Parramatta Eels NRL Fans

Parramatta’s Fall from Grace: How the Title Window Slammed Shut

Momentum plays an undeniable role in the composition and outcome of Rugby League matches. Games turn on individual plays that swing momentum in one team’s favour; great teams know how to capitalise on this momentum, prolong it and eventually turn it into points. They also have the mettle to withstand periods where they don’t have it and comfortably absorb ambushes from their opponent without panicking and playing themselves out of the contest. The key is knowing how to create, utilise and defend it, without becoming reliant on momentum to produce your best.

Momentum was both the Eels greatest strength and fatal weakness in 2017. It’s hard to remember a playoff team that looked as drastically different as Parramatta did depending on which half of the field they were in. Charging into opposition territory, they appeared to be an offensive juggernaut, a wave of hardy, mobile forwards laying the groundwork for Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman to provide quality ball to the host of offensive threats working their magic on the edges. It explains how they were able to chalk up multiple big-margin wins against fellow finals teams, highlighted by their 50+ tally against the Broncos in Round 25, the pinnacle of their season.

When the momentum was against them, it was hard to see how the Eels could crack the finals, let alone challenge the league’s best. Too often, their forwards failed to make a dent in the opposition pack, especially coming out of their red-zone; their backs — aside from Radradra and once healthy, Gutherson — shied away from the hard yards and rarely helped lighten the load on their under-performing pack. Eventually, teams picked up on this weakness and those with the personnel to capitalise (otherwise known as ‘good’ teams) pinned the Eels in their own end as often as possible.

When it comes to the business end of the season, momentum is much harder to come by, and playing without it is a necessity. Not only are the opponents better, but the games are tighter; it’s inevitable that you won’t dictate the action for long periods of the match, and it’s how you handle yourself through the dry-spells that defines you. In the end, Parramatta’s flaws got the best of them and they went out in straight sets without posing much of a threat.

A Year of Promise and Potential

With their barnstorming run in the second half of the season seeing them soar from a mid-table playoff hopefuls to a top four-side and dark-horse premiership threat, expectations were understandably high for the blue and gold in 2018. The consensus thought was that they would parlay their late-2017 form and establish themselves as a genuine contender.

Despite the success, detailing the exact strengths of their roster was quite difficult. There were obvious highlights: A squad full of ‘genuine footballers’ — players that were competent in both attack and defence, multi-dimensional and could adapt to different roles and requirements depending on the opponent, or even the situation. The likes of Brad Taikarangi, Manu Mau, Clint Gutherson and Tepai Moreoa, the players at the forefront of the team’s best play, fit this description.

Having those cards up your sleeves gives you some extra juice through the grind of the season, and whilst other teams struggled to maintain performance through fatigue in the final testing third of the regular season in 2017, Parramatta clicked into gear and played their best football, winning 11 of their last thirteen en route to a finals berth.

However, they lacked an elite punch. Truthfully, it felt like their run of success was more a factor of timing and grabbing opportunities. As Melbourne rampaged their way to the front of the competition and left teams scrambling for answers in their wake, the Eels were able to put together a tailored gameplan that capitalised on the wide-open nature in the chasm left behind the league leaders.

Yet it wasn’t a team with a standout quality, nor was it punctuated by star power or elite talent: Clint Gutherson was in the midst of a breakout season, and appears steady on the path to stardom; Michael Jennings is a tested veteran with a strong track record; Manu Ma’u an exceptional all-round player at the deepest position in the league, but no one on their roster was considered among the best at their position (save for coach Brad Arthur, who deserves the lion share of credit for the 2017 success. His inexplicable omission from the coach of the year race still confuses me). The remainder of the roster would be best categorised as high-to-mid level role players. They ranked eighth in both attack and defence, and despite their two-way talent, tended to be orientated one way or another depending on the match-up, never completely putting it all together. In hindsight, characterising their team was tough because we weren’t seeing the full picture, at least not at one time.

