The Story Of Our Season

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The spectacular roller-coaster of the sweet-and-sour 2022, our best year since 2009, is finished but far from forgotten. 

The grand final still haunts many Eels fans. 

Dylan Edwards, the Panthers' grand final hero and Clive Churchill Medalist, knew the Panthers were going to win from the beginning.

Early on, in the first couple of sets, you could just feel we were more up for it.

Dylan Edwards

 Perhaps, it’s that simple. Mentally and emotionally, we were not in the hunt on game day. But why? What happened to us?

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It’s also been the story of our season. The On-Off-Up-Down, consistently-inconsistent, multiple-personalities of Sybil Dorsett that we saw, often. Throughout the year. It's not new.

In hindsight, perhaps the grand final was lost before the Eels stepped onto Accor Stadium.

Our Year

We could divide 2022 into a three-part yo-yo leading up to our grand final demolition.

Here's the short story. It was up, down, up, then down again in the end. History repeated itself in different ways. Sometimes, you could also see it half-to-half as well as week-to-week.

We never lost two consecutive matches all year, nor did we ever win more than 3 straight.

Now for the long story. For anyone allergic to really long, meandering reads, the exit ramp is here. 

 

10847108088?profile=RESIZE_710xEels 2022 season: margins won by (blue) and lost by (red) with half-time scores (red or blue dots)

What do you see here in the margins we lost and won by? Erratic swings in the extremities?

10847109068?profile=RESIZE_710xThe other obvious thing is we were front runners. That is, once we got behind by more than 2 points at the break, we lost.

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Eels performed much better against the lower-half teams: average scores of 20 - 21.5 (top-8 teams) versus 30.2 - 18.9 (bottom half). Against the top-8 we conceded more than we scored, overall.

The other feature is, despite appearances to the contrary (cue the painful losses to the Dogs and Tigers who were in 16th place at the time) is overall we actually performed better against teams in the bottom half of the competition. It's just we could also crumble against the worst when they brought their best.

Let's look at the different parts of our season.


Part I: A Promising Start with early warnings

For the first two months (R1-R7) we won 5 from 7 (71%) scoring at 29.8 ppg and conceding around 18.1 ppg.

There were plenty of highlights including a gritty 28-24 win over the Storm (R3) at AAMI which flirted with possibilities.

R3

10847118467?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty Images: The Eels were impressive in a gritty 28-28 R3 win over the Storm.

10847119074?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty Images: R3 also saw the onset of an injury crisis for the Eels in the backline with Sivo still on the sidelines.

There was also two mammoth 30-plus point wins over bottom-half non-contenders (St George in R4 and the Knights in R7). 

Here, we won three-consecutive games for the first time. 

Little did we know at the time, we wouldn't see these big margin wins nor three-straight wins again until the season's death in August.

Also, despite the positives, there were some worrying defensive signs. Against the Titans (R1, despite 57% possession we conceded more line-breaks 5-4 at 5 tries a piece, winning on conversions), and our defence looked vulnerable. And then in the two-point Sharks' loss (R2, 18-16) which saw a season-high line-breaks conceded 10-3 (despite 54% possession). And then, there was the deflating 21-20 loss to the wooden spooners, the Tigers (R6), then 16th too, which put us on notice.

R6 

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Getty Images: R6 saw the last-placed Tigers up for the fight.
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Getty Images: The Tigers won the R6 clash 21-20 in the dying minute of the game via a Hastings field goal.

R7

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Getty Images: The R7 Anzac Day massacre of the Knights 39-2. The second biggest win of the season. The Eels wouldn't see another win of this scale until a few weeks before the end of the regular season.

But all in all, by R7 we were sitting third on the ladder, and had only lost two games by 1 and 2 points.

Little did we know what lay just around the corner. Six days later.

 

Part II: Sybil’s roller-coaster

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During this period of the season (R8-R22) we were leaking more points than we were scoring, looking mentally and defensively very vulnerable. 

It began with an ambush. 

10847119678?profile=RESIZE_710xThe R8 Massacre

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Getty Images: Cowboys R8 won 35-4 up in Darwin, TIO.

Boooom. The Cowboys blew us apart limb by limb, 35-4.

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Getty Images: The Eels conceded three tries in the last six minutes to put salt into the wounds.

The defence at times was embarrassing. Brad Arthur believed the Eels dropped their heads when things went against them, and the Cowboys were simply "too good" for us. 

They probably out-enthused us...Every team is coming after us.

