The Eels 2023 season is on life support.
With five rounds remaining, the club is sitting in 11th place on the ladder and away matches against the table topping Panthers and Broncos await.
Forget looking at the mathematics of the remaining games and the bye. Across the Eels last four matches we’ve witnessed their three worst performances of the year. The capitulation against the Storm was so confronting that it left even the most optimistic supporters making alternative plans for September.
Regardless of how the season finishes, or more accurately when it finishes, the club must acknowledge that it has made mistakes. Even the unlikely outcome of going deep into finals football should not overshadow getting some key decisions wrong. Any denial of errors, or aspects of the football program that should have been done better, will only cause the Eels to either stagnate or regress further in 2024.
Earlier this season I maintained that the Eels were producing a more consistent standard of football than they were in 2022, even in their losses. That was true, and yet on reflection, certain decisions were already costly even when the standard of football was high.
In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring where the season has gone wrong for the club. There will be a mix of factors within, and outside of, Parramatta’s control.
Welcome to Part One.
An Incomplete Roster
The state of the roster has been the most telling factor in this season. If you have any doubt, check the ladder position of the top two grades.
A shallow dive into the construction of the top 30 is all that’s required to highlight that any player availability issues through injury or suspension were going to create significant holes.
Looking back to the start of the season, 28 players had been signed to the top 30 by March. This number wasn’t unusual compared to other clubs, but the devil was in the detail.
Let’s break it down.
Nathan Brown, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright, Matt Doorey, Wiremu Greig, J’maine Hopgood, Shaun Lane, Makahesi Makatoa, Ryan Matterson, Jirah Momoisea, Jack Murchie, Ofahiki Ogden, Junior Paulo, Ky Rodwell
Waqa Blake, Haze Dunster, Samuel Loizou, Will Penisini, Sean Russell, Bailey Simonsson, Maika Sivo
Jake Arthur, Daejarn Asi, Dylan Brown, Clint Gutherson, Josh Hodgson, Mitchell Moses, Mitch Rein
That roster list included the out of favour Nathan Brown and Mitch Rein. Since the latter part of 2022, rumours had abounded that Brown would be moved on, whilst Rein had seemingly fallen behind Hands and Yates in the preseason pecking order. Interestingly, both Hands and Yates sat outside the top 30.
Nathan Brown never took the field in 2023, so the Eels effectively had 27 in their top squad. Rein played his last match in round 7, whilst Arthur left after round 12, taking the top 30 down to 26 (following the acquisition of Davey for round 10)
As an aside, the Eels have only won two NSW Cup games since Jake Arthur moved to Manly.
You don’t need to be a footy nerd to see the glaring hole in the Top 30.
There was not one addition to the Eels list of outside backs for the 2023 season. Furthermore, of the seven specialist players, three had ongoing injury concerns.
A cloud always hovered over Haze Dunster’s return. It was a serious injury and we’ve seen him struggle this year. Bailey Simonsson was in rehab for the entire preseason, whilst talented young player Samuel Loizou has battled injury for a couple of seasons.
Player availability will feature in Part Two, but these known injuries should have provided the motivation to add to the stock of outside backs. It didn’t. From there, significant preseason injuries to Sivo, Blake and Asi took matters to near crisis point.
Prior to round one, I wrote about my concerns. With only a few days till the first team list Tuesday of the season, it was possible that there would only be 18 of the top 30 available for selection.
Supporters and pundits had been concerned about the Eels forward depth following the loss of players such as Niukore, Papali’i, Kaufusi and Stone. The real issue was the outside backs. The impact of allowing Tom Opacic to leave had been vastly underestimated.
In fact, Opacic had not been replaced at all. The club might argue that Daejarn Asi had been recruited to fill that space but he is not a specialist outside back. The Eels weren’t just treading water in that part of the roster, they were in free fall.
The other point is that it’s not like Opacic was a strike player that hadn’t been replaced. With respect, he was no x-factor. He was, to be succinct, a reliable and professional centre threequarter. In March, I expected the Eels to recruit a centre. They did not.
