The 2021 Premiership is heading to the pointy end of the season, but behind the scenes, clubs are working diligently to shape their rosters for next season.
As far as the Eels are concerned, the majority of the squad are locked in with 23 players under contract for next season.
Those players are as follows: Jake Arthur, Waqa Blake, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright (to be confirmed soon), Haze Dunster, Wiremu Greig, Clint Gutherson, Keegan Hipgrave, David Hollis, Oregon Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Reed Mahoney, Ryan Matterson, Mitch Moses, Marata Niukore, Tom Opacic, Isaiah Papali’i, Junior Paulo, Will Penisini, Hayze Perham, and Maika Sivo.
The following players, on either NRL or Development contracts, are yet to either put pen to paper or have any deal confirmed: Blake Ferguson, Sam Hughes, Joey Lussick, Michael Oldfield, Jordan Rankin, Will Smith, Ray Stone, Sam Loizou, Sean Russell, Solomone Naiduki, Nathaniel Roache
With around seven NRL spots still remaining, the Eels need to make crucial decisions about retention to determine what recruitment they will undertake.
From the list above, Sean Russell and Will Smith are in the box seat to be retained. Will has proven to be a reliable bench option for BA during his time at the Eels and his contract does little damage to the salary cap. Sean enjoyed a successful NRL debut this season and as a local junior and player of the future, it would come as a massive shock were he not upgraded.
Samuel Loizou has fluctuated between Flegg and NSW Cup this year as he battled an early season injury. Sam is the youngest of the local juniors in the full time squad and has progressed through Eels pathways alongside Jake Arthur, Will Penisini and Sean Russell. Again, I’d be very surprised were he not locked in to a 2022 contract.
Solomone Naiduki was also on a Development deal this year and, like Loizou, has moved between Flegg and NSW Cup. In his last match, against Mounties, he was one of the best on field. Whether the club is looking to upgrade him remains to be seen.
From the remainder of the list, I’d suggest that either Joey Lussick or Nathaniel Roache would be retained.
The decision around Lussick might come down to whether he is offered a contract from another club. Lussick’s form in both NSW Cup and NRL was solid enough to suggest that he would attract interest from other teams. Should this happen, another club might prove more attractive with regard to opportunities to play first grade.
Nathaniel Roache was signed to a Development contract for 2021 due to his history of injuries. Unfortunately for Roache, his well-deserved top grade debut for Parra resulted in a knee injury which has sidelined him for an already extended period. This could prove to be an obstacle to earning another deal, but his future might also depend on what eventuates with Lussick.
Ray Stone has almost become the forgotten Eel. Once again, injuries have played havoc with the tough forward’s season. Although featuring as an NRL bench player in four of the first ten rounds, injury and shut downs mean that he hasn’t taken the field since round 11 of the NSW Cup. Many Eels supporters would hope that he is retained, despite the minimal places available.
There’s also the question of upgrades from NSW Cup. The decision for such players could involve Development Contracts. Most of those in contention are forwards such as Makahesi Makatoa, Elie El-Zakhem, Charbel Tasipale, Ky Rodwell, Tasi James and Kurt Dillon.
Charbel and Tasi were each awarded with an NRL preseason coming into 2021. I rated Charbel as the most improved during the preseason, and he and Tasi have spent time in both Flegg and NSW Cup this year.
Makahesi, Elie, Ky and Kurt have formed the nucleus of an imposing Eels pack in the NSW Cup, one which has laid the platform for the team to be placed second on the table when the competition was shut down.
The claims of Makahesi and Elie are difficult to ignore. Given that both are yet to make their NRL debut, they might be ideally placed for a Development contract.
Big Maka has an unbelievable motor and leads the NSW Cup for runs, run metres, post contact metres and decoy runs. His tackle efficiency is a ridiculous 94.2%. Elie is the leading defender in NSW Cup and sits in the top ten in the competition for post contact metres. He’s one of the Eels leading try scorers with seven tries and has the most offloads for the team.
The advantage of offering contracts to any of the players listed above is that they are known commodities for what they offer both on and off the field. There’s also a financial incentive as it’s unlikely that any would command a big salary.
As an aside, not earning a top 30 spot, or a Development contract, does not mean the end of a player’s future with the Eels. Having full control of the NSW Cup side means that Parra can keep players in the system via second tier deals.
Taking Development contracts out of the equation, I’m prepared to say that close to 27 places in next year’s top 30 will go to current full time squad members.
In most seasons that number would be considered to be far too many. It’s always beneficial to introduce fresh faces to any team as it helps the team to continue to evolve and adds a shot of energy to the start of every preseason. In this instance, the club have developed a strong group of players outside of their top 17 and it’s unlikely that better options could be found elsewhere to fill the lower end of the roster.
With external top 30 recruitment likely to be limited to two or three places, the next focus falls on what positions the club would be looking to fill.
If the club is looking for depth players who are NRL standard, then the Eels would need to consider recruiting a five-eighth, an outside back or utility back and a back rower.
A glance at the list of players off contract for next year is not very encouraging. With that in mind, the club could decide to retain Ray Stone for that back row spot, or look to upgrade El-Zakhem to a top 30 contract. Such a decision would probably add more to the war chest for the remaining two positions.
Originally I had been spruiking about the value of recruiting Anthony Milford. Though it seems he may have already linked with a club, rumoured to be the Rabbitohs, I believe that he would fill the brief of a value recruit, much like Bryce Cartwright.
Such players have proven to be quality players in past seasons, but have failed to produce in recent seasons. The key here is to unlock their best on a contract south of $200K.
Milford can fill a number of backline positions but I’d like to see him tried as a centre where his pace and elusiveness could be unlocked. Moving him away from the halves would also unshackle him from the responsibility of game management, a role that he has clearly lost the inspiration to take on.
This could all be moot if he has signed elsewhere and I certainly wouldn’t want the Eels to enter into a bidding war for his services.
The Broncos well is far from dry when it comes to talent. Tesi Niu is an exciting prospect, especially in attack, and if the Eels still want a back rower, Keenan Palasia has had limited opportunities and might be worth a shot.
Over at Newcastle, Connor Watson fits the utility back bill and is a younger and arguably faster version of Will Smith. After that, the recruitment options are very limited. When it gets to that stage, and without contracted players at other clubs asking for a release, the Eels might fill spots from within and start planning for bigger targets in 2023.
Is it possible that the powder is being kept dry for a player such as Joseph Manu?
Though the Eels haven’t featured in any speculation about the talented Kiwi, I’d hope that his name has been uttered frequently during recruitment committee discussions. Manu has arguably become more critical to the Roosters success than any other player, and is earning every cent of his reported $720K contract.
Uncle Nick doesn’t lose players that he wants to keep, but the Eels should make his task as difficult as possible. If they open the cheque book to compete for the signature of Manu, it’s unlikely that any supporters would find fault with that endeavour.
With the marketplace as it currently stands, Eels supporters are more likely to receive retention news rather than any recruitment announcements.
In reality, the club will be doing well to retain every player that they hope to keep. Should any external recruiting occur for 2022, it is doubtful that any high profile players will feature.
Supporters can take solace that the club has already retained much of what is a finals standard roster, a task that isn’t easy when the salary cap often squeezes players out of teams.
In the longer term, the club will hopefully keep the powder dry for 2023 and pursue one or two of the code’s elite.