The current suspension of NSWRL senior competitions has been an understandable, and unavoidable, consequence of the current COVID lockdowns impacting Sydney.
At this stage, the intent is to resume competitions such as the Knock On Effect NSW Cup and the Jersey Flegg Cup after lockdown orders end, though the infection numbers and the movement of players into Queensland will push that date well into August. To be honest, I fear for the fate of this year’s competitions.
Regardless of the lockdown outcome, this extended pause in the lower grades is now an ideal time for a quick mid-season review (maybe final review) of the Eels performance in the 2021 Knock on Effect NSW Cup. It was, after all, a significant year for the club at this level of football.
Given that the Eels competed as a joint venture with the Wenty Magpies from 2008 to 2019, and that the 2020 competition was subsequently lost to the pandemic, this season marked the Eels return to the NSW Cup as a stand-alone entity.
Like many clubs, the Eels needed to recruit a roster of second tier players for 2021. This meant that the majority of the squad was essentially new at this level for the club.
It wasn’t just new players. Coach Ryan Carr was recruited from England. Carr was head coach of Featherstone Rovers after previous lower grade stints at Souths and Canberra. His 2020 season in charge of the Eels NSW Cup team came to an abrupt halt, though he did continue his work with the full time squad, especially mentoring those players in the bubble who were missing out on game time.
From what I’ve seen at training, Carr is a very good coach and communicator. The results from 2021 are evidence of his coaching prowess and a benefit of having the NSW Cup coach and most of the team involved with full time training.
Thus far, 33 players have taken the field for Parramatta in the NSW Cup. Those players are Hayze Perham, Blake Ferguson, Sean Russell, Will Penisini, Michael Oldfield, Haze Dunster, Solomone Naiduki, Samuel Loizou, Lalotoa Mata’afa, Jordan Rankin, Jake Arthur, Will Smith, Makahesi Makato’a, Joey Lussick, Oregon Kaufusi, Elie El-Zakhem, Bryce Cartwright, Ky Rodwell, Wiremu Greig, David Hollis, Charbel Tasipale, Nathaniel Roache, Keegan Hipgrave, Kurt Dillon, Aitasi James, Ray Stone, Dylan Clifford, Ryan Matterson, Tim Lafai, Tom Ale (loan from Warriors), Noel Aukafolau, Grant Taulafo, and Harrison O’Toole
In the most recent match, Round 15 against Mounties, only Will Smith and Oregon Kaufusi had previously played for Wenty in the joint venture team. Of the other 15 players, five were external recruits for the Eels top 30, five were pathways players elevated to NSW Cup, and four were second tier contract recruits. The other player, Blake Ferguson, was in his first lower grade stint with the Eels since joining the club in 2019.
Experienced first grade players such as Ray Stone, Keegan Hipgrave, and Bryce Cartwright have played multiple NSW Cup games for Parra this year, whilst Samuel Loizou, Aitasi James, Solomone Naiduki and David Hollis have spent time in both Jersey Flegg and NSW Cup.
Of course, as is typical of this grade, other second tier and pathways players have been elevated for occasional matches in this line up. Amongst the 33 players listed above are a number who regularly play Ron Massey Cup.
At the time of the competition’s suspension, Parramatta were sitting in outright second place, five points behind the Panthers. They had struck a purple patch of form, winning their last four matches in succession.
From a team perspective, there are some interesting statistical observations.
The Eels lead the competition for completion rates (82%), post contact metres (7698), decoy runs (558), kicks (256), and kick metres (6701). Furthermore, they sit second for run metres (21496) and kick return metres (2353).
When it comes to negative stats, the numbers are just as good. Parra have recorded the second lowest team errors (109) and third lowest missed tackles (329). As a reference point, the Panthers have the second lowest missed tackles (327) and Mounties sit lowest (326) – virtually identical numbers.
Interestingly the Eels sit last for offloads (90) and last for dummy half runs (86). By way of comparison, the other two teams in the top three, Penrith and Wests, sit second and first respectively in both of those stats. The differences are quite significant. With regard to offloads, Wests have made 151 (albeit with one extra game) and Penrith 123. Wests have posted 203 dummy half runs, Penrith 168.
These numbers would indicate that the Eels rely on their forwards laying a strong, mistake free platform. In doing so, they don’t produce as much second phase football, and instead they look for a good finish to the sets via the kicking game of their halves.
Of course that doesn’t mean that the Eels don’t offload at all, rather that it is more selective. Likewise, the Eels have used dummy half plays to construct scoring opportunities, and there are highlights featuring Nathaniel Roache darting from the ruck. However, without question they are less reliant on dummy half runs to advance the football.
The brand of football played by the Eels builds pressure on the opposition, with the field position and high completion rate strangling opponents out of the contest. It’s a style which suits the players in the squad. On the back of this, the Eels sit third for points scored (367) and have the second best defence with 270 points conceded.
