According to club records, Brad Arthur last week equaled Brian Smith’s achievement of coaching the Eels in 243 first grade games.
That means that when Parra faces the Bulldogs, the local junior who started his footy journey with the Seven Hills Kangaroos will establish his own history as the longest tenured coach at the club.
Arthur hasn’t walked a path based on footy playing stardom. He’s had his share of individual awards during his time on the field, but at no more than 80kg, his lack of size meant that he was never going to be an elite forward in a game which was becoming fully professional.
What Brad Arthur possessed was an elite work ethic, tenacity, self belief and a passion for coaching. Whether his appointment as Eels NRL coach was either serendipitous or pre-ordained matters little, Arthur’s football journey ultimately returned him to leading the club that he and his family loves.
That family connection began on April 12, 1947.
On that day, three generations of the Arthur family were among the 6000 to watch Parramatta play their first game against Newtown. Brad’s father, Ted, was only a baby. He was taken to the match by his parents, Lindsay and Joyce. Along with the young family was Brad’s great grandfather, Noel. The Eels lost by 34 to 12 that day, but it would be the start of over 75 years of the family supporting the Eels.
Fast forward to March 16, 1986 and the first game at the new Parramatta Stadium. As the Eels hammered the Dragons 36 to 6, three generations of the Arthur family were once again among the thousands cheering the team on. A young Brad was there with his father Ted and his grandmother Joyce. So passionate were they about the Eels, that Joyce held executive positions on the supporters club committee whilst Ted was involved as an assistant coach and selector for Eels junior representative teams.
When Parramatta Stadium hosted its final NRL clash between the Eels and the Dragons on August 29, 2016, it was another three generation event for the Arthur family. Ted and his wife Carol, were in attendance as the Brad Arthur coached Eels defeated the Dragons, 30 to 18. Brad’s wife Michelle and daughter Charlotte also proudly watched on as the Arthur boys, Matthew and Jake, fulfilled their ballboy duties on that night.
The family would again be attendance for the 2021 Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium when Jake Arthur scored a try in his first grade debut as the Eels beat the Warriors, 34 to 18. Ted Arthur now proudly wears a tattoo of Jake’s player number on his upper arm.
As for Brad Arthur the player, it all began in the Under 9s at the Seven Hills Kangaroos. Across nine seasons, his teams reached five grand finals, winning three. Playing either in the halves or at lock, he won numerous awards including two club champion trophies.
In Parra’s elite pathways, Arthur played at halfback in the 1991 title winning SG Ball team. After concentrating on school football with John Paul 2 in 1992, with the college reaching the semi final of the Schoolboy Cup that year, Arthur turned down an offer from the Panthers and was graded by the Eels for the 1993 season.
Now switched to the forwards, BA spent two years in Presidents Cup at Parra (with some reserve grade appearances), winning the Presidents Cup Player of the Year Award in 1994. He then accepted an offer from Penrith, a decision which would prove to be critical in determining his future.
A well documented blunt conversation with Penrith legend Royce Simmons set Arthur on his coaching path. Though he had offers from other clubs to stay in grade football in Sydney BA chose to heed Simmon’s words.
As Simmons recalled in a 2013 interview with Adrian Proszenko, “He was a very intelligent player, he knew how to stick to game plans and how to play. But he wasn’t very big at all – he was lucky to be 80kgs and he wasn’t overly quick. I thought it was better to tell the kid when he was young.”
That regard for Arthur’s footy IQ led to Simmons recommending the then 22 year old for a captain/coach job at Batemans Bay Tigers.
It was a harsh introduction to the coaching caper. He inherited a team that didn’t win one game in his first season in charge. The opposition even cracked the century in one match. But in his second season, the Tigers reached the finals. They also won the Canberra 9s with Arthur taking out the Group player of the year.
An eight year stint from 1999 as captain/coach with Cairns Brothers followed, and it was there that Arthur’s coaching reputation was forged. This time in North Queensland led to his ambition to become an NRL coach.
In those eight seasons at the helm, the Brothers club were never out of the finals, reaching six deciders and winning four. Arthur himself, as a goal kicking lock or back rower, won selection in the region’s representative team and was twice named the Bendigo Bank Gold Medallist – the award for the competition’s best.
Having met and spoken to people from the Brothers club at Eels training over the years, and having watched footage of many matches, I can attest that the footy up north was not for the faint hearted and that BA never shied away from the battle. He actually embraced it.
After being recommended to Craig Bellamy and the Storm, Arthur became Melbourne’s NRL Development Coach. He then took the reins as the Storm’s inaugural NYC coach in 2008, winning the title in 2009. That led to his promotion to NRL Assistant Coach in 2010.
Stephen Kearney’s appointment as Eels NRL coach in 2011 led to Arthur shifting with him to the Eels, once more as assistant coach. The first of BA’s games as an NRL coach came when Kearney was stood down with six games remaining in the 2012 premiership. Arthur finished with two wins from his six games as caretaker coach of the cellar-dwelling Eels.
Following a one year stint as Manly assistant coach in 2013, BA was unexpectedly given the first grade coaching post at the Eels from 2014. The player led push for him to get the top job ahead of Jason Taylor has been written about many times. The strong bond between the coach and his players has gone on to be the hallmark of Arthur’s tenure at Parramatta.
The Eels themselves were hardly set up for success when BA took charge.
NRL wooden spoons in 2012 and 2013, coupled with Ricky Stuart’s infamous overhead projector player cull, had left team morale at an all time low.
