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NRL 2016 ladder countdown: Parramatta Eels (8th)

Semi Radradra is a human headline, but he still does his best work on the field. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
26th February, 2016
6
1781 Reads

Man, 2009 was a long time ago. That was back when an iPhone 3GS was the next greatest thing. If you carry one of those around these days you will be laughed out of every hipster café in town.

For NRL fans, the 2009 season will be remembered for three things.

Firstly, the introduction of ‘Bennett Ball’ from the St George Dragons, secondly Melbourne Storm cheating to win their second premiership in three years, and finally it was the year Parramatta went wild thanks to Jarryd Hayne.

Ever since then, Parramatta have yet to make the eight. They are on their fourth coach, have completely turned over their roster multiple times and have won two shiny wooden spoons.

But this year they come into 2016 with a side that actually looks good on paper and a coach that has lasted longer than a year. They are on the back of a season where they overachieved and they have the momentum from the Auckland Nines carrying them along.

Parramatta have added Kieran Foran, Beau Scott, Michael Gordon, Clinton Gutherson, Mitch Cornish, Michael Jennings and, most importantly, the greatest forward of all time James Hasson to their squad, strengthening it a lot.

In return, they have lost underachievers like Chris Sandow, Richie Fa’aoso, Darcy Lussick, Joseph Paulo, Will Hopoate and Reece Robinson. So their side is significantly better on paper.

However, will it be enough to guide them into their first finals birth since 2009, or will they add one more year onto the impressive streak of missed finals?

1. Michael Gordon
2. Semi Radradra
3. Brad Takairangi
4. Michael Jennings
5. Clinton Gutherson
6. Corey Norman
7. Kieran Foran
8. Junior Paulo
9. Nathan Peats
10. Tim Mannah
11. Manu Mau
12. Beau Scott
13. Anthony Watmough
14. Daniel Alvaro
15. Danny Wicks
16. Tepai Moeroa
17. Kenny Edwards

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Strengths
To quote Jarryd Hayne, “It has been a looooong time”. And it has been a long time, a long time since Parramatta have had a halfway decent spine. But their spine is very good this year.

Michael Gordon is the weakest link, however what he brings to the table is an all-around decent fullback game and some very potent goal-kicking, both of which are what Parramatta sorely missed last year.

Ever since he escaped from Anthony Griffin and his attempts to destroy his career by playing him at fullback all the time, Corey Norman has just gone from strength to strength at Parramatta. In 2014 he was alright, then he improved out of sight in 2015 with eight try assists and 12 linebreak assists.

Based on his form in the Auckland Nines and trials, Norman looks like he is set to improve again in 2016. He has an incredibly powerful running game and a lethal short kicking game.

He has formed a very powerful connection with the players around him, and has been known to play on both sides of the field, which both Parramatta halves will need to do a lot this year. Norman was steering the ship last year, so now with less pressure his attacking game will be allowed to flourish.

Then we get to their multi-million dollar man, Kieran Foran. He may be fresh off of a disappointing year, but since 2010 Foran has consistently been one of, if not the best five-eighth in the game.

Ever since he debuted he has provided impressive performance after impressive performance, working his butt off in both defence and attack. He is a New Zealand representative mainstay, and there is a reason for that. He is probably the half with the best defence in the game, and his timely passing and running game is very good.

Foran has also been known to deliver some very good short-to-medium-range kicks. But his best contribution to this team will be his belief and attitude. He comes from a team with a winning culture and there is no way he will accept playing in a losing culture.

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Parramatta are a team known for slacking off in the last 20 or so minutes of games, but with Foran’s motivational skills the club can shake that off. I have question marks over him and this halves pairing, but there is no way you could even attempt to say that he isn’t a great player. As a Manly fan I will hate to see him in the blue and gold next year.

Then there is Nathan Peats. He is a very good player, both in attack and defence. He is yet to play a full, injury-free year of first grade and there are people already preaching about how he will be the next NSW hooker.

While I believe he has the ability to be a State of Origin level player, the guy needs to stay on the park. You can tell that Parramatta definitely miss something when he is down, which is far too often. It is like this guy’s bones are made of toothpicks and held together by duct tape.

Then we get to the backs. Gutherson was an amazing purchase. He came to Parramatta looking to get a first-grade spot and he will shine. Heck, he would have shined last year if it weren’t for that Round 1 ACL injury against… well, ironically Parramatta.

