The dust has only just settled on a fortnight that the Eels club and its supporters will not soon forget.
If Grand Final week was not enough for you, the news and fallout from the following seven days should have kept your rugby league appetite satiated.
From TCT’s perspective, there was so much going on that our two most recent podcasts had to be extended to cover all of the talking points that emerged over just a couple of days.
Ultimately, I believe that the Eels players and staff can hold their heads high, not just for a fine season, but also for the classy manner in which they conducted themselves before and after the grand final.
Congratulations you mighty Eels, now pass it to me. Bumpers Up!
Grand Final Week
I had forgotten what it was like for my team to feature in the big week, and the switch to positive media stories was a welcome change.
It felt like being a part of something greater seeing the Blue and Gold colours taking over the streets and businesses of western Sydney.
The only down side was the ticketing. I hope that the NRL can learn their lesson from the fiascos of this finals series, but watching the stuff ups occurring week upon week gives me no cause for optimism.
Congratulations to anybody who managed to find the time to get to every event. Personally, I restricted myself to the training sessions, including the NRLW open session, the Today Show cross and our live podcast on Friday night in Parra Leagues.
Can we book this week in again in 2023? My only other request is for a different result.
Eels World Cup List
With the Eels NRL season wrapped up, attention now turns to the deferred 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Though the Eels could only supply one Australian player for the men’s competition, there are a host of Parra players representing other nations.
A few of those players won’t be wearing the Blue and Gold in 2023, but having 16 Eels selected is a decent reward for a successful season.
Surprisingly, only two Eels will be playing in the women’s division. Considering the number that might have been eligible for New Zealand, it’s hard to believe that not one player was selected for the Ferns.
The list of Eels participating in the World Cup is as follows:
Reagan Campbell-Gillard (Australia)
Makahesi Makatoa (Cook Islands)
Waqa Blake (Fiji)
Maika Sivo (Fiji)
Nathan Brown (Italy)
Jack Colovatti (Italy)
Luca Moretti (Italy)
Eli El-Zakhem (Lebanon)
Mitch Moses (Lebanon)
Dylan Brown (New Zealand)
Marata Niukore (New Zealand)
Isaiah Papali’i (New Zealand)
Oregon Kaufusi (Samoa)
Junior Paulo (Samoa)
Luke Bain (Scotland)
Will Penisini (Tonga)
Kennedy Cherrington (Australia)
Simaima Taufa (Australia)
Are Penrith The Innovators That Cannot Be Replicated?
Penrith are a once in a generation team, and their dominance down through the grades has them threatening to extend their reign further than any side in the NRL era.
The surprising thing is that no club has been able to emulate the aspect of Penrith’s play which sets them apart from others – their relentless line speed and the pace of their plays.
After Penrith finished 2020 as runners up to the Storm, the Eels took them on as part of their regular “Battle of the West” preseason trial. I remember noting back in that 2021 trial that the Panthers had a finals football intensity in their play and I questioned whether that could be sustained throughout the season. They answered that question with two titles and a record of being rarely beaten across the last two years.
Successful formulas are always copied. From defensive systems and techniques (see wrestling and the current forklift tackles) to attacking structures and shapes. Innovation and imitation always go hand in hand.
The Panthers high performance staff have obviously struck upon a way to get their team markedly fitter than their opponents.
It could simply be that they work harder than other teams, but I doubt it’s that simple. Whatever their methodology is, it sets them worlds apart from their opponents.
The majority of Penrith’s top 17 only played something like two games between Round 24 and the grand final. Cleary hadn’t played for five weeks before then.
Yet Penrith peaked physically for the grand final, an extraordinary feat considering their form throughout the season was already beyond the peak of every other club.
Forget poaching their players. Rival clubs should be stealing Panthers high performance staff. Perhaps the Bulldogs and Warriors are hoping that their new coaches will bring some of that inside knowledge with them in 2023.
Not So Mad Monday
It was important for Eels supporters to front up in decent numbers for the team appearance on Monday. Though it wasn’t the planned celebration, somewhere between three and four thousand Eels fans turned up to congratulate both the NRL and NRLW teams.
I was impressed with both teams giving up their morning and early afternoon on what would traditionally be their Mad Monday celebrations.
A few of the players looked like they hadn’t had any sleep, and they probably had their share of refreshments during the wee small hours. However, it can be reported that there was nothing said that the media could report negatively on.