The team was training at the primitive Richie Benaud Oval. Gym work, team meetings, even showers, had to take place elsewhere. Little wonder there were so many players on overs – any club with half decent facilities was already at an advantage. Imagine being bottom of the table and trying to lure top line recruits to train there!
Watching preseason sessions during that first year under BA was interesting. I was surprised by the games played. A couple of years later, our interviews with assistant coaches Steve Murphy and Peter Gentle revealed the deliberate plan to make training fun and to have players looking forward to sessions.
Incredibly, Parramatta should have qualified for finals footy in 2014, but they disappointingly lost the final two games of the season to lower placed teams. Jarryd Hayne had bounced back to Dally M winning form under Arthur, but his unforeseen departure to the NFL in 2015 left the club with a weakened roster, and it wasn’t until 2016 that the club looked to have the personnel and the facilities to climb the ladder.
Instead, that 2016 season was probably the lowest point in the Eels history. The salary cap dramas, the suspension of executives and directors, Kieran Foran’s personal issues and departure, and the loss of 12 competition points all remain fresh in supporters’ minds.
Through it all, Brad Arthur’s leadership rose to new heights as he shielded the players from the media and faced all of the questions that should have been answered by others. And by the end of the season, his team had accrued enough wins to qualify for the finals were it not for the 12 competition points that were stripped from them.
A fourth placed finish in 2017 was a bolt from the blue. The appointment of experienced and successful CEO Bernie Gurr was exactly what Parramatta needed, but many expected the Eels to falter following the off field debacles of 2016. Yet the team lifted. Unfortunately they couldn’t recover from a controversial loss to Melbourne in week one of the finals and bowed out in straight weeks.
Looking back, finishing last in 2018 was probably the performance nadir that the Eels needed to bring about change.
The 2017 lemon had been squeezed dry.
In 2018, the Eels were in their second season away from home. Major weapon Semi Radradra had departed and the team was missing his runs in yardage and his capacity to create tries out of nothing. Furthermore, assistant coach Peter Gentle had departed and was not replaced until mid season.
Despite Arthur publicly owning the wooden spoon season, an independent review pointed towards a need for greater resources. In addition to the club returning to Parramatta Stadium (Bankwest, CommBank) plans to shift the administrative and training operation to Kellyville were also announced by Bernie Gurr.
The result of Arthur and his staff being able to prepare the team at a training base that’s comparable to other clubs is there for all to read.
Since the start of 2019, the Eels have won an impressive 70 of the 115 matches. BA’s winning percentage over that period of 61% has kept the team as finals residents.
The importance of this consistency of performance should not be underestimated. Finals appearances help to sell merchandise, corporate partnerships, and memberships. Improved balance sheets help the club to invest in its resources and therefore its future.
Though the title drought is yet to end, a 2022 grand final appearance marked the Eels return to the biggest stage, with all of the fanfare that comes in grand final week. The media focus in the lead up to the big dance was not just memorable for the club and it’s supporters, it put sponsors at the forefront of the coverage.
Would another coach have achieved similar results to Arthur during the last ten years?
It’s doubtful, because few would have stayed. In the years between Smith and Arthur none lasted longer than two seasons. Ricky Stuart told supporters to expect thrashings during his year in charge, then quickly departed.
Personally, I can’t blame Stuart. He probably suspected what lay in store. But when the proverbial did hit the fan in 2016, Arthur stood strong and loyal, passing up lucrative offers to coach elsewhere.
Even if any other coach could have navigated the stormy waters that Arthur steered through, it’s debatable that any would have improved players the way that BA has.
The Eels don’t invest in marquee recruits. The biggest deals are done to retain players.
Throughout his tenure, Arthur has time and again taken players to the next level. Fan favourites such as Manu Ma’u and Semi Radradra were terrific examples of his early successes.
Consider the current players that have gone on to representative honours or reignited their careers under Arthur. Moses, Brown, Paulo, Gutherson, Campbell-Gillard, Matterson and Lane have all become elite players at the Eels. Bryce Cartwright is playing the most consistent football of his career and he attributes the improvement to the coach.
Furthermore, players become genuine NRL first graders via the tutelage of Arthur and his staff. Even ignoring the development of local juniors such as Penisini and Russell, this year we have witnessed Hands, Greig and Hopgood establish their place in the top grade.
Such successes have made it difficult to retain players who have either debuted or hit their peak at the club. Marata Niukore, Isaiah Papali’i, Oregon Kaufusi, Reed Mahoney and Ray Stone immediately come to mind.
It would be remiss of me to not give credit to all of the coaching and support staff who have been with the Eels during Arthur’s ten years. Particular acknowledgement is owed to assistant coach Steve Murphy who has been Brad’s right hand man from Day 1 of the 2014 preseason. That’s 238 games that he will register as an Eels assistant coach this week, surely some sort of record too. Murf has his own journey which has involved plenty of sacrifice. His guidance, energy and positivity should never be undervalued.
Football manager Craig Sultana has been there since 2016 and I’m not sure what his duty statement officially says but whatever it lists, any audit would find that he at least doubles it.
The best way to wrap up this tribute to Brad Arthur and his journey is to look back on a conversation I had with Danny Wicks at the 2015 Ken Thornett Medal. Wicks had resurrected his career at the Eels that season and had signed an extension for 2016.
After congratulating him on his form, I asked Wicks what he appreciated most about being at the Eels.
He surveyed the room, pointed to Brad Arthur, and said, “that bloke there”.