The Parramatta pack is the envy of many NRL rivals, but the club has some weaknesses out wide. Will coach Brad Arthur be able to overcome this as the club looks to end a decades long premiership drought?
FINISH THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Top four: $4
Top eight: $1.55
Most losses: $41
Jake Arthur, Waqa Blake, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright, Haze Dunster, Clint Gutherson, Wiremu Greig, David Hollis, Oregon Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Reed Mahoney, Makahesi Makatoa, Ryan Matterson, Mitchell Moses, Marata Niukore, Solomone Naiduki, Tom Opacic, Isaiah Papali‘i, Junior Paulo, Hayze Perham, Will Penisini, Mitch Rein, Bailey Simonsson, Maika Sivo, Sean Russell, Ray Stone
INS: Bailey Simonsson (Raiders), Mitch Rein (Titans)
OUTS: Joey Lussick (St. Helens), Blake Ferguson (rugby union), Will Smith (Titans), Michael Oldfield (released), Sam Hughes (released), Keegan Hipgrave (retired)
Eels' best 17 for 2022
1. Clint Gutherson
2. Haze Dunster
3. Will Penisini
4. Waqa Blake
5. Sean Russell
6. Dylan Brown
7. Mitchell Moses
8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
9. Reed Mahoney
10. Junior Paulo
11. Shaun Lane
12. Isaiah Papali’i
13. Nathan Brown
14. Ray Stone
15. Marata Niukore
16. Oregon Kaufusi
17. Ryan Matterson.
SQUAD STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
STRENGTHS: Squad continuity, particularly in the spine of Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown, Reed Mahoney and Clint Gutherson. The familiarity between the side’s key playmakers should give the Eels an edge in attack. Upfront, Brad Arthur will have a formidable pack at his disposal with one-two punch duo Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Both big men were close to best on ground in week two of the finals against Penrith and are primed to carry that form into 2022.
WEAKNESS: Arthur has lost a considerable amount of experience, premiership experience, in the outside backs after first losing Michael Jennings for 2021, and now Blake Ferguson. Rising stars Haze Dunster and Will Penisini are NRL pedigree players but have 19 games between them. That lack of big game experience could hurt Parramatta given the club’s recent struggles in getting to a preliminary final.
The powers that be at Parramatta have rewarded Brad Arthur with a contract extension that will see the coach remain at the club until the end of season 2024. For Arthur, a premiership, or at the very least a grand final appearance, in the next three years will be the only thing to silence the critics that are questioning if the coach is the right person to break Parramatta’s 35-year title drought. Even with the security of a fresh contract the pressure on Arthur to deliver, and quickly, is unlikely to disappear. Parramatta is focused on building a reputation as an NRL powerhouse club and winning titles is the first step in cementing that perception.
GAME PLAN/WHAT THEY NEED TO TWEAK
Parramatta has emerged as one of the better defensive teams in the competition, which put the Eels in good stead to compete with the top sides. They even beat Melbourne twice in 2021. That same zeal in defence left the Eels two measly points from a preliminary final appearance after going down to the eventual premier, Penrith, in a week two finals showdown for the ages. On the flip side, Parramatta’s attack, particularly against top opposition, wasn’t up to scratch, averaging only 12 points a game.
The Eels also struggled with consistency and went from being world beaters to open the season to making up the numbers after a form slump towards the end of the season. It’s an area in their game that Arthur must turn around in 2022. So is the perception that Arthur’s men are flat track bullies.
FREE AGENCY WRAP & RATING
While all eyes are on the impending exodus of stars at the end of the 2022 season, the Eels performed relatively well in this transfer window. They signed Canberra winger Bailey Simonsson, and added veteran Gold Coast hooker Mitch Rein to sure up their No.9 options after utility Will Smith moved the other way. Simonsson will battle it out with the likes of young star Sean Russell to replace Blake Ferguson on the wing, whose bullocking carries and infectious personality will be missed in the NRL. Expect their rating to plummet significantly next year when they watch Reed Mahoney, Isaiah Papali’i, Marata Niukore, Oregon Kaufusi and Ray Stone walk out the door, with only Canberra No.9 Josh Hodgson, at this point, coming the other way.
WHICH PLAYER CAN THEY REINVENT?
With Oregon Kaufusi, it’s less about reinvention and more about transformation. Specifically, transforming the young forward into the player his junior representative resume promises he can be. The under 16s, 18s and 20s NSW Blues prop goes into his fifth NRL season and is surely ready to start delivering on his potential.
WILL DEVELOPMENT CONTRACT UPGRADED KIDS MAKE AN IMPACT?
With Maika Sivo’s ACL injury likely to keep him sidelined until the mid-season and Blake Ferguson making a switch to Japanese Rugby, coach Arthur is on the lookout for at least one new contender for a spot on the wing. Youngster Sean Russell, along with the likes of Solomone Naiduki – who has been added to the top 30 – will battle it out for the second edge spot in round one with Haze Dunster likely to be the other winger.
WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?
Hooker Reed Mahoney is also primed to build even further on what was a breakout 2021 season, which rocketed the rake into State of Origin selection. An accomplished defender, Mahoney proved he could be a factor in attack, setting up 13 tries in 17 games. He’d only managed seven assists between 2018-2020.
IT‘S A BIG YEAR FOR … DYLAN BROWN
Brown – The five-eighth had a relatively quiet season compared to his halves partner and halfback Mitchell Moses. While creating has never been Brown’s strength with only five try assists in seasons 2019 and 2020. Brown’s output was all the way down to just two try assists from 21 games in season 2021. Moses and fullback Clint Gutherson were responsible for the bulk of creativity in attack with the duo combining for 40 try assists between them, for 20 assists each. Parramatta struggled for points against the better sides and with Brown injecting himself as that third point of attack, the Eels would pose an even greater threat. You’ll often hear Moses talk about taking pressure off Brown, who is still only 21 years old. But given the young playmaker is now headed into his fourth year of NRL football, it would not be unfair to expect him to step-up and take more of the responsibility, and in turn, the pressure off his halfback.
It’s hard to see anyone other than ‘The King’ Clint Gutherson preside over the throne at the Eels. While his frustrations at teammates boiled over at different parts of the season, the effort and heart with which the fullback plays cannot be denied. Arthur does have a number of other potential choices including behemoth forward Junior Paulo, who is a widely respected and well-liked member of the squad.
WHERE THEY FINISH IN 2022 – 6TH
With very little disruption to Arthur’s roster, given the lack of player acquisitions, the coach has the luxury of building on and finetuning his key combinations. That fluency and continuity should give the Eels the best chance at overcoming what is a less than ideal draw that has them playing top four sides – Penrith, Melbourne, South Sydney and Manly – twice. 6th.
FOX SPORTS LAB’S AARON WALLACE SAYS …
For the second straight season the Eels defence seemed to pack it in at the wrong time after a very strong start.
In 2020 through 15 rounds they were conceding a miserly 11.7 points per game – the best in the competition, but things seemed to go awry at the back end of the year, leaking almost 27 points per game in their final seven matches.
This season they conceded just 15 points per game through 18 rounds, behind only the Panthers and Storm but from round 19 onwards this shot up again to over 25 points per game.