Once the finals were over, the picture was much clearer.

The abrupt end to their season was glossed over in the general rugby league conscious, dismissed as an inexperienced team that ran into veteran sides more prepared for the stage of finals footy. That defence has legs, considering the two teams that beat them ended up in the grand final; Melbourne were a historically great team in the midst of a dominant charge towards the premiership title, and the Cinderella story the Cowboys were writing was picking up steam as they ground out win after improbable win. It was also their first trip in eight years to the post-season, and only two players (Michael Jennings and Tim Mannah) had previous finals experience.

Regardless, getting eliminated in straight sets means something. Generally, a fourth seed team shouldn’t be outed by the lowest ranked team in the playoffs, even if it is their first trip to the big stage in a long time. Hindsight is 20/20, but it was the first sign that the success wasn’t sustainable.

This thought had clearly not occurred to the decision-makers at Parramatta. After convincing Moses to join halfway through the season, their recruitment drive for 2018 could be best described as minimal. The only signing of note was Roosters prop Kane Evans – a nice attempt to bolster to their forward depth – before adding former Eels Tony Willams and eventually Jarryd Hayne, with Semi Radradra the only notable exit.

Carrying in essentially the same roster is risky business in such a tight competition. You’re banking almost entirely on internal improvement, which is a gamble for a team looking compete. This was an error in judgement from Parramatta’s management: 2017 was promising, sure, but not such an overwhelming success that they wouldn’t need to add to their current roster. They still had ample room for improvement. From top to bottom, no sporting competition in the world is as consistently tight as the NRL. It means that treading water is not an option, and even the slightest slippage year-to-year could result in a dramatic fall from grace. With what followed, the Eels stand as exhibit A.

2018: The Nightmare on Church Street

The assumed potential of this team has all but disintegrated in their nightmare start to 2018. We’re now more than halfway through season and calling their campaign a wrap is conservative – truthfully, they’ve been finished for at least three weeks. Confined to the bottom of the ladder since round 2 and sitting at a dismal 2-11, the Eels’ stunning fall from grace has completely derailed the trajectory of this team and seen the title window slam shut in their face. The consequences of such a collapse could be far more severe than just throwing away this year. All of a sudden their future, once thought to be among the brightest in the competition, is very murky.

Of course, thirteen weeks of bitter disappointment makes it easier to critique roster decisions made for a team that was hot off a finals berth, but the utter disaster of 2018 leaves Parramatta with very few excuses. With their season in the books, it’s now time to reflect on the holes and begin to reconstruct a team from the ashes.

Mulling over their results through their games this year, an interesting trend stands out. Whilst they’ve racked up an inexcusable 11 losses already, the margins of these losses starts to provide an explanation for their struggles, and possibly a blueprint on where to begin rebuilding the roster.

Margins of losses (or wins) are valuable in giving context past the result of the game. Over the course of the season, how much you win or lose by, and who those come against, tend to paint a pretty accurate picture of where you sit in the league hierarchy. Astonishingly, eight of Parramatta’s eleven losses have come within 10 points: Four 10 point losses, all to top eight teams; Two eight point losses to the Bulldogs and Warriors; A six point loss to Penrith and a two-point defeat at the hands of Cronulla.

The more egregious results of the season — a 54 point belting by Manly, a 30-4 beatdown against Newcastle and a try-less 16 point defeat at the hands of the Raiders — are the low points where their poor form got the best of them. These are problematic, but far more alarming is the majority of the losses coming by reasonable margins, bringing up concerns about the club’s playing style: How are all their opponents finding similar paths to victory? How have the Eels been within striking distance so many times and consistently failed to convert any of them into wins?

It all stems from the Eels attacking woes. The best perspective on the Eels toothless attack came in their latest abysmal outing against Newcastle, who entered the game with the league’s worst defence, opponents averaging 28.5 points per game. Parramatta, playing at home, could only muster up four points by way of a try in the dying minutes of the game. For 76 of the 80 minutes, they looked completely unthreatening, a common occurrence throughout this season.