Brad Arthur, R8 press-conference following the Cowboys loss on why the Cowboys won 

 They sure did. They ran harder, tackled harder, did everything faster. We had no answers whatsoever. Arthur had no answers to why we had performed so poorly.

 "Yeah, I don't know", Arthur replied when asked why the Cowboys out-enthused the Eels.

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What we do know is the R8 game marked the end of the short-lived Jake-in-the-halves, Dylan-to-centre experiment. It led to the transformation of Jake-the-utility. But, not immediately. After this game the youngster disappeared from the top-17 until a much easier match-up against the Warriors (R18), two-and-a-half months later in mid-July. From then, he stayed in the Eels top-17 until the grand final averaging 5.4 minutes per game (7 from 9 games) as a bench utility relieving Mahoney at dummy half (Jake also played for 80 minutes in R21-R22 as the injured Moses' replacement). Unsurprisingly, he did 5 minutes in the grand final.

R9: The Incredible bounce-back

Then somehow the following week, in R9, we bounced back from the dead to put an end to the Panthers record 21-game winning streak at their home-ground fortress. It was was against all odds, defying history, all form guides, rhyme or reason. 

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Getty Images: The Eels were all courage and up for the fight in R9 clash against the Panthers to break the reigning champions' record streak; winning 22-20.10847125877?profile=RESIZE_710x
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Getty Images: The Eels were staying in the fight, counterpunching with offloads and second-phase play to score a critical try.

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Getty Images: Matto was fired up for a big game. He looked like Tarzan, and played like Tarzan in R9.

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Getty Images: Even Nathan Brown was in far better shape before his mid-season purgatory.
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Getty Images: Unlike the grand final, the Eels managed to keep the Kikau beast at bay without destroying our edges completely.

An early pattern was emerging. Good Sybil (R7 heavy win), Ugly-Sybil (R8 heavy loss), Great-Sybil (R9 gritty win). Following the script, we would lose the next week to the Roosters in R10. And we did, 31-24.

The Big Bashings continued: 5 in 14 weeks

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R14: Black Monday
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Getty Images: R14. The 34-4 Monday Massacre. It was the Burton-Fox show, with the Fox scoring a hat-rick.

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Getty images: The R14 Dogs kept busting us, and made 53.5m per set. The most we conceded all year. It was even worse than the grand final (50.4m).10847176497?profile=RESIZE_710x

Getty images: R14. Nathan Brown in the thick of a brawl. After this game the 2020 Origin forward was dropped and only played 38 minutes of NRL time off the bench (R17 win over  Tigers win) until being recalled for the grand final.10847176890?profile=RESIZE_710x

Getty images: A dejected Moses at the Dogs' Monday massacre.

R19: More Embarrassment

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Getty images: R19. Broncos were in white hot form for large chunks of the season. They demolished the Eels 36-14 at Commbank.

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Getty images: Payne Hass was dishing out pain in beast mode in the R19 clash.

The Commbank Bounce-Backs

But somehow during all this chaos, we managed to play some of our finest attacking footy this year - at Commbank, naturally. 

Two wins showcased this: the Roosters 26-16 win (R15) and our second win against the Penrith 34-10 win (R20).

True to form, both standout wins came the week after a bashing (Dogs, R14; Broncos R19).

Here, we saw two scintillating 26-and-24 point first-half performances over these two heavyweights. Us at our best. Playing direct, ad-lib, somewhat chaotic, expansive, offloading second-phase play on the front foot, built on a middle power-game making the yardage.

And true to form, in both those showcase wins we went into a conservative shell after the break to register four points between the two games to reinforce our off-on fragility half-to-half, game-to-game. 

Even at our best, we didn't quite have the killer instinct to keep our foot on our opposition's throat. And the Panthers dominated us in the second half of the Eels' big win despite having 12-men and missing their General (sent off in the 17'). And from that point on the Eels never defeated the Panthers again in the season.

R15

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Getty images: The Eels piled on 26 points in the first half against the Roosters in R15 at Commbank.

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R20

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Getty images: Our middles were on the front foot in the first half dominating the champions in R20.

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Getty images: Sivo makes no mistake scoring in R20, unlike the grand final.

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Getty images: Moses was on fire agianst the Panthers in R20.

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Getty images10847188098?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty image: In R20, the Eels were white hot in the first half against the Panthers putting on 30 points, to lead 30-4 at the break. But the Eels lost the second half 6-4 to be dominated by a 12-man Panthers team who were without their General, Nathan Cleary (sent off in the 17'). The Eels held on to win 34-10. Some pundits like Gus Gould believe the second half set up a psychological advantage for the Panthers for the rest of the year.

