A Shallow Dive into the 2022 Parramatta Eels

Your men’s Parramatta Eels finished the 2022 NRL season in fourth place, with a 16-8 record and +119 points difference. The Eels’ points difference was the seventh best in the league, good for a Pythagorean expectation of 14.4 wins. Given the noticeable overperformance, it’d be worth keeping an eye out for an underperformance of same in 2023. Parramatta’s defence conceded 489 points, worse than any other finals team, and in the worst third or so of all Parramatta teams dating back to 1947 on a points conceded per game basis. The attack was substantially better, scoring 608 points for fifth best in the league and the third best in Eels history; scoring 25.3 points per game was only worse than 2001 (32.3) and 2005 (29.3).

The Eels were well beaten by the Panthers in week one, 27-8, crushed the Raiders in week two, 40-4, worked hard to get past the Cowboys in Townsville, 24-20, before ultimately succumbing again to the Panthers, 28-12, in the grand final.

Your women’s Parramatta Eels finished the 2022 NRL season in fourth place, with a 1-4 record and -20 points difference. Despite missing the finals in the 2021 season, this is actually the worst record (but better points difference) the Eels NRLW team has had (from two seasons). Nonetheless, the Eels stormed past the minor premier Roosters in the semi-finals, 24-10, before also succumbing in the grand final, but this time to the Knights, 32-12.

The Victory Lap

From the men’s pre-season deep dive:

I’ve never believed that the Eels have had It, the mysterious ether that wins premierships and creates champions. Nonetheless, barring 2018’s bizarre disaster of a season, Parramatta have been in the race, at varying distances to the actual winners, but there nonetheless. This iteration of the Eels have just beaten the Storm twice (and not seen the Storm go on to win the title) and were a Reed Mahoney away from taking down the eventual premiers in the finals…

It is very much business as usual. If Mahoney continues on his trajectory and Moses and Gutherson stay who they are, then that’s the making of a contending spine and despite the fact that it looks like it isn’t one, it isn’t until it is. Similarly, Brad Arthur hasn’t looked like a premiership winning coach and he won’t until he is one (we could’ve easily said the same thing about Ivan Cleary twelve months ago!) despite bringing the Eels to the brink repeatedly.

The kicker is that they have to do it this year… It’s now or never.

Never it is then.

Then from the second women’s pre-season deep dive:

There aren’t many other headline names in the group but the Eels seems to have done a good job of sweeping up players out of state league, taking premiership winning Tigers, runners-up Sharks, Mounties, Bunnies, Bears and others, in contrast to last season’s approach where the Eels were very much tied to Mounties, many of whom have now been shed.

There are too many unknowns to get a real bearing on where the Eels will definitively sit in the hierarchy. Their signings from the NSW Women’s Premiership could be revelatory but I doubt it. Walker might turn the game on its head but she’s only one woman. Dean Widders returns as coach and I’m ambivalent if that merits any optimism. Overall, I’m pretty pessimistic on the Eels as a whole but they’ve got time to get organised ahead of next season when the influx of new teams is going to overturn the status quo.

I think I was actually right to be pessimistic on the Eels. However, they did manage to gel together relatively quickly, turn into a fighting force and secure the right results at the right time. Credit to Dean Widders, I won’t doubt you again. I also completely missed Gayle Broughton. Shame on me.

What happened

It’s instructive to look back on what I wrote this time last year to set the scene for the men’s Eels team. I did a breakdown of Wins Above Reserve Grade to show that the Eels had some holes in the lineup compared to historically successful teams (here represented by 1-4, the teams that finished top four excluding Parramatta). This season completely eliminated any gaps and then some.

I’ve come round on Mitchell Moses. I watched him in person at Magic Round (which might be a first, without being drunk or while he was embarrassing my team) and really enjoyed the energy he had on that day, even if they lost to the Roosters. Dylan Brown has also come good, finally contributing to the team in a measurable way, but crucially, without taking too much away from Moses. Reed Mahoney took a step back this year and perhaps it should not have been surprising that he could not sustain the form of 2021, especially with an imminent departure to the Bulldogs. Isaiah Papali’i wrecked the curve and led a very productive pack.

Overall, the Eels had a really good team this year. Unfortunately, sometimes being really good isn’t enough in the face of dynastic power. Just as Western Suburbs couldn’t break through against St George during their 11-in-a-row streak and Valleys and Brothers had to wait a decade or more for the Northern Suburbs dynasty to run its course, the Eels got hot at exactly the wrong time, having to share an epoch with a historically great power. That’s life and it’s better to be good and lose than to never have been good at all.

On the women’s side, I thought it would be bad sign for the women’s competition if a bunch of state cup players could be taped together into an effective team.

It turns out that was both right and wrong. For four weeks, it looked like the Eels were going to go winless, despite a series of close losses. Then they beat the lifeless Broncos badly enough to secure a place in the finals. Then they beat the torpid Roosters badly enough to secure a place in the grand final. The Knights didn’t make the mistake of the former two and were far too classy and well remunerated on the day. I think if the Roosters or Broncos had taken the Eels seriously, the fairy tale would have been stopped in its tracks much earlier but the margins in the NRLW are much finer than the NRLM and the opportunities far fewer. The Eels took them, the others didn’t, and that reflects better on the Eels than it does on the others.

There’s always next year

The approach taken with the women’s team has had its Moneyball-style proof of concept confirmed. Given the total lack of previous NRLW experience in the current Eels’ squad, there’s plenty of talent still to be mined in the lower tiers for the keen eyed NRLW recruitment manager. The Knights won’t be able to spend big enough again to retain the same talent level when there are ten chequebooks instead of six. The Roosters and Broncos have shown they can be beaten. The Dragons are weak and the Titans weaker. The new teams won’t know what to do with themselves. It’s a real opportunity, if the Eels can keep the same team together (e.g. I’d be letting Vette-Welsh move on to keep Broughton), to start faster and harder with better cohesion in 2023 and really push for the premiership. The stupid move would be to let this team scatter to the four winds and have to start again. Let’s see how silly Parramatta can be.

I clipped a bit out of my earlier quote for the men’s team for brevity but here’s the full thought:

The kicker is that they have to do it this year. Mahoney leaves them for the Bulldogs and Josh Hodgson comes in to replace him. If there’s one thing we know about Mitchell Moses, it’s that he won’t play well with another player who likes to do too much with ball in hand. That way lies disaster and a firm shutting of the window on the Eels have been building. It’s now or never.

Plenty of Twitterers in the aftermath of the grand final loss have closed the window with immediate effect. I don’t hold high hopes for a new spine of Hodgson/Brown/Moses/Gutherson and a pack without Papali’i but it’s probably not going to be quite that bad. I’m going to reserve judgement until after we see what, if any, off-season moves the Eels make and probably not even then until after a half dozen games and we see if Hodgon’s various joints and limbs hold up. Still, there’s potential for friction there if not managed correctly. It will be interesting, for sure.