Can the Parramatta Eels go from being the worst team in the NRL in 2012 to Premiership contenders in 2013?
The National Rugby League is renowned for being one of the most unpredictable and as a result, one of the most competitive and entertaining domestic sporting competitions in the world. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article highlighted the Sydney Roosters as potential beneficiaries of these annual fluctuations as new recruits Sonny-Bill Williams, James Maloney and Michael Jennings have transformed the Bondi club into somewhat of an All-Star team.
The article was incredibly interesting, detailed and poses an incredibly plausible proposition of Roosters success in 2013. Its lone flaw was that it identified Sydney’s resurgent 2010 in which they went from wooden spooners to Premiership Finalists as more of a rarity than an annual occurrence. Last season it was the growth of the Canberra Raiders and the unexpected fall of the West Tigers. In 2011 we witnessed the Brisbane Broncos recover exceptionally after failing to make the finals for the first time in 19 years the previous season and the beginning of the Gold Coast Titan’s fall from grace. In fact, almost every season throws up a couple of exceptional and often unexplainable fluctuations.
There are several potential stories in 2013, not least of all the Roosters and their reformed squad. Despite this though, a vastly more exciting prospect is waiting to take the league by storm – the Parramatta Eels. For a side with the talent of the Eels to finish last in the Premiership campaign sets the stage for one of the most dramatic comebacks in recent years. As mentioned in our article on the keys to success in NRL Dream Team, changes in personnel, tactics, coaching, team chemistry and a little bit of luck are paramount considerations when looking at potential change between seasons. Parramatta have reformed almost every element of their play since their Premiership aspirations were dashed in the early months of last season and as such, go into 2013 largely unknown.
One thing that we know for certain is that despite the Roosters’ prominence in the headlines, Parramatta hold as much, if not more promise for this coming season. What is more, a narrative of shared personnel, similar fortunes in recent times and the undeniable promise of these sides heading into the 2013 is too substantial to ignore. Whilst one club is surrounded by hype and the other uncertainty, we for one wouldn’t be surprised if they are star-crossed to meet at some stage in September.
Parramatta’s appointment of the highly respected Ricky Stuart as coach for the coming season provides the foundation from which we believe the Western Sydney club will build a their formidable outfit. Beginning his coaching career somewhat poetically with the Sydney Roosters in 2002, Stuart has openly criticized his new side’s play in 2012, highlighting defensive deficiencies and perceived disinterest as primary reasons for their league-worst defence (674 points conceded).
With last year’s Chris Sandow signing proving an incredible anti-climax, Eels fans will be wary of getting carried away with the signing of the former Premiership, Origin and Tri-Nations winning coach. The pedigree of Stuart however overshadows Sandow’s without question.
Continuing our Roosters analogy, Stuart’s arrival at the Eels following a dismal 2012 campaign has him depicted as a savior destined to lead the Blue and Gold to their first Premiership since 1968. This narrative, foretold by the often maligned ‘Rugby League gods’ draws parallels with Brad Fittler’s appointment as head coach at the Roosters in 2007. Having won just 5 matches of their opening 16 under Chris Anderson, Fittler’s promotion coincided with a run of form [5 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses] that propelled the Roosters to 10th on the ladder by the end of the season, just 1 competition point off a finals berth. Just for good measure, Stuart and Fittler played alongside each other for NSW between 1990 and 1994.
Whilst players in almost every sport respond positively to the optimism of a new coach, Parramatta failed to perform under Stephen Kearney in his one season stint. We’re anticipating Stuart’s passionate and intense coaching philosophy will give him a better chance of inspiring an incredibly young Eels outfit. His tolerance of a more impromptu style of play to which the Parramatta Eels roster are predisposed is far more suited than Kearney’s Melbourne-influenced militaristic strategy and as such, players like Reni Maitua, Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow should thrive this coming season.
Unfortunately for Parramatta, Stuart isn’t the only change to the side’s composition heading into this season. If anything threatens to derail what should be a dream start for Ricky Stuart, it is injury to a senior player with his squad already lacking depth.
The retirement of veterans Luke Burt and Nathan Hindmarsh deprives the Eels of two influential leaders, respected men and in Hindmarsh, arguably the best defender in the NRL. Moreover the losses of Shane Shakleton, Justin Poore, Casey McGuire, Justin Horo and Esi Tonga, or in other words, almost an entire 3rd string forward pack, leave Parramatta short of role players to complement the stardom of Mannah, Hayne and Sandow.
Under the Melbourne Storm model, it has become apparent that not every player in the 17 needs to be of representative quality. So long as errors are minimized, defence is coordinated and opportunities are capitalized on, the creative potential of Sandow and Hayne alone should be satisfactory. The emergence of youngsters Nathan Smith, Jake Mullaney, Ken Sio and Matt Ryan should fulfill this requirement with Ricky Stuart able to model the young players into roles required by the team, not roles they have been accustomed to performing in the past.
Whilst coaching NSW to State of Origin defeat in 2012, Stuart demonstrated his ability to take an inferior side within a single field goal of defeating the closest thing to perfection ever known by Rugby League. More than that, he galvanized a unit that has been shattered, year after year, and managed to instill a belief that victory wasn’t only possible, but was both expected and probable. If that same inspiration is imparted in his new squad, week in and week out, expect an incredible escalation in effort demonstrated every round compared to 2012.
Predicted Tactical and Team Chemistry Adjustments
With the recruitment of Luke Kelly from the Melbourne Storm, speculation that Jarryd Hayne may shift to five-eight has ended. The Parramatta Eels now boasts a young and incredibly talented spine and as such, excitement should never be lacking with hooker, halfback, five-eighth and fullback charged with compensating for an absence of talent elsewhere on the park.
Kelly may not be John Sutton and their styles of play may differ incredibly but this combination should emulate the creative genius that sparked South Sydney in 2011. In many ways Sutton grounded Sandow and allowed the halfback to play his natural game. Kelly won’t play that role, it isn’t his natural game and in turn, Stuart will turn to either Keating of Smith at hooker to orchestrate the forwards through he opening plays of a set. As such, we’re expecting the work-rate of Parramatta’s forward pack to increase substantially this season.
With Tim Mannah coming out of a personally difficult off-season, he would be forgiven for a substandard 2013. We expect the NSW representative prop to up his play this year however, with the added responsibility, leadership role and pain of losing his brother John to cancer in January to act more as motivations than distractions.
Dream Team Watch
The spine of Parramatta’s attack has been the focus of analysis this off-season, but we think value may be found in other areas as well. Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow will be incredibly popular selections this year while we’ll have to wait and find out whether Stuart prefers Keating or Smith in the number 9 jersey. If Smith is selected, you could be forgiven for selecting all three of these main playmakers.
In the forwards, someone has to make up for the loss of Nathan Hindmarsh and account for the 972 tackles he made alone in 2012. Youngster Matt Ryan emerged as the most likely candidate late last season however we’re not expecting the 24-year-old to fill the void all by himself. Reni Maitua may increase his defensive workload, making him a candidate for a breakout season at Parramatta whilst Tim Mannah will not disappoint.
The End Result
The Parramatta Eels aren’t a great side. They struggled in the juniors and in reserve grade last year, compounding their struggles in the Premiership. They do have great players though to complement a great coach and implement strategies that have won trophies at club and representative levels. Despite this, commentators have already written off the Blue and Gold when it comes to a finals berth this season.
No one expected the Sydney Roosters to make the Grand Final in 2010, yet they did, and whilst we don’t expect Parramatta to go that far in 2013, we definitely expect to see them in the race for a spot between 6th and 8th come September.