R16 & 22: Skinned alive by the Rabbits, again

Right after those standout wins (R15 & R20) the bashings came a week or two later (R16 & R22) at the hands of Souths. It was the Eels' sixth straight loss to the Rabbits at an average losing score of 35 - 11.3.

10847177290?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty Image: Lane in the trenches in R16, losing to the Rabbits 30-12.

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Getty Image: Latrell, Walker and co. pummeled the Eels.

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Getty: Souths bashed us up through the middle and on the edges twice this year. 

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Getty Image: Souths keep obliterating the Eels' edges.

10847178692?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty Image: Alex Johnston scores a double in the R16 mud-fest.

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Getty: Johnston scores another double in R22, in Souths' 26-0 demolition. He has 7 tries in the last 3 games v the Eels.

We were soft, and got steamrolled. And Brad Arthur admitted he didn't know why.

We just weren't good enough though the middle and got bashed up.

We weren't physical for whatever reason... I don't know why...

Brad Arthur, R22 press conference

All in all, it meant by the regular season's end (R25), going into the finals, we were the worst defensive team in the top-8. 

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The Eels were Forest Gump's box of chocolates. No-one knew which Eels' team was going to show up, week to week, half-to-half, despite players like Shaun Lane and Dylan Brown having their best career seasons.

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After the R22 massacre at the hands of the Rabbits we dropped to seventh position on a deathly slippery slope. We looked as if we would just make up the numbers again come finals once again just like the last three-years. Top-four at this stage looked unlikely. 

Sybil's spectacular dissociative identity disorder was in full swing, getting high on one hell of a rollercoaster. It had many fans whirling their heads like Linda Blair in the 1973 Exorcist classic, fearful the worst. “Here we go again”. Where was Max von Sydow? Would the Footy Gods intervene?

We were at the crossroads, and a perennial yo-yo. 

 

Part 3: The Revival

Well, it wasn't an exorcist, a psychiatrist, nor the Ghostbusters that came to the rescue. It was the playing group's "honesty sessions".

They got together, and had some real honest conversations about turning up every week, regardless of how they feel.

Brad Arthur

It signaled a complete reversal in fortunes. The revival started in R23 with a 42-6 demolition job over the Dogs. Then, the following week, in R24 we bashed the Broncos 53-6 at Suncorp (who were in decline). Sweet revenge on the previous bashings we received from these two, putting them out of their misery. Then, again we did it against the weakened Storm in R25 winning 22-14 at Commbank (beating them twice in 2022) to win the battle for fourth place . The Storm missed the top four for the first time in almost a decade (2014). And we had three-straight wins for the first time since the beginning of the year.

I've seen it in their eyes [the hunger], since the Bulldogs game [R23].

Brad Arthur, on the renewed hunger of the Eels' following the honesty session

10847179478?profile=RESIZE_710xR25 

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Getty Images: The Eels were up for the challenge against the Storm in R25 in the battle of fourth place.

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Getty Images: Gutho was fired up against the Storm.

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Getty Images: Sivo scoring another at Commbank. He has 36 tries in 37 games at Commbank.

The stats also tell the story.

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In part three, the Eels won 5 from 6 (83.3%) scoring at 31.5 ppg and conceding only 12.9 ppg (Part
3). 

It was a remarkable turnaround from the previous 14 weeks (Part 2) where we scoring at 20.1 ppg but conceding 24 ppg (winning 57% of games). 

It was the best run we’d had all year - even better than our start (Part 1) especially defensively

We put more aggression and physicality into our effort areas, and our defence in particular became more consistently resilient. We started to slide and become more adaptive and responsive. Becoming a team. More Connected and One. Our attack was also humming. 

Finally, it seemed the Eels were taking ownership and getting real about their season.

The Finals

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The Panther belted us in the Finals Week 1, 27-8. Here, Cleary takes advantage of Jakob's lack of speed to bust us open once. 

The Finals Week One 27-8 loss to the Panther was our only loss since R22. And it was another bashing. Our sixth of the year. But, who's counting?

Again we bounced back from yet another hiding as we have all year, to produce our best back-to-back 80-minute performances of the year, and best finals performance in thirteen years (since 2009).

