Remembering who you are, is how you take your power back. Lalah Delia
I never thought I would use a quote from a blogger, let alone a spiritual blogger. But in trying to describe the path that I believe the Eels must tread, I could find no words more perfect than these.
Every successful NRL team has its identity.
It’s created by the combination of its players, the coaches and in some instances the long term culture of the club.
The football played by the winning teams, or those in strong contention, might have a distinct or even a subtle difference from their opponents. However, what defines them is that when they find the key to success, they rarely stray from it.
Therein lies the current problem for the Eels.
In the first nine rounds of this season, Parra was playing the type of football which worked for the team. Their only loss was in a cracker of a game against the Roosters. And make no mistake, the Tri-Colours were at close to full strength and needed to produce some of their best footy to regain the ascendancy in the final twenty minutes of the match.
What defined the Eels team earlier this season?
Bruising, uncompromising defence ✔️
Strong kicking game and kick chase ✔️
Composure and discipline✔️
Patience in attack✔️
The Eels played a brand of football that left a physical imprint on their opponents. Their preparation for the year ahead had involved conditioning them to win a battle of attrition over their opponents. Points would be earned, and if it took till the 80th minute to score the winning points, so be it.
The Eels forwards punished their opponents in the collision – whether that was carrying the ball or defending against it. Opportunities came from the brutality of what occurred in the middle of the field. It tired opponents, creating space for second phase play and shifts. The Eels set the agenda from the opening whistle in the early season games and maintained their commitment throughout the match.
Such football suited the parts of the whole Eels team. Big, mobile, aggressive forwards with ball skills. Elusive halves. Athletic outside backs. A highly involved fullback.
At the end of Round 13, Parra boasted an 11 and 2 record, but a couple of narrow wins over less fancied opponents had started the outside noise.
There’s no denying that there was validity in questioning the right side defensive combination of Waqa Blake and Blake Ferguson. However, the media and supporters demanded more from the Eels attack.
The more that it was demanded, the worse the performances became.
Quite simply, the team started to look for the short-cut to points. Unfortunately, offloads and shifts against a fresh, advancing defence puts pressure on the offence. Hence the errors and incomplete sets.
There are no short cuts in rugby league.
Nor is this the identity that this Parramatta Eels team set about establishing earlier in the season.
Rugby league is a simple game.
When the players take the field, they have a responsibility to the coaches and to the fans.
Their responsibility to Brad Arthur and the coaches is to follow the match plan. In the first half of the season, the players’ adherence to the game plan was obvious.
Their responsibility to the fans is to put themselves in the best possible position of winning. This was being delivered.
But, the responsibility of the Parramatta team does not extend to delivering an “entertaining” brand of football – especially if it does not suit the team. The Panthers team boasts some of the most explosive attacking players in the competition. They can play that brand of footy because it suits their players.
Consider this quote from author Jim Watkins: –
“A river cuts through rock, not because of its strength, but because of its persistence.”
In sporting parlance, a river plays the long game.
For the Eels to fully impose themselves on this season, they too have to play the long game. They have to persist with what worked for them. I would argue that the outside noise has impacted their mindset. Instead of focusing on the type of football they needed to deliver, they have been responding to how the critics and the fans wanted them to play.
Impatience is a contagion. From the moment it entered the psyche of some players, it spread. It manifested in attack and, like rotting fruit, contaminated the other half of the game – defence. That was demonstrated in a significant number of players missing their defensive assignments last week. You don’t register around half a century of tackle failures if the fault lies with just a couple of individuals. The problems originated in the middle of the park on Thursday night and spread across the entire team.
The good news is definitely that there is no big fix needed for this team. Ignore the death riding critics and fans. Block or mute any negative Nancy looking for an audience. The Eels can put their recent funk behind them. This is a team which had only conceded a grand total of 176 points in their previous 15 matches.
That’s not to say that it won’t be a challenge for the coaches.
Back in September last year, I wrote this about the Eels mindset:
“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.”
I believe these words to be as true now as they were just after the end of the 2019 season. In the first half of this year’s premiership, I believed that Parramatta had turned the mental corner.
The last couple of losses have proven that the team is still about 30 degrees short of completing that turn.
However, the players have demonstrated that they are capable of producing football that’s worthy of a top four team. It’s up to them to return to what their identity should be, and to not let a couple of recent defeats define them or their season.
Forget the outside noise.
It’s time for Parra to take their power back.