The Eels are playing better and more consistent football in 2023 than they were in 2022.
That may sound crazy, but that was my stance before Friday night’s incredible victory over Souths, a win that simply reaffirmed my belief.
At this point in the season, what separates last year from 2023 has been a combination of factors both within and outside of the team’s control that has resulted in the Eels finding ways to lose.
Obviously, winning is all that matters and it’s arguably the best assessment of form, but even with their losses, Parra has demonstrated a more consistent standard of footy this year. This is despite claims of a weaker 2023 roster.
But don’t just sit there shaking your head at my opinion. Consider the actual results in addition to the circumstances that could be controlled and those that could not.
The following table lists the Eels results during the opening 12 rounds of 2023 alongside their first up performances against the same teams last year.
Eels Results in 2023 and 2022
18 – 14 GP loss
28-24 GP win
30 – 26 loss
34 – 30 loss
17 – 16 win
22 – 20 win
28 – 20 loss
31 – 24 loss
28 – 22 win
21- 20 loss
30 – 4 win
34 – 4 loss
26 – 16 loss
36 – 14 loss
43 – 12 win
39 – 2 win
26 – 24 loss
32 – 28 win
26 – 18 loss
28 -20 win
36 – 16 win
30 – 12 loss
The 2022 results are not from the first 12 rounds, but I’m comparing apples with apples in listing the first up matches against the same opponents.
Thus far in 2023 the Eels have recorded 5 wins and 7 losses, with 300 points for and 256 against, a differential of plus 44.
In 2022, matches against those same opponents yielded a six win, six loss record, with 261 points for and 284 against, a differential of negative 23.
So with one less win, the Eels this year have so far recorded a points differential which is 67 points better than their matches against those opponents in 2022.
The worst result of 2023 has been the ten point loss to the Broncos. There have been no blowout defeats. Last year, there were three losses of 18 points or more.
Let’s not forget the embarrassment of some of those 2022 matches. How about losing to the Tigers at home in the Easter Monday clash, or getting thumped 34 – 4 by the Bulldogs!
A deeper dive into this season’s matches makes for interesting consideration.
Both years finished with the same number of tries apiece during regulation time. In 2022 Ray Stone crossed for a memorable try off a missed field goal attempt. In 2023, Harry Grant scored a try in extra time, with a missed conversion by Moses proving costly. An incorrect ruck penalty against Hodgson that was rightly challenged, but with the video ref again incorrectly upholding the refs call, was also significant. It should be noted that the Storm haven’t lost a Round 1 match for two decades.
A loss in both seasons despite equal tries being scored. The 2023 match saw two tries scored whilst Gutherson was in the head bin, and another scored against the run of play when Gutho threw an intercept.
Vs Sea Eagles
A narrow win in 2022 and a four point loss in 2023 with equal tries scored. Parra enjoyed a 9 – 2 penalty count in 2022. In round three this season, the Sea Eagles scored tries when Simonsson tapped a Manly 40/20 attempt back to kick chasers, and a Hopgood offload went to Olakau’atu. Furthermore, Penisini somehow failed to ground a ball in the ingoal for the simplest of tries, whilst Moses missed three conversions.
Relatively similar losses across both years, by seven points in 2022 and eight points in 2023. The performance this year was arguably Parra’s worst performance of the season, though having Penisini and Simonsson dispatched to the sin bin resulted in two tries for the Roosters.
Strange as it may seem to say this, a ten point loss to the Broncos this season (4 tries to 3) was a vast improvement on the first up six tries to three thrashing in 2022. Furthermore, this year the match officials erred badly in not sending Payne Haas to the sin bin in what was unquestionably a match determining decision.
Both matches were also tied for tries scored, with the 2022 victory aided by a 7 to 1 penalty count. This year the penalties favoured the Titans 7 – 3, Moses kicked only 2 from 5, and two tries were scored when Gutherson was in the sin bin, with one try also scored off an intercept.
A 2022 victory that the Eels could not repeat in 2023. But when it comes to this season’s four tries to three defeat, the mistakes in the 10 – 3 penalty count were such a significant factor that for the first time in his tenure, Brad Arthur drew attention to the officiating during the post match presser.
A one point extra time thriller this year backing up last year’s two point win. The Eels overcame the psychological blow of Cleary’s spectacular two point field goal when Moses iced his shot.
The Eels reversed the shocking 2022 Easter Monday clash with an eight point win in 2023 despite only having 43% possession.
Another flipping of a 2022 result, one which was probably their worst of last year. The 2023 win featured the complete dismantling of former Eels rake, Reed Mahoney.
