“In football, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards fast.”
The master coach applied this philosophy to his passion for innovation in rugby league.
Yet, at a most basic application, its truth can be found in the yearly task of compiling an NRL top 30.
Maintaining a match ready NRL squad has never been tougher than right now, but has there ever been a more challenging time for NRL clubs to secure their top 30 squad for the following season?
COVID-19 has certainly impacted top grade NRL. But when lower grade and junior rep competitions were shut down, rugby league’s pathways systems were stripped of critical player development and assessment time.
Parramatta is no island in this regard. However, for a club which has only recently come to grips with the challenge of compiling a competitive roster within salary cap restraints, the next four months could prove to be most crucial.
At the time of writing this post, 14 members of the Eels full time squad are listed as off-contract at season’s end. Those players, in alphabetical order, are:
Andrew Davey, Rhys Davies, Haze Dunster, Kane Evans, Jai Field, David Gower, Watson Heleta, George Jennings, Reed Mahoney, Jaeman Salmon, Will Smith, Ray Stone, Brad Takairangi, Peni Terepo.
I’m expecting the likes of Mahoney and Stone to be priority signings. Kane Evans is in the final year of a lucrative deal which, given the current pattern of tightening contract values, is unlikely to be repeated. If he decides to remain, it won’t be on the same coin. Brad Takairangi and Peni Terepo could possibly expect one year offers, and it’s unclear whether that will be their best options.
Unfortunately, for both the players and the club, the other off-contract players have no opportunity (outside of training) to push their claims for a new deal. There’s no Canterbury Cup, and in the case of younger fringe players, no Jersey Flegg. They are effectively out of the game for a year. It’s tough for both the young and the not so young.
In a season which is potentially the beginning of a premiership challenging window, Parramatta’s upcoming decisions about retention and recruitment could determine whether that window lasts for one year or multiple years.
Thinking back to 2017, the club performed well above expectations to finish in the Top Four. Moving into 2018, the senior signings were Kane Evans, Jarryd Hayne and Tony Williams.
That season, there was a talented group of young players just below first grade. Dylan Brown, Oregon Kaufusi, Reed Mahoney, Ray Stone, Ethan Parry and Jaeman Salmon were expected to feature from 2019 at best. The fact that Kaufusi, Mahoney and Salmon debuted in 2018 was a credit to each of them, but the reality was less about them being ready and more about the circumstances of that year.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Through it, we can look back and see that injuries were the risk factors in adding two players over the age of 30 to the roster. Throw in Evans missing a chunk of the preseason after joining the club on the back of a World Cup injury, and our recruitment shortfalls became part of a range of contributing factors leading to a spoon season.
Targeted recruitment coming into 2019 was critical in correcting the club’s trajectory. Ferguson and Sivo addressed the kick return yardage. Paulo and Lane added skill and starch to the pack, Brown replaced Norman and straightened the attack, and Blake’s mid-season switch provided additional strike-power out wide.
The Eels didn’t rest on their laurels coming into 2020. Attracting two quality starting forwards in Campbell-Gillard and Matterson has transformed the current Eels pack into one of the most imposing group of forwards in the premiership.
It’s all looking terrific isn’t it!
Well these Blue and Gold eyes are currently doing their best impersonation of Marty Feldman. One peeper is looking joyously at my team sitting pretty at the top of the ladder. The other keeps its focus on any news about next year.
Nearly every player outside of the Eels top 17 is off contract, and though we can feel pleased that the majority of our key signings are done, the Eels did enter the current season light in depth in and around the spine.
The words of CEO, Jim Sarantinos should be significant: “We want to be a top-four club, every year, on and off the field.”
If we call that a mission statement, from the top, then the decisions made around retention and recruitment would be centred on locking the club into a permanent Premiership window. This doesn’t mean that the club wins a title every year, but rather, like the Storm or the Roosters, the club expects to feature in finals football every season and steps are taken to ensure that.
What is likely to lie ahead as next season’s NRL squad is assembled?
Given the club’s priority on development, we can lock in a repeat of recent pre-seasons.
Talented pathways players will be elevated into an NRL pre-season. Some will sign Development contracts, whilst others will be trialling for one of those contracts or possibly a lower end Top 30 deal.
Players such as Dave Hollis and Sam Hughes will probably be joined in pre-season by the likes of Johnny Fonua, Sean Russell, Solomone Naiduki, Sam Loizou, Jake Arthur, Charbel Tasipale, William Penisini and Tasi James. I’m hoping that Kyle Schneider, who’s currently on a development deal, and Harry Duggan, are also retained. This was an important year for both after recent injuries, and neither have had the opportunity to push their claims with the loss of lower grades in 2020.
With these younger players not engaged in any competitions, I’d expect their pre-season to commence in November with NRL players returning after the Christmas break.
But the transition of that group to full time training does not address the immediate first grade requirements for 2021. All of those younger players are at least one to two seasons away from an NRL debut. Players will need to be signed to strengthen the current top 17, as well as provide depth and pressure on key positions.
Decisions around which of the off-contract players are retained will obviously determine some recruitment decisions, but at the very least I’d expect the addition of a quality prop, definitely an NRL experienced dummy half and outside back, and perhaps a depth back rower.
The timing of negotiations could prove to be interesting. Rumours of disgruntled players looking for a change of scenery are likely to reach new heights this year as those currently out of favour find themselves watching from a sedentary sideline. Throw in a number of underperforming clubs who will be looking to make significant changes to their rosters, and it could be a very active player market.
For the Eels, the landscape is much different to the not too distant past. The club has become high profile for the right reasons. The table-topping team plays out of a state of the art stadium, with highly respected coaching staff and first-class training facilities. All of that adds up to a quantum leap in Parra’s capacity for attracting quality off-contract players without breaking the bank.
Forty years ago, Jack Gibson’s words rang true, and they are just as true today.
It’s time to push our advantage to keep moving forward.