A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Parramatta Eels
From my season preview:
I think this is it for the Eels. They are due for their once-a-decade (give or take) tilt at the premiership.
The Taylors are not too crash hot on the Eels. There are holes in key TPR ratings: Reed Mahoney at hooker, Dylan Brown nominally at five-eighth and, to a lesser extent, Clint Gutherson at fullback. The forward pack is slightly above average but none are exceptional. Reagan Campbell-Gillard might be one of those high-TPR, low-impact players, like Aaron Woods. On the other hand, Parramatta are capable of outperforming their projections which, for their top players at least, seem conservative. Last season’s hiccups only came when meeting the Storm, a hurdle that has felled better teams in the past.
Someone on the League Unlimited forums called me a cunt (auto censored to “merkin”) because of that paragraph. I assume it was because I dared to suggest that the Eels should consider the premiership a realistic possibility but, in retrospect, my assessments of those specific players ended up being well wide of the mark. In fact, it was the unnamed players – Moses, Ferguson, Sivo and co – that let their club down.
Then again if you’re going to worry about people calling you an Emily Seebohm, then rugby league is not the sport to be writing about.
The fin de saison was pretty funny but this story actually goes back to an earlier tweet.
The first game back after the coronavirus break was the most watched regular season game in years. With the rule changes brought in by Dear Leader, the hype was out of control and not at all connected to reality. Unbelievably, I copped some heat for this take but I think I was ultimately proven right, specifically on the last point.
Parramatta scored only 392 points in 2020. This was the ninth best in the league. 148 points, or more than a third of the total, came in just four games against Queensland teams. Considering the Eels finished in third with a 15-5 record, this is a huge and highly unusual disparity. A points difference of +104 was only good enough for seventh in the league and 12.8 Pythagorean wins. Let’s see if we can find out where it went wrong (see: How It All Works).
I fully came into this expecting to pin the season on Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo for their massive underperformances this year, undercutting an otherwise functional squad. While they did underperform their 2019 efforts, every team has underperformers, and the efforts of Junior Paulo, Marata Niukore, Clint Gutherson, the emergence of Dylan Brown and the doping of Michael Jennings should have ameliorated this.
In reality, even if Sivo had overcome all odds to repeat his 2019 and Ferguson lived up to his projection, they would have only added 9 Taylors of production per game on average.
Parramatta were already the fifth most productive team on the season. They weren’t in the same league as Penrith, Souths or Easts. These three averaged 475 Taylors per game, compared to Parramatta’s 441. Adding a hypothetical 9 Taylors from the wing still leaves the Eels well short of these premiership contenders.
Moreover, while both Sivo and Ferguson were largely absent for large swathes of the season, Gutherson’s huge increase in production actually covered for it.
With the tools at my disposal, there’s no clear villain or hero here, but when there’s a discrepancy of this magnitude between the numbers and the results on field, we have to abandon high falutin’ attempts at analytics and get a little more basic. Here’s two stats:
- Mitchell Moses had the second most kick metres for the year, 8491m, behind Nathan Cleary.
- Mitchell Moses was equal twenty-ninth for most try assists in 2020, with just 8, equal with Kurt Mann, Lachlan Lewis and Josh Morris.
Mitchell Moses had the team’s third highest TPR and racked up the production but the Eels didn’t score enough points. Moses’ job is to turn field position into scoring opportunities. The Eels were fortunate to win as many games as they did, probably by avoiding being massacred by injuries like so many other clubs, but that weakness was shown up amply through the closing stages of 2020. It will be clearer still in 2021 when that advantage is eliminated, unless something changes.
Plenty has been and will be written about Moses until he eventually crumples under the media pressure (see: Ash Taylor) so I don’t feel the need to go over it. Smarter people than me will identify the actual issues and whether they may or may not be Moses-related but broadly, Parramatta’s attack needs an overhaul, either at the roster level or the coaching level or both, to get them into genuine contention. The defence is already there.
Let’s go one step further back. I use each team’s class Elo rating pre-season to set what I call a Disappointment Line. The point is to calculate a number of wins for each team that the fanbase can be reasonably satisfied with, given where the team started the season. Starting with a rating of 1486, the Eels were set a line of 9.6 wins. Finishing the year with 15 actual wins was the second best beating of the line (Penrith was 8.1 wins over), so I think the fanbase should be at least somewhat satisfied with the team’s regular season performance. Even if we look at Pythagorean wins, ignoring the fortune the club has enjoyed, a 12-8 season would still be above expectation. Anyway you care to slice it, I think the Eels were one of the six genuinely good teams in 2020 but, crucially, probably only the sixth best.
In contrast, the Eels have played finals football in three of the last four seasons and have not made a preliminary final in that time, much less made serious inroads to breaking their premiership drought*. I don’t buy the argument that the finals require a special skill set. Either you have the management, personnel and systems in place to be good, and then you benefit from a lack of mistakes and some luck to carry you through the chaos of the knockout rounds, or you don’t and you lose.
I’ve written about the relatively good shape that the Eels are in off the field. All that is missing is a premiership. They are probably closer than you think.
*For the record, this drought extends back to 1986, when Sydney clubs didn’t have to travel any further than Canberra, beat a team from Queensland or play any Polynesians to win the premiership. Despite these facts, idiots put Sydney premierships on par with NRL premierships. Parramatta, and I cannot stress this enough, have never won a premiership that matters, so their drought is actually of infinite length.