The guy is fast, skilful and most importantly is an incredibly clutch goal-kicker. Parramatta have Bevan French, but I think he is still a year or two away from first grade, and in the meantime Gutherson will be a more than handy cover for Gordon. He is another former Manly player I will hate seeing in the blue and gold.

Michael Jennings was the buy that pushed Parramatta into the eight for me, especially since he pushes out Ryan Morgan, who wouldn’t be near a first-grade spot at any other club.

Parramatta upgraded from a park footballer to one of the best centres in the game. He may be ageing and he may be a bit of a ball hog but Jennings is fast, can beat a man one-on-one and can do simply freakish things – remember that try against Manly in the 2013 grand final? Jennings makes this one of the best backlines in the comp.

And finally, we have Semi Radradra, aka the Semi Trailer. Whatever you call him, one thing is true and it is that he is the best winger in the game. He scored 24 tries in 18 games last year and promises to be a star for years to come.

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I have not seen a better finisher in my life, if he is one-on-one with anyone close to the line he will find his way over and score. He is now set to form a combination with Jennings, and while I am worried about the ball hogging tendencies of Jennings, they will be a very lethal combination.

The scary thing is that Radradra is still learning the game. He has more room to grow and that is almost scary. He is still a little iffy in defence, but all fans of rugby league should be excited to see just what Semi can do in 2016.

Then we get to the props, Tim Mannah is your classic workhorse sort of prop. He may not bring anything flash, but he does exactly what you need to. He makes a lot of metres, makes a lot of tackles and tries his guts out year after year. He is basically the prop equivalent of a toasted cheese sandwich, very bland but gets the job done very well.

Joining Mannah in the starting line-up we have Junior Paulo, and this guy is absolutely devastating in attack. He is able to march through defences with his powerful runs. I can see him evolving into a player with a metre-making game equal to that of a Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

Paulo tore it up in the trial against Penrith, and with rumours of him heading to Canberra I would be trying my hardest to re-sign him if I was Parramatta. He has issues in defence, but that is common in props his age and it will come with experience. He will be a very good prop for years to come.

Then on the bench you have Danny Wicks. He was thrown a lifeline in 2015 by Parramatta and proved to be an excellent pick-up for them. His tough, enduring attitude provides this side with a lot of go-forward that they need.

Having a prop of Wicks’ quality on the bench is invaluable with the reduced interchanges, since it will mean Parramatta can rest their players without losing anything up front.

Brad Arthur is a good coach, there is no doubt about that. With the side the Eels had last year they had no right to avoid the spoon. But he made it function slightly.

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Now he has finally assembled a team of his own with his very impressive talent-attracting ability. His improvements to the Parramatta side in offence, defence and competitiveness have been easily noticeable.

Arthur can adapt his coaching style pretty well, in 2014 Parramatta played differently to the Hayne-less 2015 Parramatta, which is the sign of a good coach in my eyes. Being able to coach based on the strengths of a team is very important.

Arthur is the longest reigning head coach since Brian Smith, and there is no way he isn’t under pressure at his club. But this year he finally has the team he wants, and given how much he has overachieved with subpar teams in the past two years I think he will really prove just how good he is this year.

Weaknesses
To put it simply, the second row sucks worse than the vacuum cleaner at my house (RIP, my carpets). Anthony Watmough was the worst buy of the year last year, and is looking likely to be one of the worst buys of all time.

His form was getting shaky in 2014, but he just ran sideways off the face of the planet when he joined Parramatta. All of Watmough’s little annoyances in his game at Manly were multiplied so much last year, he started running sideways more than forward, dropped the ball constantly and was lazy in defence.

In the game versus Brisbane, Anthony Milford made a line break and Watmough was the closest player – yet he gave up chasing after five metres. That just screams poor attitude.

Parramatta fans and officials have come out and said ‘Oh he was only signed to lead the young forwards’ but that is pure lies. You do not sign someone on a $600,000-plus contract for four years just to mentor your youth. You do it because you expect him to play well, and Watmough didn’t.

The forward pack looked better when he was gone last year, and that is just sad. Add Watmough to the long list of players whose game has crashed and burned after moving to Parramatta. If I was a Parramatta fan I would be hoping the retirement rumours are true and he gets out of the club as soon as possible. Because all he is doing is chewing up cap space.

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And then we get to Beau Scott. Now you would have thought that Parramatta would have learnt their lesson after Watmough and would have avoided signing another ageing and declining second rower. But in classic Parramatta fashion they didn’t and fell head over heels to sign Scott from the Knights.

