Round 25 was certainly an interesting one, full of dying finals dreams, uncertainties about the rules and internal squabbles at a high profile club.
Eels Title Dream Flickers Out
The Eels loss to the Roosters on Friday night saw the final knife in the back of Parramatta’s season. The lacklustre 34-12 loss at Commbank Stadium featured a 70% completion rate, 15 errors and 52 missed tackles.
Without Moses, the Blue and Gold were dominated in almost every aspect of the game. The heavy defeat put last year’s grand finalists into 11th place on the NRL ladder, leaving the over twenty thousand Eels faithful in attendance with a sour taste in their mouths.
There has already been overwhelming criticism of Parramatta’s 2023 performance, so I’d like to acknowledge the substantial setbacks the side has faced.
Off the back of the side’s Grand final loss (which saw them play 4 more games than the teams that didn’t make finals), many players jetted off to England to represent their nations in the Rugby League World Cup. Upon return, the players completed a short but intense pre-season with a minimal break. There were other clubs with similar issues, but it should be noted that the Eels have now struggled after both of the two most recent World Cups.
When the season kicked off, Parramatta only fielded nine of last year’s Grand final squad in their clash with Melbourne. The loss of key players like Papali’i, Mahoney, Niukore, Stone and Kaufusi was significant. A shortened preseason meant that the Blue and Golds had minimal time to form new combinations, and then the loss of players to injury and suspension meant that Brad Arthur’s side were still trying to gel in mid season.
Lane’s multiple injuries, Moses absences, RCG’s time out due to injury and suspension, Dylan Brown’s enforced time on the sideline, Simonsson, Paulo, Sivo also copping suspensions, and Gutherson, Paulo, Moses and RCG missing games due to Origin, were all critical factors in the season. Throw in an unforgiving NRL draw that forced the Eels to play 4 top eight sides consecutively off byes early in the season along with Parra being the only club to not receive a bye during Origin impacted rounds, and the hurdles were plenty. Are these excuses or reasons? You decide.
Were there any positives? The addition of Trent Barrett as attacking coach had the Eels sitting as one of the best offensive teams for most of the season. Only a late season fade saw that statistic change.
As for the changes to the first grade team, the Eels debuts of Brendan Hands and Daejarn Asi, and the continued development of Sean Russell and Wiremu Greig were positives. The recruitment of Joe Ofahengaue, Andrew Davey and Joey Lussick marked the clubs intent to fill holes in the roster in the back half of the season.
In a disappointing season I also see moments to appreciate. A season sweep over Penrith was a major highlight and there was also the upset win against the Rabbitohs, and the Round 20 victory against all odds over the Titans. Beyond that, the emergence of talented young players, especially those seen last week in NSW Cup, was also bright spot.
Changes must be made over the summer, but even in such a roller coaster of a season, there were signs that should encourage fans about the future.
The Premiership aspirations of the Manly Sea Eagles were also extinguished in Round 25. However, the circumstances of the end to their season differed greatly from that of the Eels.
In last week’s second Friday night fixture, Manly dominated long passages of their clash with the Warriors in New Zealand.
An upset looked to be on the cards, and with the game locked up at 22-22, Reuben Garrick was taken out in an ugly mid-air tackle by Warriors fullback Charnze Nickoll-Klokstad.
Although the tackle was deemed legal according to NRL rules, Garrick was forced to leave the field with a fractured back. Shortly afterwards, Warriors forward Marata Niukore scored the match winning try. Talk about rubbing salt into the wounds!
Putting the focus back on the tackle, fans would rightly be up in arms about whether the NRL are doing their best to ensure the safety of the players. The uproar was deafening, with many bemused as to how Nickoll-Klokstad wasn’t deemed to have put Garrick in a dangerous position.
We now wait to see whether there’ll be a rule change to eliminate incidents like this.
Rabbitohs In Ruin?
Finally, the Rabbitohs title hopes are hanging by a thread after another disappointing loss, this time to the Knights.
Since then, the Bunnies have been the talk of the NRL. Whether it was reports of favouritism, infighting, suspension or staff departing, the noise surrounding the club has arrived at a poor time. It’s the last thing that the Bunnies need as they fight off challengers to grab a spot in the bottom of the Top 8.
The first reports to circulate concerned favouritism to key players.
Head Coach Jason Demetriou was found liking an instagram comment that was harshly critical of Jacob Host and Liam Knight in the club’s loss to Canberra. It was followed by accusations that the coach had been accused of not holding senior players Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell accountable for their faults, finding other places to lay the blame for South Sydney’s shortcomings.
Latrell has not endeared himself to supporters and the league world following his late elbow on Tyson Frizell. His one week suspension means he will miss Souths crucial round 27 match against the Roosters, adding further pressure as they attempt to qualify for finals footy.
Speculation about infighting between players during video sessions, and arguments with assistant coaches, are adding fuel to the fire of unrest at the club. The immediate departure of Sam Burgess, and John Morris linking with the Tigers in 2024, seems to confirm that lines have been drawn in the sand.
It may be pure coincidence, but reports are now surfacing that Jack Wighton is intending to renege on his move to Redfern.
The truth probably falls somewhere between “all is well” and “the sky is falling”. But when it happens so late in the season, it doesn’t auger well for a team that had serious premiership ambitions.