Finals Week 2: Demolishing the Raiders
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Getty Images: In Finals Week 2 against the Raiders, Dylan Brown ran for an astonishing 321m to cap off his best season.

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Getty Images: Lane was also in beast mode running for 221m and causing chaos with 4 offloads to also cap off his best year.

The 40-4 thumping over the Raiders saw us produce scintillating attacking footy at Commbank where we produced the great first halves earlier in the year (R15, R20) but this time over 80 minutes.

The Raiders' win marked one of our most dominant 80-minute performances, even if the opposition was not at its best. The Eels had all the possession (59%) and territory and ran for almost 800m more (nrl.com stats). We were on the front foot, full of running, and playing plenty of expansive, ad-lib footy (19-9 offloads).

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Getty Images: Ice ran for 232m.

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Getty Images: Even Waqa looked great, and ran for 128m and scored a try.

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Getty Images: Paulo was full of running (164m) along with RCG (190m).

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Getty Images: Arthur was enraged by the leaks in the press-conference following the mammoth win over the Raiders.

The scorching win was also a snub in the face at the leaked internal review by former NRL coach Nathan Brown that the media reported just before this critical game. It revealed there was a perception of "Nepotism" existed in the club in relation to the appointment of staff and players. Arthur called it rubbish and made a point in the presser following the Raiders win the agenda-driven leak to the media was "not going to break the playing group". Though this report didn't directly call out Brad Arthur, the ties to his family and friends in the organization are evident to insiders. Nepotism is hardly an unusual event, anywhere, even in the animal kingdom (such as the matriarchal  hyenas), but this was aimed at Arthur, all that and more. In recent times, the Eels have been good at keeping inside leaks at bay, so Arthur was right about the agenda and justified to feel enraged by it.

Finals Week 3

10847321077?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty Images: Jason Taumalolo was in dangerous beast mode in the preliminary final's loss against the Eels running for 180m and making 78m post contact metres.

Then, next week's 24-20 win over the Cowboys in the preliminary final was even better.

It was one of the gutsiest performances by an Eels' team in recent memory. 

Foxsport stats reveals the Cowboys had the bulk of possession (54%) and territory, a mountain more of opportunities (34-8 tackles in the opposition 20m red zone), made about 300m more metres, and executed attacking kicks (10-4).The Eels made more errors (6-10),conceded more penalties (7-5), were awarded less restarts (3-1), missed more tackles (33-23), and made far more tackles (338-267).

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Getty Images: Reuben Cotter scores in the 11' using brute strength right through the Eels' middle.

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Getty Images: The Cowboys thought they had the game in the bag when they leapt to a 20-12 lead in the 54' after Murray Taulagi scored.

Somehow the Eels stayed in the fight. 

They were one the ropes and getting bashed up, but emotionally, mentally and physically they were up for a dogfight. 

Unlike the Raiders game where the win was all on the front foot, this win was off the ropes, off the back foot.

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Getty Images: RCG scored two tries to help the Eels counterpunch their way into the fight off the ropes. Unlike the grand final the Eels took their opportunities.

Importantly, the Eels were also able to counterpunch, landing blows in critical moments unlike the grand final. This ensured they were able to stay in the dogfight (12-12 at half time) and later comeback from 20-12 down.

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Getty Images: Sivo scores in the 64' to help get the Eels ahead 24-20 and they held on. 

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Getty Images: Ice holds onto the radioactive beast riding the missile.

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Getty Images: Sivo desperation saves a try, and potentially the game.

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Getty Images: The Eels hunted in packs on their goal line with desperation. Something we didn't see in the grand final the following week.

Ultimately, it was the Eels' desperation in defence that won them the game in critical moments under immense pressure. The scrambling and goal line defence was outstanding. They hunted in packs.

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Getty Images: The Eels were fired up.

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Getty Images: Reed Mahoney on his 100th NRL game sums up how every Eels' fan felt at that moment

It was our bravest game outside of Commbank all year, and we deservedly won a place in the grand final.

Technically, it's the team's first away win in finals under Arthur. 

Previously, we had lost every away game (8 / 8) under Arthur the Eels had only ever managed to win home games (3/ 3) either at Commbank (2) or last year's final's home victory against the Knights in Rockhampton. 

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 Our standout performances have been at Commbank this year.

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 The Eels have often struggled away and at Accor in recent times where the grand final was held.