In fact, the speeches and interviews reinforced the professionalism of the squads, and the NRLW co-captains once again proved to be fine ambassadors for the Eels and the game.
Both squads made their way around the perimeter of the stadium, signing autographs and having photos taken. BA was extremely popular, with supporters keen to congratulate him on the season.
Some of the players were still mixing with supporters as security became more earnest in ushering punters out of the stadium.
My highlight was being near Kennedy Cherrington when she received the phone call confirming her Australian selection. Watching her tears of joy emphasised the value that she places on Green and Gold representation.
I’d also like to shout out to Gayle Broughton. She is a star, both on and off the field – a full on personality. We were fortunate to have an extended chat with her, and she affirmed the value that she places on a New Zealand jersey. Her take was that she wouldn’t declare herself available until she feels that she deserves it.
Ken Thornett Medal
Less than 48 hours after the grand finals were wrapped up, the Eels NRL and NRLW squads and staff assembled for the Ken Thornett Medal presentation evening.
Incredibly, given that the event kicked off at 6:30pm on Tuesday night, nobody looked the worse for wear. They all scrubbed up really well and though there was still an air of disappointment, the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of individuals and reflect back on season highlights soon created a positive mood in the Rosehill function centre.
As always, Yvonne Sampson was the perfect MC. She’s the first choice for many functions across the NRL and it’s easy to see why. We’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many conversations with Vonnie over the last six years as well as featuring her on our podcast. She isn’t just the consummate professional in her media roles, she’s simply an incredibly authentic person.
Zac Bailey was the co-host, interacting with Yvonne and conducting player interviews on a couch located on the stage.
I thought that the staging created a less formal format for everyone, allowing players to be more relaxed and for personalities to shine through. Even BA joked about Mitch Moses, and Shaun Lane’s banter with Zac Bailey brought plenty of laughs.
The end of the night came too soon, though for those ready to put the full stop on the season, it was probably a welcome opportunity to head home and put the feet up.
As for the Ken Thornett Medal Winner, I doubt that many would debate the award going to Shaun Lane. He had an outstanding season.
Dragon Awards Night
It’s been featured in the media, and we’ve discussed it on our news podcast with Spiro Christopoulos, but I’m still stunned by the disaster that was the Dragons presentation night.
It would be easy to criticise the club for scheduling the event on a date when there would likely be a number of players overseas or interstate on holidays. And this might account for quite a few of the absences. However, Spiro reported Mark Levy’s mail that there were players enjoying a night in the casino on the same night. That would leave any Red V supporter scratching their head in disbelief.
I don’t think it’s possible to ignore a red flag like this. As a club, the Dragons have a serious culture issue that must be addressed as a matter of priority.
Matterson Takes The Suspension
We have discussed this on The Tip Sheet podcast, but I thought I’d make my position crystal clear.
I don’t understand the logic behind Matto’s decision. I’ve said a number of times that he marches to the beat of his own drum. Whether I agree with him or not, he has principles that he believes in and abides by.
Many supporters regard his stance of copping a three match ban and not paying a $4k fine as putting himself ahead of his team. I can’t disagree with that sentiment. However, the only relevant opinions belong to his team mates. If they don’t see it that way, then there is no problem.
Furthermore, I’d be stunned if there’s anyone who would disagree with his statement about the decisions of the match review committee. Was Matterson guilty of anything other than an unavoidable minor incident?
Here’s something else to consider. Though Taylan May copped a more significant fine, let’s not forget that a bloke who attacked a member of the public from behind only faced a two week ban.
There is a final matter that I’d like to address. Too many comments on social media about Ryan Matterson are coming from keyboard warriors who cross the line to take their opinions into the realms of personal abuse.
Is that really the path that Eels supporters want to take about a player who is a fine ambassador for Parra? Matto immerses himself in community service and never brings the slightest shred of disrepute to the club that we all claim to love.
Whilst I might not agree with Matto’s decision, I respect his right to make that call. And anyone guilty of an over the top reaction should think about the stones they cast.
Can Winners Please Themselves?
Let’s clarify something. There’s nothing in the comments made by Penrith players that would be offensive to Eels players. Being gracious winners isn’t important to the Panthers and whatever works for them in that regard is their business.
In fact, it’s quite funny to have the victors blowing raspberries about a future club, making comments about an opposing club being their sons, or declaring that they are better than any previous Penrith team. Childish is probably the term best applied to it.
However, with that clarified, I have strong opinions about where their behaviour has a consequence that should not be ignored.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Players are role models.
