The first two posts in this series examined the current roster and the impact of injuries and suspensions. It highlighted the lack of depth and options in key positions, and discussed the resulting pressures throughout 2023 as the team attempted to cover for what became significant absences.
It made for a negative review that I rightly labelled an autopsy.
However, moving forward an even darker picture is emerging and it’s based on nothing but the facts.
Our Eels have capitulated over the latter stages of this season, the resilience is non existent, and a glance at the crystal ball does not make for pleasant viewing.
As things stand, the major change to Parramatta’s roster moving into 2024 is that the players will all be a year older. There are no major recruits and the top 30 is as close to done as you’d want with this season still playing out.
According to my research, the following players are locked in for a top 30 deal next year. Their ages in 2024, along with the year their current contract expires (not including options), are included in the brackets.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard (31, 2025), Bryce Cartwright (30, 2025) , Andrew Davey (33, 2024), Matt Doorey (24, 2025), Wiremu Greig (25, 2026), J’maine Hopgood (25, 2025), Shaun Lane (30, 2026), Makahesi Makatoa (31, 2024), Toni Mataele (22, 2025), Ryan Matterson (30, 2026), Jirah Momoisea (26, 2024), Jack Murchie (27, 2024), Joe Ofahengaue (29, 2025), Junior Paulo (32, 2026), Ky Rodwell (25, 2024)
Zac Cini (24, 2024), Haze Dunster (25, 2025), Will Penisini (22, 2025), Sean Russell (22, 2025), Bailey Simonsson (26, 2024), Maika Sivo (31, 2025)
Daejarn Asi (24, 2024), Dylan Brown (24, 2025), Clint Gutherson (30, 2025), Brendan Hands (25, 2025), Joey Lussick (29, 2025), Mitchell Moses (30, 2026)
Here’s the harsh reality.
As things stand, the Eels already have 27 of the top 30 locked in. That could be perceived as achieving stability.
Or, with all of those players currently part of a squad that will not play finals football in either NRL or NSW Cup, would it be more accurate to label it as a roster in stagnation or probably in decline?
The holes in the list above are glaring.
There were only seven specialist outside backs in 2023. In 2024, with space available for no more than three recruits, that number drops to six players and includes Zac Cini who moves from a Development Contract to a top 30 deal.
As a reminder, Cini has been unable to force his way into the top grade in 2022 or 2023.
Now consider the spine options. There are six players to cover four positions. There is no recognised back up for Gutho at fullback and outside of Brendan Hands shifting back to the halves, Daejarn Asi is the only cover for Moses or Brown.
And this is an ageing roster.
The average age for the roster comes in at just over 27, and that figure also conceals that up to eight of the likely starting 13 will be turning 30 or older in 2024.
Should the Eels bite the bullet and accelerate the pathways players?
I believe that the club is getting it right with developing young players of the future. There is a terrific mix of local products and they’ve identified and added promising regional and interstate players to the age teams. Outside of the upcoming loss of Ethan Sanders to the Raiders, last year’s loss of Michael Gabrael to the Bulldogs and Myles Martin shifting to the Knights in 2021, most of the key talent is tied to the club.
Next year, I expect a number to advance to NSW Cup. Identifying NRL players in their junior years is an inexact science. So many factors can prevent them from fulfilling their potential. There are first graders in the current crop of young players but they probably won’t become a presence in the top grade until 2025 and beyond.
Perhaps the main thing to review with our pathways players relates to Development Contracts. I believe that all such contracts should be exclusively for them and not for fringe external recruits, especially those who are not close to NRL selection.
Which leaves 2024 with a roster that is a year older and arguably in decline.
I’m unable to comment on the state of the salary cap. With the huge coin invested in retentions, there might be little left for any significant recruitment. If that’s the case, then the only way to add a major recruit or two would come from parting ways with players under contract. Tough calls might have to be made.
And if there is minimal money left in the cap, and all contracts are honoured, then we can only expect bargain signings to complete the roster. That’s not good enough.
Parramatta has to bite the bullet and chase hard for a player or two who can change the trajectory of the immediate future. The Broncos added Rhys Walsh and it’s taken them to a new level. All of the promise of other players has been realised but Walsh is the ignition point.
If the Eels continue to decline, they become a harder sell to potential quality recruits. A shiny new centre of excellence won’t get a target across the line if the club continues its current practices.
It stings all Eels supporters to see our team slump from grand finalists to also rans in 2023. And as things stand, with the next preseason less than three months away, a repeat dose of the bitter pill we’ve all just swallowed probably awaits us all.