Some noteworthy individual statistics support the team trends.
I’ve selected Eels players who feature in the top ten in various categories for highlighting. In doing so, the incredible returns of Makahesi Makatoa deserve recognition. The Eels prop has an amazing motor and has been a standout performer this season. An NRL debut for the 28 year old would not surprise.
With 2273 metres, Makatoa leads the competition for run metres. Will Penisini sits in fourth place with 1960 metres. These two also sit at the very top of the post contact metres leader board, with Makatoa totalling 963 metres and Penisini 769 metres. When it comes to total runs, they occupy positions one and three, with 218 and 192 runs respectively. As well as being a measure of Makatoa’s motor, those figures are further indicative Penisini’s desire, as a centre, to charge in for some tough carries.
Other Eels to feature in the top ten of post contact metres are Elie El-Zakhem and Ky Rodwell who sit in equal ninth place with 601 post contact metres.
Decoy runs and player in support stats provide additional evidence of the attacking workload taken on by Eels forwards. Again, Makatoa is in the elite of this competition, leading decoy runs with 101 and sitting in third for player in support with 107 (number one forward in this category).
Ky Rodwell sits in second place for decoy runs (94). As a guide to how the two Eels forwards stand in this category, the third place return is 68 decoy runs. Despite only playing ten games, Wiremu Greig sits in fifth place with 56 decoy runs whilst Keegan Hipgrave has 37 from just five games.
Eels halves, Jordan Rankin and Jakob Arthur each feature in the top ten for try assists, line break assists and kicks.
Rankin leads the competition with 14 try assists in his 13 matches. Arthur sits in eighth place with 8 try assists from 10 games. Rankin also sits first in line break assists with 10 with Arthur’s 7 assists putting him in tenth place.
The importance of the Eels kicking game is reflected in both halves placing in the top 5 for kick metres. Rankin sits third with 2841 metres, at an average of 218.5 metres, whilst Arthur ranks fifth with 2662 metres at an average of 266.2 metres per game. The significance of these figures is that the Eels kicking game is not reliant on one player.
Four Eels backs feature in the top ten for try scoring. Sean Russell’s 8 tries put him in eighth spot on the ladder, whilst Haze Dunster and Jake Arthur rank equal ninth with 7 tries each. Surprise packet, Elie El-Zakhem flies the forwards flag, with his seven tries placing him alongside Dunster and Arthur.
In other aspects of attack, Eels players sit just outside of the top 10. Despite the Eels sitting last for offloads, Elie El-Zakhem places 12th with 14 of his own. In tackle breaks, Will Penisini occupies 12th spot with 38.
The efforts of forwards El-Zakhem and Makatoa aren’t limited to attack. El-Zakhem leads the tackle count with 432 at 90% efficiency, whilst Makatoa is 9th with 372 tackles at an amazing 94.2% efficiency.
These statistics validate the Eels decision to take full control of their NSW Cup team. It has placed them in the driver’s seat for elevating young pathways players, and for recruiting second tier players and utilising players from feeder clubs.
The benefit of a strong NSW Cup team is found in both player development and NRL match preparation.
From this team, Parramatta has been able to debut pathways players, Jake Arthur and Sean Russell. We’ve also witnessed the elevation and NRL club debuts of Joey Lussick, Wiremu Greig and Nathaniel Roache. Having a second tier team has provided the avenue for Brad Arthur to find extra minutes for Bryce Cartwright and Oregon Kaufusi, and for Blake Ferguson to find form.
Some people were critical of Brad Arthur for not making many team changes in 2020, but without a competition for players to prove themselves or find form, it was not as easy as just naming someone.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a strong second tier team is found in maximising the preparation of the NRL team. Quality opposed sessions throughout the year, from preseason to finals matches, pushes the standard of the NRL players on the training track.
In contrast, due to the bubble, as last season wore on the Eels would often prepare against a mish-mash of bubble squad players (many out of position) and staff as they attempted to come up with a team of 13 in opposed sessions.
Though the challenges of 2020 would have been commonplace across all clubs, the quality of the opposition at training this year has been a consistently high standard. In my observations, it’s a higher standard than any of the recent seasons. In fact, it was almost impossible to get anything close to a consistent line up during the joint venture years, with 50-60 different players used during some seasons.
The challenge moving forward is the extended period that these players will be without football. With every passing week without games, the NSW Cup players lose match condition. It will be interesting to see whether arrangements are made for scrimmages whilst squads are in Queensland. As it stands, clubs such as the Cowboys, Titans, Broncos and Storm benefit from having second tier players in Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup.
Hopefully, there will be a return to the NSW Knock On Effect Cup this season. From an Eels perspective, the team has developed from a completely new squad into a premiership contender, and along the way, potential NRL players have emerged.
The players, and Ryan Carr, deserve the opportunity to finish what they have set out to achieve.