the baby-faced pair of assassins in Reed Mahoney and Dylan Brown.
Throw in the fresh faces featured across the back line (Ferguson, Sivo, Blake) and the forward pack (Paulo, Lane) in 2019 and intrinsically there is significant overhead for growth both individually and in combinations across this roster before you even factor in the additions of Ryan Matterson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
The maturation of these young players, combinations and leaders should be one of the core reasons for fans to set their expectations high for the 2020 season. So too should the sting of the loss to the Storm be fuel for every player and coach to go even further in their upcoming redemption tour.
The Importance Of Bankwest Stadium
Some may consider it a crutch but the Eels were triumphant in their return to their spiritual home this year. It was reflected in the numbers in a big way as they powered to an overall record of 8-2 in the regulation season (including one ‘away’ game against the Tigers) with a points differential of +123, an average of victory of 16.86 and an average margin of defeat of just 6.
Spin it whichever way you want but the Parramatta Eels were dominant in their new house. That dominance carried into the finals with their historic victory over the Brisbane Broncos and given that Bankwest Stadium should be eligible to host a Grand Final Qualifier (if I am not mistaken) the significance of a Top 4/Top 2 finish for the Eels can not be overstated.
In order to secure such a tremendous advantage the Eels will need to coalesce everything written above but the difference in making in the finals series run through the West of Sydney instead of AAMI Park or the SCG would change the complexion of the entire finals series.
So will the Parramatta Eels make the mental leap in 2020?
As always when it comes to the Eels, my heart is already completely over-committed and bought in. It is clearly a predisposed incurable genetic condition and that baffles the brightest scientific minds in the world.
My head is full of a cautious optimism that is bordering on full-blown genuine optimism because I believe there are enough key indicators pointing towards growth and consolidation across the Eels’ roster.
If the Eels are ever to take the next step forwards and enter the pantheon of elite contenders in the NRL, 2020 is the year. All that remains unfortunately is to wait and speculate!