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The Parra Project: Why Eels have to be brave with their coaching choice to break premiership drought

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21st May, 2024
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In many ways, sacking the coach is the easy bit.

Sure, you have to go and break the bad news to someone you’ve worked with for a long time – over a decade in the case of Brad Arthur – that you’ve had enough of them, but in truth, the chances are they know its coming anyway.

Coaching changes in rugby league in effect write off the rest of the season. It’s why, compared to other sports, they don’t happen that often.

The hard work for the higher-ups is finding the next guy.

Jim Sarantinos and Sean McElduff, Parra’s CEO and chairman respectively, tried and failed to do this ahead of time with Wayne Bennett.

Trent Barrett
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(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)[/caption]

It’s not that clear why they need to turn around a coach so quickly, given they’ve only got one player, Bailey Simonsson, off contract from their ideal starting 17, and this is an appointment that should be about winning a Premiership in 2026 or 2026 more than the here and now.

The nature of the roster is the biggest problem here, but it could also be the saving grace.

The Roar analysed South Sydney’s playing group when they were about to sack Jason Demetriou to get a read on their age profile, and it’s worth doing the same for Parramatta because, if anything, they’re worse off.

Here’s a refresher: we do two analyses, one with the players by age and another by number of games.

We them stream the players into four categories: Rookie (fewer than 25 NRL appearances in the experience analysis, younger than 22 in the age analysis), Emerging (25-75 games/22-25 years old), Prime (75-175 games/25-29 years) and Experienced/Aging (175+ game/29+ age).

A well set up roster would have guys who are playing ‘up’, i.e. more experienced in games than they are in age, and we can add in the case of Parramatta, a side exclusively interested in Premierships, that almost every team that wins the comp has an average age slightly lower than the league-wide average.

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The bad news for Parra is that they are not only old but also old in the wrong areas. They have lots of players who are ‘down’ – old but inexperienced – and even more who are flat out old, with nine in the ‘Aging’ category, even more than Souths’ eight.

That includes Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Junior Paulo, Ryan Matterson, Shaun Lane and Bryce Cartwright and Makahesi Makatoa, with Joe Ofahengaue and Joey Lussick set to join them before the end of 2024. That’s this weekend’s entire pack plus middle rotation, save for J’maine Hopgood.

Realistically, any new coach is going to have to replace all of those players within 18 to 24 months, with RCG, Cartwright, Lussick and Offa (plus back-ups Luca Moretti, Wiremu Greig and Kelma Tuilagi) all due up at the end of 2025. Lane, Matto and Paulo are 2026.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Maika Sivo is also already being shopped around the Super League and RCG has all but confirmed that he will end his career there, too.

This is a looming crisis but also an opportunity.

A new coach could instigate a different style of football over 2025 with an intent on changing the roster over and would have plenty of salary cap freedom to recast their side in their own image, if they were given free rein by the Eels hierarchy to do so.

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With the game moving further away from the power game so beloved by Brad Arthur, a new coach could adapt the pack to where the vanguard will be in 2026, starting now with that as an express goal.

Were that to happen, the 1-7 is actually strong.

Mitch Moses and Dylan Brown are the long-term halves, Zac Lomax and Will Penisini are locked into the outside backs and Bailey Simonsson and Sean Russell are more than good enough to feature too.

Ethan Sanders is already out the door to Canberra, but Blaize Talagi could be locked down and offered either a chance in the 1 with Clint Gutherson aging or shown a pathway elsewhere.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Gutho is an interesting case. He is already the second oldest fullback in the league, behind James Tedesco, and fullbacks have a notoriously shorter shelf life than other positions.

Only Billy Slater, Darius Boyd and Anthony Minichiello have managed 300 games in the 1 jumper and it might be a smart career move to get Gutho to shift elsewhere in the backs to prolong his career and allow Talagi to fit in.

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The club also won the SG Ball comp in 2023 and has a generation coming through there, but inevitably, that will take time to integrate.

Parramatta have the change to begin a new project here, but only if they make the right choice on a coach now.

So who could this be?

This column is Steve McNamara’s number one fan and he is the obvious choice if Parramatta are willing to be the first to give the most obviously qualified coach a chance.

We did a deep dive on his credentials here in connection with the Souths job – and argued that Parra should be chasing him too – but in short, he’s the next cab off the rank and were he Australian, it wouldn’t be a discussion.

Catalans Dragons win the Challenge Cup.

(Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

The ‘winning programs’ part of Sarantinos’ statement might include Jason Ryles – though we haven’t the first clue of what his type of football might look like, as he hasn’t been a head coach before – or John Morris, who was part of the Souths setup when they were good and does have head coaching chops from his time at Cronulla.

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It would certainly include the likes of Matty Peet – or his mentor, England national team coach Shaun Wane – and Willie Peters, currently at Hull KR, though all three are on new contracts (as is McNamara) in the Super League.

Justin Holbrook has promised himself to the Roosters, though these things are always malleable, especially if he got to see the year out in Bondi.

A leftfield choice might be Ryan Carr, who has head coaching experience from his time as an interim at St George Illawarra but was previously on staff at Parra as their NSW Cup coach, plus time in England with Featherstone.

He was strong in a bad situation at the Dragons and is now an assistant under Shane Flanagan and, at the age of 35, is at the vanguard of the next generation of coaches. If Parra wanted a guy in the mould of Andrew Webster at the Warriors, Carr might well be that man.

What they need not to do is go back to merry-go-round of NRL coaches. Michael Maguire is yet to coach a game with NSW, but is already talked of, and Trent Barrett has been there, lost that.

This is a time to be brave and break the habit of a lifetime. If Parra want to win, they have to do something different.

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