It seemed that if any team had a chance to upset the hot-favorites Panthers, it would be the often chaotic and unpredictable Eels. They were the only team (along with the Storm) to defeat the Panthers twice this year and three times over the course of their dominance over the last three years (2020-2022). We also beat the Storm twice in a calander year for the first time since 2001.But, the second half loss against a 12-man Cleary less Panthers (R20) and the first week finals demolition by the Panthers (27-8) had many pundits expecting a dominant Panthers win for the hot favorites. And that’s exactly what happened.

Part IV: The Prey

Sure, credit to the Panthers. They were the better team on grand final night - by a wide margin.

They are a great side, on-field, and probably the greatest of all Panthers' sides; and in the midst of creating history. 

They are also now the first club in rugby league history to win all four grades after also taking out the SG Ball, Jersey Flegg and NSW Cup. They are already favourites for a three-peat again next season for the first time since the Eels did it in 1981-83.

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And arguably they are also one of the most arrogant in recent memory.

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We are the Sons Of Anarchy and Tattoos.10847325901?profile=RESIZE_710x

Instagram: winners are grinners with cigars (of course).

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Post-match Nathan Cleary rated their first half "up there" with some the best he's every played or the side ever.

That’s saying something about the kind of pressure the Eels were under in the grand final.

We were hunted down, bullied and blown out of the water early

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Top Gun (2022) with the age-less Cruise back with a bang.

The Panthers ran harder. Tackled harder. Played smarter. They played with mongrel, and purpose. They did everything faster. In the critical moments there were more Panthers’ jerseys there. They beat us in all the effort areas. We lacked mongrel, and had no answers. Under fire and relentless bombardment, the Eels defence was blown apart after 10 minutes, and kept leaking points.

There hasn't been a poor player for Penrith across the park.

Cameron Smith, Channel 9, commentary.

But, we didn't help our own cause, and regressed back to our old ways. One step forward, Two back. Statistically, we went back to our bad old ways - before our honesty session's revival - conceding tries early, conceding big metres, and conceding lots of linebreaks. In a big way.  

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Getty images: The Panthers were bashing us up 

In the first half, we only made 32.56m in yardage per set (nrl.com). That's worse than any other game all year.

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Getty images: Liam Martin smacks Nuikore head on.   

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We weren't making ground, and also conceded over 2000m for only the second time in 2022. The only other time was the R22 Rabbits' massacre.

The game was practically over by the break. Eels have never come back from an 18-point half-time deficit against the Panthers in the 55-year history between the clubs. 10847329482?profile=RESIZE_710x

The Panthers made the first three tries to get to 18-0 look easy.

10854195276?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty images: The middle was too laterally slow meaning space opened up for the Cleary-Edwards show once Lane tackled Cleary to put Stephen Crichton through the yawning gap.

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Getty images: Stephen Crichton does the rest, becoming the first player since Brett Kenny (1981-83) to score
in three consecutive calendar year Grand Finals.

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Getty images: Kikau helps create chaos in the jumbled Eels' defensive line. Then, quick hands and slick play settles it.
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Getty images: It meant Waqa was 2 on 1 with next to no chance, unless the Panthers stuffed up. They didn't.

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 Getty images: The Panthers made no mistakes, with quick hands, and Gutho couldn't stop the To'o bulldozer from scoring his first.

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 Getty images: Cleary catches Gutho out of position leaving the back-door open.

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Getty images: Sorensen was fired up off the bench.

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Getty images: The fourth try right after the break to get the Panthers to 22-0 was contentious. It probably should have been a no-try as Kikau obstructing the defensive line (as it has been all year). The decision shocked the like of Cameron Smith and Andrew Johns.

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Getty images: Gutherson and Moses' appeals fall on deaf ears.

And when it got to 28-0 in the 60' minute an embarrassing cricket score looked on the cards.

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Getty images: Spencer Leniu provided punch off the bench. Something the Eels lacked.   

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Getty images: Nathan Brown played for 26 minutes in the grand final off the bench. Prior to being parachuted into the grand final, Brown had played one game at NSW Cup level for 46 minutes off the bench since July (being the finals' Cup's loss to the Dogs a month, on Sept 3rd, before the NRL grand final). Unsurprisingly, he lacked punch and was short of match fitness. Why was he parachuted in so underdone, and what had changed in Arthur's thinking since R14 & R17, since Brown's purgatory? If he really was our best option, why wasn't he played more since July (and after coming back from a few weeks of injury) to build up match fitness? Something is amiss here. Meanwhile, Jake Arthur also played 5 minutes in the grand final, which aligned with his average minutes as a bench utility since R18. All that didn't help our cause.
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Getty images: Liam Martin was a terrier, running for 155m and making 45 tackles.  