A demolition of Newcastle across both seasons, though the Eels arguably left another five tries on the field this year.
One of the most memorable Eels wins from recent seasons. Missing key players prior to the game, and losing Davey and Matterson during the match, the Eels ended a six game losing streak against Souths with their first success against them since 2019.
Dismantling the 2023 Season
This won’t be a dive into specifics such as the parts of the field where the Eels are most vulnerable, an analysis of the use of the interchange or identifying which individual players should be held to account.
Instead, this will be an overview of factors which I believe have contributed to 2023 results.
Recruitment and Retention
I believe that the Eels recruitment and retention decisions could leave them well-placed in future years, especially with the juniors coming through the pathways.
However, some calls for 2023 have been questionable.
It was a major gamble to enter the 2023 season with only 28 on the roster. With Nathan Brown’s imminent departure this number was effectively only 27.
I can understand the situation. The departure of nine players from the 2022 roster, including established first graders such as Reed Mahoney, Marata Niukore, Isaiah Papali’i, Marata Niukore, Tom Opacic and Ray Stone has been well documented. But apart from Opacic and Papali’i, both of whom could have been secured for less coin with earlier negotiations, salary cap pressure made it difficult to retain those stars.
Given the long term injuries to Haze Dunster and Bailey Simonsson, along with the three match suspension of Ryan Matterson, the Eels were rolling the dice with 24 players available for Round One.
That risk came home to roost with Shaun Lane breaking his jaw during a trial, and both Bryce Cartwright and Waqa Blake missing almost two months of the preseason with a broken jaw and a broken arm respectively. (Cartwright and Blake ultimately took the field in Round 1 with minimal preparation.)
Furthermore, the regular selection of Samuel Loizou in Flegg, and the continued non-selection of Mitch Rein in any grade, indicates that there are at least two players in the NRL squad that the coach has no intention of using.
Without question, from the opening round of the season the Eels were at least one middle forward and one outside back short of where they needed to be. The backflip of Marty Taupau did put a spanner in the Eels recruitment plans, and it could be argued that the pool of available NRL talent was negligible, but ultimately the numbers don’t lie.
All clubs lose players to injury, but whilst injuries to outside backs were a major concern during the early rounds of 2022, it’s the rolling list of unavailable forwards that have impacted 2023.
That’s not to say that there have been no issues with Parra’s backs. Injuries and suspensions have seen Dunster, Russell, Blake, Simonsson and Moses miss games.
But consider some of the numbers around the forwards.
Matterson has already missed four games with more to come. Shaun Lane has missed six games with many more on the horizon. RCG has now been absent for four rounds and won’t be due back till after the bye. Junior has had a two match suspension and will be stood down for Origin. Mid season recruit Andrew Davey is about to stand down for a game due to concussion protocols, whilst J’Maine Hopgood could be missing with potential Queensland selection.
Fringe players such as Matt Doorey and Jack Murchie have also been unavailable due to injury.
There is the very real likelihood that the Eels will be without Paulo, Campbell-Gillard, Lane, Matterson, Davey and possibly Hopgood for Round 13.
Errors and Missed Tackles
The Eels are averaging 11.4 errors per game, the third worst in the competition. They also average 8.9 incomplete sets per game, a number which places them at 11th in this metric.
It gets worse. Parra are averaging 32.1 missed tackles per game, (which places them at 9th in the competition) with 15 ineffective (third worst).
This cannot continue if the Eels aim to play finals football. It’s up to the Eels to control it.
With such awful numbers, how are the Eels performing better in defence this season?
The Eels currently rank sixth when it comes to line breaks conceded. So whilst the individual defensive errors don’t make for pretty reading, the Eels systems and scramble defence are functioning better than in 2022.
Every team, with the exception of Penrith (they just don’t lose two in a row) and Newcastle (bye), have lost the next round after playing the Eels. That includes the Raiders who were on a six game winning streak coming into this weekend but were just thrashed by Manly.
Is that indicative of teams lifting for the Eels game then not being able to replicate their mindset the following week, or is it a measure of the physicality of the Eels match?
Despite their thumping at the hands of the Tigers, the Cowboys will prove to be a tough opponent for the depleted Eels next week.
As noted earlier, the Eels could be without six forwards, with no guarantee that either Doorey or Murchie will be fit for selection.
When it comes to the Cowboys, they unlikely to perform as poorly as they did against the Tigers, even if they lose multiple players to Origin. Theirs was the type of extraordinarily bad performance that leaves teams fired up to put behind them.
So whilst I’m overjoyed with that amazing Eels victory over the Rabbitohs, as a wise man has often reminded me, “you’re only as good as your next game.”