Few recent signings have triggered the mix of reactions quite like the Eels acquisition of Bryce Cartwright. From the overjoyed to the disappointed and even the “time to delete my social media posts”, most Eels supporters have openly expressed their opinion.
No matter the opinion, there’s a couple of common denominators that link even the most diverse responses – firstly, the bloke is talented and secondly, his defence and attitude at the Titans was not up to scratch.
Cartwright’s rugby league journey has probably not taken the road that he expected.
After making his debut against the Eels in round 12 of the 2014 season, and rapidly establishing himself as a star of the future at Penrith, Cartwright looked to be on the verge of Origin selection in only his second full season of top grade football. Strong showings for the Panthers and City Origin in 2016 had the versatile Carty in the extended Blues squad.
Injury and off-field personal dramas during 2017 saw Cartwright depart Penrith for a fresh start and a lucrative four year deal at the Titans. Unfortunately for him, the club were on a downhill slide, and his own performances saw him ranked in some quarters as the worst signing of 2018.
Even Cartwright’s most ardent supporters would concede that the big bloke was not close to earning his reported $500K contract. There were still moments of brilliance to be found, but in a team which finished 14th and 16th in his first two seasons, some flaws were readily exposed.
Of greatest concern was a lack of commitment to the defensive collision. On the surface, his tackle efficiency doesn’t read too poorly – sitting at 88.3% for his seven appearances in 2020. Indeed, it’s not too dissimilar to Shaun Lane who returned an 88.9% tackle efficiency stat during the last season.
However, compared to Ryan Matterson’s 91.2%, both Lane and Cartwright would be looking to improve their numbers in the upcoming season. Positioned next to the halves on the edges, the back rowers greatly impact the defensive decisions made by those on their outside.
Of course, what’s rarely been questioned is Cartwright’s talent in attack. In only seven games in 2020, he managed 20 offloads. This game average of almost three offloads compares most favourably with Junior Paulo who led the NRL with 54 offloads from 22 appearances. Even the dangerous Shaun Lane could only manage 28 offloads from his full season of games.
In 2019, his last full season with the Titans, Cartwright ranked 19th in the NRL with 33 offloads and was the club’s leading player for line break assists with 7. That’s decent numbers in a team which finished with the spoon.
Should a person earning his salary be capable of leading such stats for his club – most definitely. And it was the right of the Titans to determine whether his performances warranted his pay packet.
Still, that attacking talent is undeniable. Like most Eels supporters, I have nightmares of the Penrith vintage Cartwright creating something out of nothing to engineer wins against Parra. Obviously, that’s all in the past, and the question remains, can he bring it for the Blue and Gold?
In a resume which includes 23 games at five-eighth, and a couple of games at centre and lock, Cartwright has spent the majority of his 112 first grade games at second row or coming off the bench to play on the edge. I would expect that his introduction to top grade with the Eels would be via the bench as a replacement edge player.
With his skill set and unpredictability, Cartwright could probably be compared to Feleti Mateo, and offers a point of difference from the bench that has not been seen since the days of David Solomona or Dean Widders. Given the criticism of the Eels lack of impact outside the starting 13, the enigmatic back rower might be just what the doctor ordered.
At 193cms (6ft 4) and 107 kg, he’s of very similar dimensions to Ryan Matterson. But that’s not the only similarity. Both players also possess a kicking game, which presents an interesting question for Brad Arthur.
During 2020, the Eels coach experimented with his use of Shaun Lane. The towering second rower spent periods in the middle of the park as the team looked to find ways of creating momentum through the ruck. Was this a signal to a more permanent shift? Does this open the way for Cartwright to earn a spot in the starting pack so that the Eels can throw mirror plays on both sides of the ruck?
A lot of water would have to pass under the bridge for that to happen. The new recruit would need to prove to BA that his defence is greatly improved, and it’s reasonable to conclude that the incumbent Lane would get first crack at the starting spot.
Regardless of all of this postulation, the major upside of Cartwright’s signature has been the cost. The former Titan has travelled south on a contract which is a fraction of his deal up on the Gold Coast. He’s earning a base NRL salary from the Eels, literally costing the club little more than a Top 30 spot for his one year deal.
The benefit for Cartwright is the opportunity to prove himself in a team which has played finals footy during the past two seasons. The benefit for the Eels is the potential for Carty to rediscover the type of form which had him on the verge of Origin selection.
Early signs are very encouraging. After spending time with former hard man Mark Carroll in preparation for this preseason, Cartwright has hit the ground running at Parramatta training. His conditioning work has been outstanding, to the point where I would rate him as close to the fittest Eels forward of recent years.
Brad Arthur has a knack of finding the best in players that other clubs no longer want. He might just have found a new Eels x-factor in Bryce Cartwright.
I’m backing him in.
Images courtesy of Eels media