Attack and defence are usually analysed and critiqued individually, but they are undeniably interlinked and influence each other more than is commonly understood. Parramatta do have the fourth worst defence, conceding 22.9 points per game, but with the defensive ability of their squad and their past history, its fair to suggest the poor defensive output is a direct product of their struggles with the ball.

And ‘struggles’ is putting it lightly: Ranking dead last in the NRL with only 13.3 points each week, their offence has been downright dreadful. If you remove an out-of-character 44-point outing against Manly (who ‘no-showed’ in the midst of multiple internal club dramas), their average hovers just below the 11-point mark, a far more accurate depiction of the level they’ve operated at. It took that outlier performance seven weeks into the season for them to crack a double-digit points average, which is so bad it’s almost impressive.

The common thought is you need a top four attack and defence to win a title, and be in the top eight of both to crack the finals. The league average for attack in 2018 is 19.3 points per game, a mark which the Eels have hit only managed to hit four times this season. Only two of those games resulted in a win, again symptomatic of their inability to balance both sides of the ball — they’re either opening up the game and trying to outgun you or clamping down and parking the bus. There is no in-between, and neither is truly effective.

It harks back to the earlier point of treading water — what was good enough for a league-average attack and defence last year leaves them as the worst team in the competition just 12 months later, such is life in the NRL. Where they were once considered solid, they are now lacklustre; the Eels need to find a way to break open games and put themselves into the contest.

Moving Forward: The Blueprint

The common thread linking all the squads currently leading the race for the title in 2018 is a powerful, athletic forward pack. It would be fair to argue that the top seven sides employ the best seven packs in the game.

Look back through the last few premiership winners and you’ll find further evidence that damaging ball-runners in the middle third appear to be a necessity. Even teams who appeared to circumvent this trend still were strong in this category. In 2016, Cronulla deployed an army of workhorse forwards, but still had Fifita at the head of the snake. Thurston and Morgan are the celebrated heroes of the Cowboys 2015 title, but the barnstorming trio of Taumalolo, Scott and Tamou set the platform for the halves to shine. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2010 Dragons to find a team that wasn’t lead by at least one out-and-out elite forward. Sure, teams can be successful without them, but the ultimate goal is winning the championship.

As you’ve probably noticed, the game has changed significantly since the turn of the decade. The attacking quality is higher and defences are far more sophisticated, having seen so much of the new tactical standard of hit-ups and block-plays. It takes something stronger to break down defence. You need talent and creativity in the halves, but that is muted without a strong foundation to build upon — Parramatta currently have neither in abundance.

Individually, each of the Parramatta middle forwards are solid rotation pieces. Tim Mannah, Daniel Alvaro, Suaia Matagi and Siosaia Vaivai are all competent, first-grade level props who would be ideal as a foil to an elite big-man who creates inroads and generates the desired momentum to power the attack. Without that leading punch, it’s far harder for these workhorses to get about their business. There are innovations that could help get around this problem, but when the most simplistic aspects of your gameplan aren’t working, it’s hard to chance your arm.

Without a leader in the middle, the lack of explosive running prevents the Eels attack from driving forward and creasing the defensive line. This builds up over time, and as a collective the Eels have slid to 12th in total run meters (only 1,348). Considering they lack dynamism in other areas that could compensate — 11th in tackle busts and 12th in offloads — the end result is a substandard offence which puts no pressure on their opposition. This shows most when they get into an arm-wrestle for field position, when they quickly crumble under the adversity of even the slightest amount of pressure.

Its also worth mentioning the absence of former winger Semi Radradra here: Among the most terrifying ball-carriers in the game, Radradra’s most important work for the Eels came off kick-returns and early in sets out of the red-zone, and it’s clear how missed his impact is. As outstanding as he was, a player on the flank should not have such an influence on the team and be lifting up their forward pack so substantially; this should stand as one of the prime indicators of Parramatta’s ill-construction.