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Getty images: Moses Leota was a hypersonic missile on a seek and destroy mode in the grand final.  

Moses Leota is on a search and destroy mission at the moment. He's not searching, he's done a lot of destroying.

Andrew Johns, Channel 9, commentary.

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Getty images: Kikau terrorized the Eels' defence all night. 
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Getty images: Brian To'o the bulldozer ran for 299m, scored 2 tries, and made an extra 101m in post contact metres
(nrl.com stats)

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Getty images: Dylan Edwards ran for 291m (nrl.com), and created havoc for the Eels.

We also made a season high mountain of tackles (402) which is over 80 more than the Panthers (315), according to nrl.com. It was even more tackles than we did in our R22 loss against Souths (399). It was more tackles than any team made during Origin (highest 379).

When the Eels beat the Panthers in R9 and R20 the roles were reversed and it was the Panthers making far more tackles than the Eels (403 to 350, 382 to 319, respectively). The Panthers ran us ragged in the grand final, playing at breakneck speed.

They're a very good team... they just played too fast for us.

Brad Arthur, on the grand final loss against the Panthers

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Getty images: As was the case in the Finals' Week One loss to the Panthers, Nathan Cleary found plenty of space in the grand final.   

Natually, it meant we also missed 48 tackles. The second worst of the season since R2 v Sharks with (49 missed tackles), including Ice’s mind-bogging 11 missed tackles.

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10847788680?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty images: Bashed, bullied, and belted up.

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Getty images: Clint Gutherson ran the most for the Eels with 167m (nrl.com).  

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Getty images   
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Getty images: The Eels had their heads down.

We had our heads down and into a conservative shell for most of the match, barely firing a shot until the last four minutes when the game was dead and buried at 28-0, to make it 28-12. Finally, when the game was over, we used up some gunpowder to somehow win the second half 12-10. Any brief opportunities we had at critical moments to even stand the slightest hope, we screwed up. Squandered by errors, or a lack of support and spark.

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Getty images: Unlike earlier games in the year and last week, Sivo fumbles the ball (55') with the line barely a metre away, and didn't even consider passing to support.

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Getty images: Why, Oh Why

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Less than two minutes later (57'), Simonsson made a break within the 20m zone, showing some pace that fans had heard about and enough to just stay ahead of Stains' - the Forbes Ferrari.

10847336257?profile=RESIZE_710xAnd when one lone Eels made a break he was hunted by a pack of Panthers including a prop. Naturally, Simonson didn't come inside nor find any Eels in support. There was none.

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Simonson was then successfully bundled into touch, and went off with a shoulder injury to rub salt into the wounds. 

10847336283?profile=RESIZE_710xGetty images: A Dylan Edwards moment set to become immortalized.
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The Panthers celebrated their hunt. Their defensive pride. And their hero.

And that was that. It summed up the night. They won all of the critical moments. 

And they yet again proved why they were the best defensive unit over the last three years in NRL history.

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In defence and in attack they hunted in packs

Invincibility lies in the defence, and the possibility of victory in the attack.

Sun Tzu, 'The Art Of War'

 

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The Hunger Games

But, perhaps, part of this story at least - and the lessons therein - began more than two years ago.

When the hunted became the hunters: a lesson

In the 2020 grand final loss, the Panthers felt like they were bullied by the Storm who were ahead 22-0 at the break. Then, the Storm raced to a 26-point lead with 28 minutes to go - before a failed comeback attempt making the score a more respectable 26-20 loss.

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Perhaps, this was a turning point. A deeper hunger and maturity was born out of the pain. Where cultural pacts were cast in stone. They weren’t going to play “nice guys” anymore. It wasn’t just about all that potential coming through their enviable nurseries giving them a free ride. After all, essentially this is the same team formed by late 2019 that came tenth.10847550265?profile=RESIZE_710x

Getty images: Panthers pack together as one in the 2021 finals. 

And so, their off-seasons after the 2020 pain was about brutal Commando style “fight club” style camps.

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They talked about climbing Everest to win 2021 title. Then, they did it.

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They talked about being “Top Gun” like to win the 2022 title in “one last dogfight.” Then, they did it.

We just took it [Top Gun ideas] into every game and never took a backwards step... the boys have a clear vision inside and that’s taking out the premiership. It’s just easy for us to all relate to it.