Scott is a sham of a footballer. He has built an entire career of playing well under Wayne Bennett but he sucks. Scott averaged about 50 metres a game in his past two seasons and offers nothing special in defence. He has played for New South Wales over the past few years because their selection criteria is a train wreck.

At least Watmough had signs of form when Parramatta signed him, but Scott just has nothing going for him and once again is on a pretty decent salary. If you combined him and Watmough together you might get one usable player out of the deal. This guy is my sure pick of the worst buy of the year.

The rest of the second rowers in this side aren’t much better either but they are still huge improvements over the previous two. Manu Mau had a pretty poor 2015, not really living up to the hype he set in 2014, but he was still better than Watmough and Scott.

Tepai Moeroa has failed to impress thus far and I haven’t seen enough of Kenny Edwards to form a solid opinion. But from what I have seen they both deserve to be in that side more than Watmough does.

A lot of Parramatta fans are harping on about the depth in the side, but it’s not as good as people say it is. Yeah, you have David Gower and Kaysa Pritchard to cover for an injury to the forwards and dummy half respectably, but who do you have for your backs? Ryan Morgan?

All of their back depth is trash and their forwards really aren’t that hot either. Who is left after Gower? James Hasson? I might not be as ‘in the know’ as Parramatta fans but I don’t see how this depth everyone keeps trumpeting.

Then we get to the problem with the halves. There is no long-range kicking game there, nor is there a true halfback. Foran has spent his Manly years partnered with controlling halfbacks like Hodkinson and Daly Cherry-Evans, who handled the long-range kicks.

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When Foran did make those longer kicks they weren’t too impressive. With two five-eighths, these two players are going to have to constantly move around the field if they want to be as good as they can be, which is a lot harder to do then it sounds.

There are also questions over the fitness of Foran and Peats. Foran has had a lot of hamstring issues, and spent a large chunk of last year out injured while Peats just can’t seem to stay healthy. Peats may know how to produce some quality banter on Twitter, but he also knows how to push his body past breaking point every game.

Even in the Panthers trial, Peats was covered in bandages and ice all of the time, which is not a good look with the season yet to start.

The biggest weakness of the side, however, is the culture. Like it or lump it Parramatta fans, but you have a losing culture. With the amount of players that plummet in form when they sign for you, the amount of games where players give up or go to sleep – there is no way you can argue otherwise.

It has been built up after years of underachieving, and it is still there despite Arthur’s improvements. Case in point is both of the games versus the Cowboys, where they let North Queensland score 30 points in 10 minutes in the first game, and never even looked like they were trying in that second game.

The losing culture is there and it is going to take years of making the eight to fully go away. A commentator for the Manly versus Sharks trial game said, “Never judge a player by their Parramatta form” and people say stuff like that because of the poor culture at the Eels.

And then we get to the history of bad buys. For every one of their buys I can’t help but think ‘what if’. What if Foran does what Watmough did and continues to slide in form? What if Jennings does what Willie Tonga did and suddenly loses most of his strike and skill?

What if Gutherson does what Chris Walker did and breaks down early in the year? What if Hasson somehow finds a way to play worse (negative metres isn’t out of the question)?

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When I am fed nothing but overcooked fish and raw potatoes when I go over to a mate’s place to watch footy, he shouldn’t be upset when I bring pizza for dinner expecting his food to be bad. Same goes for here, Parramatta cannot be annoyed at me for having these sorts of thoughts about their signings, especially after years of signings like Chris Sandow and Carl Webbs.

Expectations
As much as I think the culture in the club is bad, and as much as I dislike the Scott and Watmoughified second row, the props, halves, backs and the coach all are just too good to not make my eight.

If the halves can gel well, the props do their job and the backs maintain their usual form, then they will do well. This year will be their first step to eradicating that losing culture by getting into the eight. I have them finishing eighth, getting in on points differential ahead of the Warriors.

Conclusion
Yes, that culture thing might seem a little harsh, but the club has problems, problems that will take more than two years of not winning the spoon to eradicate. That stops them from going any higher.

If they can keep their squad, cut Scott and Watmough and replace them with players who aren’t terrible, then they have a bright future ahead of them, especially with that Bevan French kid.

Seriously, what is it with all of the young fullbacks appearing these days? You have French, Tom Trbojevic, Brad Abbey and Mitchell Moses all around the same age who look like they could be future superstars. It will be very exciting to see these players come through the ranks.