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Pre-season preview: Can the Eels break their premiership drought?

Mitch Moses struggled last season. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
26th February, 2018
28

Last season signalled the end of the longest finals drought in the NRL, as Parramatta cracked the eight for the first time since 2009.

While there were plenty of encouraging signs, the Eels couldn’t capitalise on a double finals chance, bowing out in straight sets, and leaving their fans wanting for 2018.

While the Eels lost four games in a row in the first six rounds, they lost just once in the last ten rounds, and claimed some big scalps. They also had to hold their nerve late to claim fourth spot.

Things seemed to come together with the arrival of Mitchell Moses. He was the missing link a potent backline, striking up a great combination with Corey Norman, and also performing well as a goal-kicker.

The real talking point though, was losing to the Storm in Melbourne, and then the eighth-placed Cowboys back in Sydney when September kicked in.

Fans can feel robbed at the manner in which they lost to the Storm, with two of Melbourne’s tries suspect at best.

There was nothing suspect about their loss to North Queensland a week later though, lacking the same intensity they had against the Storm.

It was reminiscent of the Eels’ season: they could turn it on, but be frustratingly lacklustre other weeks.

How does their roster rate?
There are some big talking points around this roster. How will they cope without Semi Radradra? Can they get the best out of Jarryd Hayne? What sort of impact will Bevan French and Clint Gutherson have on their return?

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French and Gutherson are the front-runners to play fullback. In the centres, they are likely to have Hayne and Michael Jennings. Last year they had Kirisome Auva’a on one wing, they’ll have Gutherson or French on the other. They also have Josh Hoffman, Brad Takarangi and Will Smith in the way of depth.

As mentioned, Norman and Moses built a solid combination towards the back end of last season and both will be motivated by talk that they are Origin prospects for Queensland and NSW respectively.

Their forwards are tough, reliable and experienced. Daniel Alvaro and Tim Mannah are uncompromising up front, if not the most powerful props in the game. Nathan Brown is coming off a great season, while Manu Ma’u and Tepai Moeroa work hard on the edges.

They aren’t short on depth either. Kane Evans comes in from the Roosters, then there’s Kenny Edwards, Beau Scott, Peni Terepo and Suaia Matagi battling for bench spots.

What Brad Arthur does with the hooking role is another question. Cameron King finished last year strongly but Kaysa Pritchard also returns.

This squad has youth, exuberance, depth, and plenty of pace and talent out wide. The loss of Semi is big, but they got a few good players coming into the backline to cover it.

Ins
Kane Evans (Roosters – 2020), Jaeman Salmon (Sharks), Tony Williams (Sharks), Jarryd Hayne (Titans – 2018)

Outs
Bureta Faraimo (Hull FC), Kelepi Tanginoa (Sea Eagles), Isaac De Gois, Jeff Robson (retired), Semi Radradra (Toulon rugby), John Folau, Cody Nelson, James Hasson, Rory O’Brien, Frank Pritchard (released)

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Clint Gutherson Parramatta Eels NRL Rugby League 2017

AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Key man
It was a cruel blow to see Clint Gutherson go down last year with a ruptured ACL. He was one of the few bright spots for Parramatta in 2016, and was continuing to produce the goods.

While he may not start the year at fullback, or kicking goals, he is so important to this team. He is cover for the halves, a solid goal kicker, and just looks likely no matter where he plays.

Gutherson needs to be around the football as much as possible. It would seem like a waste to have him playing out on the wing, and getting so little opportunity. Bevan French is a talent, but he can utilise his blinding pace on the wing.

Gutherson brings an energy and attitude to the group that perhaps the Eels missed at times last year. How quickly he can get back to his best after such a serious injury and where he plays are big questions. But if Parra go far in 2018, Clint Gutherson will have something to do with it.

Where do they need to improve?
There was a big rift between the Eels’ worst and best last year. As much as they deserved to finish fourth, and had the wins to prove it, they also looked nothing like winning the premiership in some defeats.

Parra’s 14-point win over the Broncos at ANZ Stadium last year showed they were contenders. Up until that point, theu hadn’t really knocked off a competition heavyweight but that night they overturned an early 12-point deficit to run out winners. It was indicative of a team that, when mentally prepared, could be near unstoppable.

Two weeks later, and with a top-four spot up in the air, they lost to the Knights by 19 at home – a game they were never truly in. They looked complacent, slow, and looking to take the easy way out rather than grind to victory.

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The best teams in this competition can win ugly, and the Eels have to be happy to do that sometimes. They have a relatively young and inexperienced spine and it was telling at times last season. That vibe of being complacent or unprepared was often the story.

Arthur’s side lost eight games last season, five of those to teams in the bottom eight. If they can treat all their opposition with the same respect, then they will find themselves winning more games.

The loss to Melbourne in Week 1 of the finals was what they need to aim for every week. Even though they went down, the way Melbourne emphatically dispatched of their opponents in subsequent weeks showed that Parra was more than competitive.

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Top five clashes
Round 1: Panthers vs Eels, Panthers Stadium, March 11

The battle of the west and two teams that have big aspirations for 2018. It should be a heaving crowd at Penrith as Jarryd Hayne plays his 200th game in the NRL, and first game for Parramatta since 2014.

Round 3: Eels vs Sharks, ANZ Stadium, March 24
The second game of a big double header out at ANZ Stadium. The Sharks and Eels will both be aiming for top four in 2018 and this should be a good indication of how they are going early.

Round 12: Broncos vs Eels, Suncorp Stadium, May 24
Brisbane were rolled twice by the Eels last season and will be eager for redemption, particularly after Parramatta racked up 52 points and ten tries in a comprehensive win at this venue.

Round 23: Storm vs Eels, AAMI Park, August 17
The Eels got the win in the regular season, and should have got another in the finals. It is a big clash so close to September, with two electric backlines going head to head. Parra will have revenge on their mind.

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Round 25: Eels vs Roosters, ANZ Stadium, September 1
This could easily be the pick of the last round of the season and could mean anything so close to the finals.

How will they go?
Parramatta’s premiership window is opening. They have some really exciting young players in key positions, and the potential to score points should they get things right again.

Mitch Moses and Corey Norman are playing career-best football and directing a backline littered with talent. The forwards are tough and durable.

They need to develop a killer instinct and learn how to really put teams away. If they can consistently beat sides below them on the ladder, they are a chance of a top-two spot.

If French, Hayne and Gutherson fire, they will be even better than last year.

Predicted finish
Third