Izack Tago, Panthers Centre

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“Always connected”. “Fast moving”. “Brutually Suffocating”. “Always the hunters”. 

These four catchphrases sum the Panthers up everything they did to us in the grand final, and during the year, and everything we could not be.

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 Overawed by the occasion?

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Mark Geyer echoed what many pundits believe about the Eels.

Unfortunately for them, the occasion got to them.

Mark Geyer

“They didn’t go into camp. They stayed in their own beds.”

“They didn’t travel to the game in a team bus and all these things are little things that add up.”

“Honestly, when I wake up on grand final day the first thing I want to see is my team-mates having breakfast together.”

“Then all of a sudden the game is in your head, ok, we are here to play.”

“But Parramatta they went the wrong way about it unfortunately for them. They tried (though).”

Fox League’s Braith Anasta was another who thought the Eels' preparation was "unusual for a grand final" and wondered why they didn't go on the bus together.

10847357259?profile=RESIZE_710xDylan Brown didn’t want to blame the preparation, but suggested the occasion was unlike anything they expected. Perhaps, it partially explained why the Eels went into their shell and seemed overawed by the occasion.

This week was very overwhelming. It was full on with a lot of media and everything. Honestly, not that you don't think you're going to make the grand final but it's always hard to see.

Dylan Brown, after the grand final loss

Hard to see? For the Panthers, it would be hard not to see themselves in the grand final. After all, the Panthers are grand-final veterans, and were in their third consecutive Big Dance. In comparison, only Ryan Matterson had any grand final experience prior to this game (off the bench as no.17, in Roosters 21-6 title win, 2018) for the Eels. 

Long-time Eels' fans have just witnessed yet another lost opportunity. Our third straight grand final loss this century. We seem to find different ways for history to repeat itself in different ways. 

For long-time Eels fans, it’s nothing new. 10847559456?profile=RESIZE_710x10847559692?profile=RESIZE_710x

Eels fans: Keeping the porch light on for Harold Holt.

 

The Way Forward: What now?

In a nutshell, a grand final appearance is hardly a failure and there was plenty of good, great, bad, and ugly highlights in 2022. 

But, as great as the Panthers were in the grand final, the Eels were their own worst enemies and they regressed back to their bad old ways.

Maybe as Brad Arthur suggested we were worn out by the tough road leading into the grand finals.

Perhaps the preliminary final was our grand final, and we just ran out of puff and switched off. Froze, like deers in the headlights as some pundits have suggested. We zoned out at the high altitudes the Panthers and the Big Stage took us.

And yet, wasn’t the "honesty session" meant to address all this emotional-mental-on-off, below par performances? It seemed to.

No, that's not so, according to former AFL player and performance expert, Justin Peckett of "Leading Teams":

As a former AFL player in a poorly performing team, I was at times subjected to an ‘honesty session’.

It was often in response to a string of bad losses when there was a realisation that the season was about to slip away, or following poor individual or team off-field behaviour, or even due to increased negative media attention on the club.

My experience with ‘honesty sessions’ was that they paid lip service to addressing the core issues facing the team. It was all short-term thinking and sometimes very superficial or very combative without adequate follow-up or support. These sessions were more often than not too little too late.

I would put ‘honesty sessions’ in the same bracket as mediocre teams using movie nights or paintball to address performance. In isolation, these are poor strategies and very short-term fixes.

‘Honesty sessions’ are the language of mediocre teams.

High performing teams have absolute clarity of purpose.

The best performing teams won’t refer to having an ‘honesty session’. In fact, I think they would find it amusing as they would not be singling out a small amount of time in their week or even year to be honest. They do it every single week all the time.

They have a deep commitment to a behavioural framework and set of values. They place a premium on strong professional relationships and they create an environment where genuine conversations are the norm, not isolated ‘honesty sessions’. Consistently reviewing performance is integral to a team or organisation’s sustained success.

Perhaps Peckett is correct, and the honesty sessions were a short-term fix to plaster over the cracks. And in that case, for the Eels for all their talent there are some deeper cultural issues behind the scenes - to explain the off-on mental-emotional switch that often wilts under immense pressure. Habit patternsLike when muscle memory kicks in. Like karma. The fruits of the seeds sowed setting the foundation. It's a point of concern I've had throughout the year.  It's what Vincent Lombardi warns of.

 Watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Vince Lombardi

Athur had said during various times during the year that teams were coming after the Eels - that we were hunted by teams. This may be so, but when will we become the hunters?

