As the 2020 NRL season draws closer, the inevitable predictions about who will make the top eight begin doing the rounds.
The usual suspects are trotted out as absolute certainties to make the top eight while others have a line drawn through them before a ball is kicked.
Yes, the Roosters will make the eight. Yes, the Titans will miss out. Yes, the Tigers will be around the middle of the pack but ultimately miss by one or two games they should have won. These things are as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
Similar predictions will be made for 12 of the other 13 teams running around the NRL in 2020. The wildcard in the pack will be the Parramatta Eels.
This is a club more capable than any other of making punters and experts alike look amateurish with their ability to fuel the myth that they are able to field a competent team capable of competing for a title.
For those who have decided to include the Parramatta Eels in their 2020 tips as genuine title contenders or even a dark horse or smokey to win, I urge you to keep your money in your pocket and take a moment to look past the veil before committing yourself to the cardinal sin of tipping the Eels to be contenders.
On paper the 2019 season was very successful for the Eels, especially when taking into account they earned the wooden spoon only a season earlier. They made the top eight convincingly with 30 points, beating the Manly Sea Eagles’ points differential by ten points to secure fifth spot.
In the first weekend of the finals they treated their fans to an absolute demolition of a bumbling Brisbane Broncos team, who went home wishing they had finished their season after Round 24. In the regular season, the Broncos’ differential finished on a dismal -57 points. Thanks to the Eels they were bullied back to Brisbane with a finals differential of -58 points.
Of course, if we look a little closer, we can start to see the holes in the theory that Parramatta have turned the corner in their quest for success. The reality is that had they replicated their 2019 season stats in 2018 they would have missed the finals, with the New Zealand Warriors taking eighth place that year on 32 points.
Their record against top eight teams in the 2019 regular season was also less than impressive. They took the points in less than 50 per cent of those games, winning only five of their 11 encounters with top eight teams. They split wins one apiece with the Canberra Raiders, Manly Sea Eagles, Cronulla Sharks and Brisbane Broncos, and they also defeated the South Sydney Rabbitohs in their only encounter.
It was at the top end of town, however, that the difference between the Parramatta Eels and the genuine title contenders really showed. Minor premiers the Melbourne Storm and reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters made light work of the Eels in their regular season games.
In Round 3, the undefeated Eels played their first home game of the season against the tenth-placed Sydney Roosters. After a strong start by the Eels in front of their home fans, the Roosters clicked into gear, eventually putting the cleaners through the Eels and running away with the game 32-18.
Magic round against the Melbourne Storm also proved to be anything but magic for the Parramatta Eels, who were unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat but found themselves able to get the Rabbitohs off the hook as being the last team to have over 60 points scored against them in a single game. In an absolute annihilation, the Eels capitulated in an embarrassing 64-10 loss to the Storm in their fourth worst defeat of all time.
The Parramatta Eels and Melbourne Storm did not play again in the regular season but the chance for revenge by the Parramatta Eels came in the second weekend of the finals after their 58-0 thumping of the Brisbane Broncos a week earlier. There was no better opportunity to defeat a Melbourne Storm team who cracked under pressure at home in the first week of the finals, going down to the Canberra Raiders 12-10.
Unfortunately for long-suffering Parramatta Eels fans, it was the Melbourne Storm who took revenge for having ten points scored against them by the Parramatta Eels in Round 9. This time they shut the Eels out completely in a comprehensive 32-0 victory. Once again that showed the vast gap between the Parramatta Eels and the NRL elites.
Over the course of the 2019 NRL season, the Eels lost their three games against the Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm by a total score of 128 points to 28.
One supposed positive for fans in the 2019 season was the re-signing of coach Brad Arthur until the 2021 season. This was designed to bring stability to the club.
When announcing the signing, Eels CEO Bernie Gurr said: “When we undertook our football review last year it was clear that a long-term strategy for our football department was needed to ensure our players and coaches have the best possible opportunity for success.”
The definition of success is subjective when looking at Arthur’s record. In his seven seasons as head coach, including his time as caretaker coach in 2012, Arthur has presided over two wooden spoons, plus finishes of tenth, 12th and 14th, and had two finals series in 2017 and 2019, which resulted in one win from four games. He has also presided over two of the top five worst defeats by the Parramatta Eels in their 72-year history.
By most metrics, two wooden spoons and a single win in a finals series over seven seasons – along with owning 40 per cent of the worst five defeats in 72 years – may not be considered a success. But this represents success to the Eels.
Recruitment and retention is another metric that will significantly influence the capability of the Parramatta Eels to compete for a title in the 2020 season. Heading into the upcoming season, their three marquee signings are from clubs who failed to make the finals in 2019. Waqa Blake and Reagan Campbell-Gillard join from the tenth-placed Penrith Panthers, while a whining Ryan Matterson joins from the ninth-placed Wests Tigers.
Although not necessarily a metric that will accurately reflect the Eels chances of success, it is noteworthy to those superstitious fans that the last time the Eels recruited a player who sulked their way out of a contract at Wests Tigers – the inconsistent Mitchell Moses – he led them to a wooden spoon the following season.
While Ryan Matterson has certainly shown he is a more consistent player than Moses, there is little doubt he fell out with the playing group at the Wests Tigers before sooking his way into a contract at Parramatta. Eels fans will be desperately hoping his petulance does not rub off on the playing group and torpedo their 2020 season as Moses did in 2018.
Finally there is the home ground issue to contend with. On the heels of having the iconic Parramatta Stadium demolished, the Parramatta Eels have lost the advantage of having any home ground completely dedicated to them.
Sadly, they will have to make do with only one quarter of a home ground at Bankwest Stadium, which they will share residency along with the Wests Tigers, Canterbury Bulldogs and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Although 2019 was a successful season for them at this stadium, the more time other teams spend at Bankwest as a home ground, the more they will get comfortable playing there. Ultimately this can only hamper the Parramatta Eels’ ongoing success, even with a parochial crowd behind them.
So for those punters thinking about having a bet on the Parramatta Eels taking out the title in 2020, you might find more value in the $41 they are paying to collect another wooden spoon instead of the $12 they’re paying to win the premiership.
Unfortunately for you stoic Eels fans, the club with the longest premiership drought in the competition doesn’t look like they have either the team or the management to end their 33-year dry streak anytime soon, and certainly not in 2020.