The results have left coach Arthur no choice, and he’s tried to move some pieces around with varying degrees of success. Peni Terepo, a former back-row specialist, has been impactful moving into prop in an attempt to generate some leg-speed around the middle. Arthur even shifted Manu Ma’u into lock a few weeks back to try spark some traffic through the middle. It was an ambitious move that is both intriguing and emblematic — sacrificing one of the teams best strike weapons out wide to patch up the issues in the middle. At the very least, an encouraging sign of proactive coaching.

It’s worth riding with these experiments for a while, as their regular forward rotation has proven ineffective through the first half of the season. With Nathan Brown returning from injury, they should flirt with the idea at moving him into prop. He won’t be as outstandingly impactful as he is in the back row, but he might be enough to play the opposing forward pack to a draw, which is a far better outcome then their crew of B+ props are achieving now. They need to find improvement in the middle, if only because of how dramatically it impacts the rest of their play.

Without the go-forward necessary to create separation from the defence, the Eels lack of directional playmaking is exposed. When the middle third is a significant weakness, it makes it hard for even the best halves combinations to stamp their authority on the game. When the pairing is incompatible and struggles in the same areas of the field as your forwards, the flaws of both will be exacerbated. In match-ups against teams who quickly get to work picking at their weaknesses, sets out of their own end rapidly become their Achilles heel.

As a result, the shortcomings in the Corey Norman-Mitchell Moses halves pairing quickly come to the forefront. The recruitment of Moses from the West Tigers mid-way through last season brought in a much needed boost of playmaking – but the move was ignorant: In essence, a choice of talent over fit, ignoring the mountain of evidence (that’s still growing) that suggests employing two players who are natural No. 6’s in the halves won’t produce an elite attack, and most likely will result in sub-par offensive production (think of the Bulldogs disastrous attack through the Reynolds-Mbye years), lacking direction and structure — the hallmarks of any good halfback.

They may have thought they bucked the trend last year and admittedly, there was moments where the Norman-Moses combination flashed immense potential. In theory, their games should mesh well: crafty and elusive with styles built on flair and instinct with just enough passing ability between the two of them that they can shoulder the burden.

But realistically, there is too little of a margin for error. Once opposing defences figured out how the two players work together, the spark faded.

When two halves who are unfamiliar with leading a team around the park try to share the duties, often they each retreat to their comfortable spots rather than split the workload 50/50 – especially when the chips are down – and nobody assumes the responsibility. This had been the case through most of the season. Parramatta aren’t filled with attacking weapons, but it’s fair to expect that the talent they have could cobble together a middle-of-the-pack offence, something in line with their 8th best rank last season. Currently dead last in points per game, it’s clear that their current strategy is not working.

Both playmakers have obvious talent, possessing dazzling skills that are dangerous with space to move. But there is a huge overlap in their strengths, and most noticeably, their weaknesses. Neither player is comfortable commandeering the attack or a recognised long-kicker, and as a result they struggle mightily when playing off the back foot. The tendency to pick their spots — regular traits of a second-receiver — is to the detriment of their team that is crying out for direction. They are guilty of going missing when they are needed most.

Even their strengths have fallen by the wayside. The Eels average the second most tackles in opposition 20m zones with 33 a game. This is a statistic that is commonly misunderstood: On the surface level a high rank would appear to be positive, but it has to be compared to the tries per game – in which the Eels are 15th – to be viewed in proper context. That discrepancy ranks last by a huge margin, and is a direct outcome of ineffective offence. The halves, by default, must shoulder the blame for such a poor output. It’s clear the current setup simply will not work.

