The Parramatta Eels finished the season in sixth place on the ladder before a graceful exit from the finals in the second week, at the hands of the Penrith Panthers. A 15-9 record came with a +109 points difference that was fairly reflective of their capability. A 457 points conceded was a respectable fourth best, albeit a mile behind the top two, while their 566 points was less than the Titans managed to conjure.
The Victory Lap
We could quote from my pre-season preview but I thought this was more telling about where Parramatta are at.
Experts, analysts, amateurs, people with cars as their profile picture on Facebook, and the slim overlap in the venn diagram of rugby league fans and university statistics graduates, all of them expect regression from Parramatta this year. “They were lucky in 2020”, “they won a lot of close games”, “they didn’t beat anybody”, “their draw was soft”, “hurr durr straight sets”, you’ve heard it all before and you’ll be hearing it plenty more over the next six months because the pass mark for the rugby league world to begrudgingly admit the Eels are “okay” is reaching week three of the finals.The Preview – Round 1, 2021: Eels vs Broncos, The Cumberland Throw
I thought it was clear when the Eels struggled to overcome last year’s wooden spooners in the game this quote was previewing that Parramatta probably didn’t have It. While the return leg in round 7 was far more comprehensive and Parramatta beat Melbourne twice, the Eels often beat the Storm late in the seasons that the Storm go on to win the grand final. In fact, it happened in 1999, 2009, 2012, 2017 and 2020. 2001 was the only year that the Eels won this match up after July 1 and the Storm didn’t win the grand final. Given I’m writing their season obituary, I think we can safely conclude that this isn’t an omen heralding a potential 2021 grand final appearance for the Eels.
I thought this run of results from round 20 to 22 was more indicative of the level the Eels:
- Roosters 28 – Eels 0
- Rabbitohs 40 – Eels 12
- Sea Eagles 56 – Eels 10
As were the three losses to Penrith, including when it really mattered. They only scraped home by eight points against Newcastle in a season where eight points may as well be one. Recency bias will mean people focus on a gutsy performance in their last game but we’ve been here before and the season as a whole demands attention. Any team can turn up three or four times a year; it’s the other games that are the problem.
A narrow and equally gutsy two point loss to the invincible 2017 Storm didn’t stop them from capitulating to the eighth placed Cowboys the following week and then going on to a 6-18 season and the 2018 wooden spoon. It may be different this time but it’s always different and yet the pattern repeats.
Sure, the Parramatta Eels are “okay”. Even that’s harsh – they’re good but they’re not great.
One of the benefits of quantifying the performance of teams and the productivity of individuals is that you’re not beholden to the tyranny of ranked order. The gap between sixth and first is always five places but the actual distance that represents in terms of quality fluctuates. Some years, like 2018, that gap is a hop, skip and a jump. Some years, like this one, the gap is a medium sized canyon.
At no point have the Eels really looked like being in that top tier of contenders. The first phase of the season, it was Penrith, Melbourne and Sydney. The Roosters dropped off through the mid-season and the post-Origin malaise brought Souths into the mix. The same can’t be said for the Eels.
Normally we’d look to solely blame Moses for the team’s failure but there’s two thoughts to consider here. The first is the lack of production from the guys in jumpers two through six. Dylan Brown might be fine defensively but if he is to be a long term halves partner to Moses, he needs to start actually doing stuff. Things like making metres, kicking and assisting the scoring of tries. The rest of the backs need to find another WARG per season to really make Parramatta into contenders. Reed Mahoney will close the gap at hooker: his TPR in 2019 was .070, improved to .080 in 2020 and exploded to .172 in 2021. It’s likely that this post is very different if he stays fit.
The second is that while Moses has above average rates of line breaks, line break assists and try assists, he is below average in several other key areas: scoring tries, running metres and, marginally, kick metres. He is also well above average in errors and missed tackles. Some of these sins get covered through sheer volume (see above WARG breakdown) and some of these stats are functions of possession but ultimately, if Moses isn’t scoring tries, Brown isn’t doing much of anything offensively and there’s a somewhat but not massively above average rate of assists, then that suggests a lack of playmaking. If you can’t make plays happen during the regular season, what hope do you have come finals?
That’s before we get into defence.
There’s always next year
I’m not going to pretend that I have any meaningful solutions for Parramatta that aren’t “just get a bit better”. There’s obviously something there. Never mind Mahoney, the Eels had Tom Opacic looking like a world beater for about six weeks. Bryce Cartwright had his shit sorted out. Keegan Hipgrave still sucks but everyone has swings and misses. Those are just the signings I derided pre-season. Isaiah Papali’i was a masterstroke, one of the club’s most productive with Gutherson and Mahoney.
Still, unlike Newcastle and the Gold Coast, they don’t seem to have much unrealised potential or perhaps cap space. While the Eels have been a team comfortably lodged in positions three to six for four of the last five years, they’ve never looked like threatening the dual golden age of the Storm and the Roosters, not in the way the Panthers have ridden the Vlandoball wave. In many respects, they resemble the Raiders. They’re a team that has mountaineered to the utmost but find the peak unclimbable.
That suggests something has to change. I don’t know what it is. It could be Moses, it could be Arthur, it could be Ferguson’s bad juju, it could be the turf at Bankwest for all I know. Maybe they should think about signing Izaia Perese or Jonathan Reuben or Tom Davies to punch up the backline? Or just get Maika Sivo back on the field. I do know, however, that if Parramatta continue to do the same thing, then they will likely yield the same results. While being in the second tier of teams is noticeably better than finishing last or close to every year, at some point that’s not enough. The gap to the top tier has to be closed because if the plan is to wait for one of perennially dominant franchises to fall over, better teams than Parramatta have died waiting for it to happen.