It’s a cultural lesson we can learn from our bitter rivals. The Panthers didn’t “Lose one, to win one”. They lost one, to win two, three, or more, to become King Of The Jungle.

Their culture seems to more express that "Clarity of Purpose" that Peckett refers to. Not the erratic Sybil Gump on a rollercoaster.

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In Karate Kid (1984), the Wise Teacher, Mr Miyagi shows a young Danny How To Fight: Wax On, Wax Off.

Maybe culturally we're as much Sybil as we are Danny in the original Karate Kid - still learning how to fight. Unfortunately, for Eels' fans "wax on, wax off" became "week on, week off" or "half on, half off". Our Mr Miyagi though, goes to a different barber.

It makes you wonder, moving forward, how will we come back from this? 

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We’ll have a reformed team next year following the exit of nine players to date including critical players such as Reed, Nuikore, Ice, Opacic, and Kufasi. Nathan Brown is probably set to be another leaving, and seems a shadow of himself at the moment. It's led to many pundits writing us off, believing our so-called "premiership window" is now closing fast. Whatever the case, there sure are lots of questions to be answered. How long will it take to get the dynamics right of the new team around new dummy half service and decision-making? And if the experienced Hodgson goes down, what then? Few Eels' fans would think Jakob Arthur is the solution here, despite being the utility backup rake in the top-17 for the business end of this season.

Will the loss motivate us to go to a higher level and become hunters? Will we stay essentially the same - hot-cold, on-off? Or slump even further down the ladder, thinking it all should just come to us out of self-entitlement? 

Part of that will depend on whether there is a deeper investigation into the club culture top to bottom. Or will the milestone of reaching a grand final be enough to tip the scales towards a "nothing to see here" mentality? Therein lies the risk.

If this season and the last four decades has anything to tell us, when it comes to the chaotic Eels, it is to expect the unexpected, and not to expect too much.

Put your seatbelts on, wave the flag, take any necessary heart medication, and enjoy the ride.

At least, we have one another to console each other.

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All game stats used come from nrl.com unless noted otherwise.

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  • Apologies for the long read gents. I was meaning to do this a few weeks ago, but only got back onto it, today. 

    Hope everyone is well.

    The site seems really calm, haaha!

  • Absolute ripper of a read here HoE Ripper.

  • Brillant stuff.   Balanced, honest and evidence based.  No argument why we came 2nd and not 1st.  Still hurts but there 14 other teams that would have given their left nut to be in that GF.

  • Unbelievable effort and thread mate, youyve outdone yourself again.

    Im still trying to get my head around the GF, dont think i could ever watch the replay.

    • I have never watched a replay of a losing grand final, never will, seeing it once is enough. 

  •  'will the loss motivate us?'' thats the big question bro

  • Great read that.

    Honestly on reflection we played our GF the week before we obviously got the prep wrong for the game and I feel BA was out coached we beat Panthers earlier in a matching styles fight cleary fixed this by altering the game plan slightly they came at us and the spread it earlier then they normally would.

    I hope it's a loose one to win one situation but even that expression is really very often not true most GF runners up don't come back again the next year and if we do it will likely be against Penrith and in fairness no team can compete with them the hardest pill to swallow for me was that we were considered the team most likely to beat them but we weren't even close.

    I don't know about alot of other fans but that loss deflated me alot I've accepted that another premiership may not be seen in my lifetime. I've taken a break from rugby league for now avoiding the world cup except for highlights on the news but still find myself here so all is not lost lol. I'm  watching cricket and soccer instead hopefully by the time next season Rolls around I'll be ready to ride the eels roller-coaster but this time with expectations alot lower. 

  • Great read HOE and some well noted comments made here too; well done and a brilliant honest read.

    We simply were not good enough and didnt have the GF type game in us it showed; we all hoped we could do it but we didnt aim up and most of the team did not have their best game.

    You are right about GF'ists, some do not aim up the next season; for me it will be the off season thats the key as this is when the hunger should be sown deep. Its mental as well as physical.

  • Brilliant, your stuff is easily the best thing about this site. What this highlights is how much we have to improve our defence and defensive line speed. Far too often we were passive allowing big metres against all kinds of opposition. 

    I think Arthur demonstrated both his good points and his obvious limitations in that finals series. He seemed to learn nothing from the first Panthers final where the takeaway for mine is that we simply weren't going to beat Penrith in a toe to toe slug out. We had to try and threaten the panthers edges, play expansive . We effectively didn't fire a shot 

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