With the Eels 2021 roster approaching its finalisation, how is the squad looking?
Does it look like a successful roster?
How is a successful roster created?
What defines success?
Addressing the latter question first, the simplest definition is winning titles. And when it comes to premierships, two clubs define the past decade – the Storm and the Roosters.
Over the last ten seasons, each of those clubs has held the trophy aloft on three occasions. The Storm emerged victorious on Grand Final day in 2012, 2017 and 2020. For the Roosters, it was 2013, 2018 and 2019.
But what about the years when they weren’t winning titles?
It probably wouldn’t surprise punters to know that the Storm have featured in every finals series from the past decade, whilst the Roosters have been finalists in seven of the past eight years.
The long term success of these clubs has been founded by their consistent appearances in the big end of season games.
Perhaps that means sustained success is first achieved by finals consistency.
Of course, the rosters of these clubs have evolved over time.
From the outside we marvel at the success of a club such as the Melbourne Storm. No doubt we look back in anger at their salary cap breaching days, but few could argue with their capacity to discover young talent or the extraordinary ability of Craig Bellamy to get high value from low cost recruits.
An example of the changes at the Storm can be found in looking at their 2017 grand final side:
Slater, Vunivalu, Chambers, Scott, Addo-Carr, Munster, Cronk, Bromwich, Smith, McLean, Kaufusi, Harris, Finucane, Bromwich, Glasby, Asofa-Solomona, Griffin.
Eight of those seventeen players were not part of their 2020 campaign, but how has that change occurred?
For the Storm, nine players made their club debut in 2020. However, three of those players made their first grade debuts with other clubs.
It’s worth digging further into the path of Storm debutants towards being regular top 17 players. It’s actually a much slower burn than many would realise.
In 2020, only one club debutant featured regularly in the NRL, and that was Branko Lee, an external recruit with NRL experience.
Of their 2019 debutants, only Papenhuyzen and Fa’asuamaleaui earned regular NRL spots in 2020, with Justin Olam being the only 2018 debutant to secure his place this year. An examination of the 2017 new boys only adds Hughes, Brandon Smith to the list, with Addo-Carr being an external addition to the squad.
When it comes to player development, the story at the Roosters is not dissimilar. Eight players have made their top grade debut at the tri-colours over the past two years. Of those, only Sam Verrills could be considered as close to an established NRL player.
With that in mind, although the Roosters have nurtured their own talent, they have undoubtedly found success from signing a couple of significant recruits each season. It could even be argued that the addition of Flanagan, Morris and SBW did not have the required impact in 2020, and this was exposed in the back end of the season. The stay of both Flanagan and Sonny Bill consequently became short term.
So when it comes to sustained success, that development of a strong playing roster is the first challenge for all clubs, and the Storm and Roosters have done well over a long period to retain players who were key to their strength. Gradual change has obviously helped them to maintain it.
But there is another factor to success which must be highlighted. Ultimately, the defining common denominator for both clubs has been the stability with their coaches. Both Bellamy (18 seasons) and Robinson (8 seasons) represent long term coaching investments by their clubs. They have a dedication and passion for their roles and their clubs, and it’s rewarded by an unwavering respect and loyalty from their players.
It’s surely no coincidence that sustained success has gone hand in hand with the stability of the person guiding the players.
Where do the Eels sit in comparison?
Though the Eels finished top four in 2017, the wooden spoon season in 2018 was not going to be a strong foundation for sustained success.
It should come as little surprise that plenty has changed since that year when the following players were involved in the squad:
Alvaro, Aukafolau, Auva’a, Brown (Nathan), Davis, Edwards, Evans, French, Gutherson, Gower, Hayne, Hoffman, Jennings, Jennings, Kaufusi, King, Leleisiuao, Mahoney, Mannah, Matagi, Ma’u, Moeroa, Moses, Niukore, Norman, Pritchard, Salmon, Scott, Smith, Stone, Takairangi, Terepo, Vave, Williams.
Of the 34 players listed above, only ten (including Michael Jennings) are currently named as Eels players in 2021. Of those, Stone, Niukore, Mahoney and Kaufusi made their NRL debuts in 2018.
If we go back even further to 2016, only Alvaro, Gutherson, Jennings, and Paulo still remain, with Paulo spending two and a half seasons with the Raiders during that period.
There’s no ignoring it. From the low base of 2018, the construction of the Eels squad has been more revolution than evolution.
So, back to the question – Does the Eels roster look like a successful one?
After a spoon season, finals appearances in successive years is a good start. Finishing fifth and then third in the last two regular seasons reads well for the Eels placing themselves as regular finals contenders.
There is then the vital stability in the coaching staff, with Brad Arthur approaching 200 NRL games in charge, and potentially breaking Brian Smith’s record of 244 games down the track.
And finally, we address the players themselves. Maintaining the core of the top 17, especially the spine, was an important goal which has been achieved.
Opportunities for a top 17 spot on the bench seemed to be the attraction for recruits. The likes of Cartwright, Papali’i, Lussick and Hipgrave should fill that brief. At the very least they add significant depth with all boasting top grade experience. Roache provides surprisingly good value for a development contracted player.
The unexpected hole will likely be at centre. The club hadn’t planned to be without Michael Jennings and should his B sample return a positive result, finding a similarly talented and experienced replacement will not be easy. With respect, Opacic and Oldfield have not produced similar highlight reels to Jenko. Both are terrific signings, but they cannot be expected to provide the equivalent impact or experience of Jennings.
It also seems that in the short term, Will Smith will be the back-up option in the halves.
Should the Eels continue to look for external recruits, I’d have to expect that a centre or another back-up half might be targets.
What of the injection of youth, and the blooding of pathways players?
As we’ve seen from the Storm and the Roosters, such players are usually a slow burn. The Eels have lost two of their 2020 debutants in Andrew Davey and Stefano Utoikamanu. However, Dylan Brown, Reed Mahoney, Marata Niukore, Maika Sivo, Ray Stone, Oregon Kaufusi, and Haze Dunster have all debuted within the last three years and remain with the club. This number is comparable with Melbourne and Easts.
Dave Hollis and Sam Hughes will be the next in line to press for a top grade appearance, and there will also be a wealth of young players undertaking the NRL preseason.
The majority of the bases seem covered in the roster, and the concern around dummy half depth seems to be addressed with interest.
And with a spot or two yet to fill, and the Jennings issue yet to be finalised, there’s still more Eels roster news to come.
Personally, I’m champing at the bit for the preseason to start.