In 2023, the Eels needed injuries and suspensions to be kept to a minimum. There’s nothing unique about that, but any club lacking depth in particular positions will be crossing their fingers and their toes.
Unfortunately, fate has been a vicious bastard. What has eventuated has been the perfect storm for the incomplete roster detailed in Part One of this series.
Parramatta’s grand total of matches missed by top 30 players comes in at a conservative 116 games. I’ve arrived at this number by cross-referencing team lists across three grades. The absence of regular official injury reports means that the figure might not be completely accurate, but it’s very close to the mark.
Let’s start with suspensions as, apart from the subjective nature of the punishments, this aspect is mostly within the players’ control.
As detailed in a previous post, the Eels hold the “distinction” of leading the NRL for most weeks lost to suspensions. To date, six Eels players have missed a total of 22 weeks of first grade football. The nearest teams are now the Dolphins with 16 weeks and the Cowboys with 15 weeks.
This has been an incredibly disappointing outcome for a side that prides itself on good discipline. Even removing Dylan Brown’s seven weeks for an off field offence and Ryan Matterson’s three match carry over from 2022 leaves the total at 12 rounds of suspension, which is still one of the worst records in the NRL. It’s an avoidable outcome and an unnecessary burden on the roster.
At the start of the year, there was an outcry over Matto’s decision to take the suspension, and rightly so. However, that absence pales in comparison to what has followed and as an aside, his consistency of performance has been a bright light for the season.
Origin selection accounted by key absences at a time when the Eels could least afford it. Four Eels players missed a total of six matches. I’ve written at length about how the Eels were the only club to have to stand down players for all three rounds, and it contributed to an absolute flogging at the hands of the Warriors prior to Origin 3.
As it is for all clubs, injury accounts for the vast majority of absences, and for the Eels this totals at least a further 88 weeks of player unavailability.
Please note, these numbers apply to a roster that has fluctuated between 26 and 28 players for much of the season. I have again been conservative by not including the drop in player availability when a departure has not been immediately negated by recruitment. For example, Mitch Rein is not included at all in these numbers despite playing his last game in round 7.
The devil once more can be found in the detail. Let’s break down how each part of the roster has been impacted.
Spine players account for 25 weeks of unavailability, whilst forwards provide the largest total at 51 weeks. Without question, the extended absences of Dylan Brown, Shaun Lane and Reagan Campbell-Gillard have been significant.
It might be bad luck but injuries are a consequence of a tough physical contact sport. So too some suspensions, though we can all see those absences which were avoidable.
But it’s in the pool of outside backs where player absences have bitten hard. As a reminder, the Eels top 30 roster of specialist outside backs is limited to these seven players: Waqa Blake, Haze Dunster, Samuel Loizou, Will Penisini, Sean Russell, Bailey Simonsson, and Maika Sivo
Whether it be due to injury or suspension, here’s the breakdown of their current individual absences for this season:
Blake – 10 matches
Dunster – 7 matches
Loizou – 10 matches
Penisini – 0 matches
Russell – 5 matches
Simonsson – 4 matches
Sivo – 4 matches
That’s a total of 40 matches, or an average of almost six matches per player. Let me reinforce this fact, the goal should be to select four players of NRL value in the first grade team every week.
There was no wiggle room in that list. None!
Not only has it made naming a team challenging due to injury or suspension, there were zero options for dealing with poor form.
If you have a grand total of seven outside backs to select from, with players on the injury list most weeks, what alternatives are available if you want to drop a player due to form especially if it’s before round 10?
In fact, even after round 10, dropping a top 30 player due to form and replacing him with a second tier or development contract player would not reflect well on the roster.
As an example, throughout this season, many supporters called for Maika Sivo to be asked to work on his yardage efforts back in NSW Cup. Who could have been elevated instead of him?
The flow on effect to the NSW Cup has been evident. Forwards such as Jirah Momoisea and Dan Keir have been frequently been selected in the backline positions and even in the halves. Ron Massey Cup players have featured on the wing.
The Eels sit in third last place on the table and their performances are commensurate with that position. Even the elevation of Jersey Flegg players has not prevented forwards or Ron Massey Cup players from filling backline spots.
Without question, the Eels have been hammered by injury and suspension. It’s been a horror year in that regard and these are factors mostly outside of their control.
However, the Eels rolled the dice with an abbreviated and imbalanced roster.
Lady Luck was never going to give them a leg up.