It’s one of the many minor moves made by Parramatta management that, when added up, have cost them dearly. They were correct in addressing the need for a ball-player, but should have been chasing a top-tier halfback to put them over the top. When you look at the range of quality options that have moved clubs or signed new deals since Moses joined — Ben Hunt, Cooper Cronk, Ash Taylor, Mitchell Pearce; all who would have made for perfect fits — it’s hard to say anything other than they got it very wrong. Signing Jarryd Hayne and Tony Williams on deals that clogged the back end of their salary cap and took them completely out of the running for any of these players is a step further that isn’t criticised nearly enough. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the season, but it reduced the margin for error and gives the Eels very little wiggle room moving forward.

Corey Norman’s relationship with the club is reportedly strained, and whilst that may be nothing more than the fallout of a losing season, if they can get off his contract and essentially get a do-over, they should leap at the opportunity. They won’t win a premiership with him and Moses as the halves combination, and Moses being the younger and more recently signed of the two makes Norman expendable. It will take a halfback, among other moves, to course-correct the future of this franchise.

Of course, no saviours are coming in anytime soon, and we have half a season left to play. Ambitious swings and dramatic changes are their only chance at finding improvement in this roster,
and we know that Arthur isn’t going to be trotting out the same losing team every week. He’s already moved Gutherson into the five-eighth role in an attempt to get him more touches on the ball, and maybe see if he can get some extra value out of Moses and Norman when they are separated.

It’s also worth giving 22-year old prospect Bevan French some time at his preferred position of fullback to see what he offers in the role. Whilst he is quality playing out on the wing, it’s hard to see him comfortably resigned to the flank for much longer in his career given his potential. Gutherson does shape as the long-term option at No. 1, but also has ability to play a range of roles. If French shows enough flash at the back, it may be worth reshaping their lineup.

The other key position that needs an upgrade is at hooker. The role is currently occupied by Cameron King, who was dependable after taking over the role full-time in 2017, but hasn’t brought the same solidarity so far this season. His battle with Kaysa Pritchard, who is due back in the next couple of weeks, should decide who is handed the role full-time moving forward, or if they have to look for an external replacement. The Eels are still waiting on Pritchard, now 24, to capitalise on his immense potential, but consistent injuries have plagued his career to date. If neither player is able to stake their claim for the jersey, they could find themselves on the outer of the club’s plans, with highly regarded prospect, 17 year-old Kyle Schneider, waiting in line.

And that’s the blueprint for making the rest of 2018 worthwhile — a youth movement with constant tweaks to the lineup in attempt to find something that works to carry into the next few years. The only legitimate silver lining from being eliminated so early in the season is the chance to build for the future with little consequence for results, outside of attempting to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon. As the three-way race with the Bulldogs and Titans heats up, you would expect the Eels, who on paper are the best of the bunch, to have enough in the tank — even whilst bleeding in new players and experimenting with the lineup — to get off the bottom of the table.

There’s a stigma when it comes to losing, but that’s quickly forgotten in a league with such drastic year-to-year turnarounds. However losing is contagious, and without a draft or any kind of scheme designed to help struggling teams, it can take years for a franchise to re-emerge from the depths of the table. The Knights toiled for three seasons after plummeting from a top eight finish. Parramatta have to do whatever they can to ensure they aren’t staring down the barrel of the same fate.

It starts from the top, and despite the bumpy road of the club in the past few years, they’ve scored a terrific leader in Brad Arthur. There’s a potential job opening at either Brisbane or his former club Melbourne — depending on the fate of Craig Bellamy — so if the Eels play around with the idea of moving on they’ll quickly regret the decision. Arthur’s roster has failed him this season, and whilst some of the personnel may be of his choosing, poor decisions from above him and substandard play from those below him shouldn’t force him out the door. His job should be safe; everyone else has half a season to prove their worth.

Momentum may be on of the foremost influencers of individual footy games, but there’s an intangible momentum that underlines the performance throughout a season. It ebbs and flows, but there’s generally a feeling you get that surrounds a team, and it remains a strong indicator of performance. The Eels were a team built to compete now — their failure to do so has clearly deflated the playing group and sucked the life out of a club that was on the up. Now, they must begin the next phase in an attempt to climb the mountain yet again.

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