Youngsters try to copy their heroes, not just with miraculous flick passes, chip kicks or side steps, but also their manner of celebrating. For goodness sake even something like the Gutherino has been repeated in junior footy.
What Rugby league doesn’t need is the culture of being disrespectful winners, nor would it want racially inappropriate terms splashed across social media by the high profile stars of the game.
Yet after winning one of the premier sport competitions in our country, that is the example set by the champion team. To write that off as the acceptable outcome of a night on the drink doesn’t wash. Too much grog is not accepted as a valid reason for any form of socially unacceptable act despite probably being involved somewhere. Personal responsibility has to be taken.
Finally, let’s address the “we hate Parra” chant. It’s also immature stuff that Parra players could care less about. However, the real targets of that chant are the Eels supporters.
There is an element in the Panthers supporters who actually act that nonsense out. TCT has written and spoken on the subject of the fan experience at Penrith Park multiple times.
That there are unthinking, abusive fans across all clubs is a fact. TCT has called out our own fans at different times this year. But as far as Penrith are concerned, it is my experience, and that of others, that wearing Parra colours to Penrith Park could result in the type of disgusting personal abuse that you are unlikely to get at other venues.
When encouraging their supporters to join in the “hate chant” I wonder whether the Penrith players are fully aware of that “element” of their supporters who take their hate to the next level.
Coaching Staff Updates
After already adding Trent Barrett to the coaching staff for next season, Parra has now confirmed that Nathan Cayless and Steve Antonelli will be joining the club in 2023.
Since leaving Parra, Cayless has had coaching roles at the Roosters, the Warriors and the Tigers. He takes over from Ryan Carr, who himself had been elevated to the NRL assistant coach position after the departure of David Kidwell during 2022. Carr, who I rate as an NRL coach of the future is moving on to the Dragons. Jordan Rankin will step down from his captain/coach role to continue as a player. He will also maintain his role of mentoring junior rep players.
Steve Antonelli is an experienced lower grade and NRL assistant coach, with his two most recent roles being with the Bulldogs and the Rabbitohs. He is highly regarded for his ability to work with emerging players. He joins Steve Murphy and Trent Barrett as Brad Arthur’s 2023 assistants.
Just a quick word on Barrett. Not long after signing on, I was at training when Barrett turned up. He wasn’t involved in any coaching but was a keen observer, moving to different vantage points to watch the session. I have no idea whether he attended on any other day, but it was good to see him familiarising himself with the players and the systems so quickly.
Recruitment and Retention
Let’s wind this column up with a quick look at Parra’s recently confirmed contracts.
I’ll list Josh Hodgson here but he belongs in a different category due to when he was signed and his status as an international footballer.
Without doubt, the English hooker is the marquee recruit for 2023. If he has successfully rehabilitated from his knee injury, Hodgson could be a short term game changer for the Eels.
He plays a completely different game to Reed Mahoney, with a skill set that has seen him fill in at halfback at different times for the Raiders. Just as importantly, he is a leader and as such will be a strong addition to the spine.
J’Maine Hopgood, Jirah Momoisea, and Jack Murchie all fit into a similar category. They are forwards in their mid 20s looking to establish themselves in the top grade. That puts them right in Brad Arthur’s sweet spot as a coach, given his track record of turning fringe players into NRL regulars or better.
Hopgood has become better known to Eels supporters with strong late season performances in the Panthers top grade and his best on field award for the State Championship Grand Final. However, smart judges have long considered him to be a genuine talent stuck in NSW Cup.
Momoisea is a powerful Knights prop who’s had limited opportunities due to a combination of injury and Covid. Newcastle signed him from the Storm NYC way back in 2018, which gives some indication of why he’d be looking for an opportunity elsewhere.
Of these three recruits, Murchie has probably made the greatest headway in establishing himself as a first grade player. He had to move from the Raiders to the Warriors to do so. He’s at the point of wanting to take his game to the next level, not unlike Shaun Lane did when he shifted to Parra.
Speaking of Lane, the Eels have just confirmed his contract extension which will keep him at the club until the end of 2026. Joining him on that extension list are Sean Russell and Jake Arthur, both of whom have added the 2024 season to their current deals.
The Eels will be adding more players to their roster before next year, but the obvious priority will be sorting out new contracts for both Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown. When those are done, and the NRL confirms the new salary cap, the club will be better placed in determining how much coin they will have at their disposal.