When the round one team was announced, it included both Blake and Sivo. It was fortunate that both had beaten the clock to be fit given that Sean Russell had been ruled out during the lead up. Nonetheless, the Eels were still forced to select a player outside of the top 30, Isaac Lumelume, in the opening game of the season.
The red flags of the preseason had been joined by screaming sirens.
A glance at the NSW Cup team on that same opening weekend highlighted where the Eels backline stocks were at.
Ron Massey Cup player, Josh Minhinnick was getting his first call of the year to play wing. Future NRL dummy half, Brendan Hands, was at five eighth.
Furthermore, Jordan Rankin, a senior player sitting outside the top 30 who is transitioning into a coaching role with the club, was commencing the year in a key spine position. It’s no surprise that he’s since been relied upon for the entire season.
It’s got far worse since that time. Following the release of Jake Arthur, we’ve had backrowers such as Jirah Momoisea and Dan Keir filling the centre and five-eighth roles.
The Eels NSW Cup team currently sits in 11th place (3rd last) with their differential being the worst in the competition at -239. They have conceded a whopping 619 points, averaging just under 30 points per game.
There is no pressure being applied on the NRL players. Nobody is demanding selection, though to be fair it would be near impossible for any individual to show up when the team is being smashed most weeks.
From a numbers perspective, the Club eventually added to the top 30 but all have been forwards. In the latter part of the season they’ve recruited Andy Davey (a solid acquisition given Lane’s extended injuries), Joe Ofahengaue (coverage for the loss of Wiremu Greig) and finally Joey Lussick (essential after Josh Hodgson’s season ending neck problem).
As for the backline, there was plenty of hype around an x-factor outside back with the potential to replace Gutherson. That’s about as far as it got.
And so the club has hit the run to finals footy with left side dramas that have opposing right side attacks salivating at the prospect of facing the Eels.
What once was a strength has become a weakness.
The shortfall from a purely numbers perspective, both total roster and backline stocks, has been exacerbated by recruitment decisions which have, with respect to the individuals, not added NRL value to the club.
Outside of J’Maine Hopgood, the 2023 successes have come from players who were with the club prior to this season.
Bryce Cartwright, Wiremu Greig, Brendan Hands and Luca Moretti had all been added in previous years. Hands and Moretti even sat outside the top 30 at the commencement of the season.
What of the others?
At the risk off being repetitive, there is not one outside back to discuss.
Daejarn Asi demonstrated that at this stage of his career he is capable of being a short term halves option at NRL level, and looked good in his first three matches. Unfortunately, he has struggled across the last month, something that is not uncommon for any player who is yet to establish themselves in the top grade. His best football might yet lie ahead of him.
Matt Doorey has the potential to be a long term success. His season has been punctuated by injury, but supporters have been impressed by his limited first grade appearances.
Josh Hodgson produced an outstanding preseason, but struggled during the early rounds. He was just starting to find form when injury struck. It now looks likely that he’s played his last game of football.
Despite getting early opportunities in the top grade, Jirah Momoisea and Jack Murchie have been regular fixtures in NSW Cup. At one stage, Momoisea was even named as a reserve for that grade.
It should be acknowledged that the club has invested heavily in key retentions. There will be no exodus of established first graders at the end of this season.
Supporters should also appreciate the confidentiality of negotiations. Very little if anything leaks from the club.
The questions that I have are ones that only the Eels can answer.
Why has the club been unable to secure any outside backs in 2023, even after making a public declaration about targeting an x-factor?
How much control does the club have over the speed of contract negotiations which often seem to be quite protracted?
Finally, are greater resources required in recruitment and retention? I’m not talking about adding to a committee. Rather, are there enough staff to handle the identification process and then the negotiation with targeted players and their agents?
The 2023 roster is locked in. Talented pathways prospects are still some time from a potential NRL debut.
But right now, the Eels must address the shortfalls in the playing group, and possibly the processes in assembling it.
Any failure to do so threatens to undermine what should be a bright future.
To Come – Part 2: Player Availability