Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Position after 13 rounds: 16th
Competition points: 6
For a side that offered so little in 2011– only avoiding the wooden spoon through a last-round win over the Gold Coast – Parramatta came into the new season full of anticipation and expectations of far brighter days ahead.
Alas, their dreams of glory have turned into a nightmare.
The arrival of halfback Chris Sandow was touted as the solution to their attacking woes, yet his hefty pay packet hasn’t come close to being repaid, with the usually dynamic No.7 often a passenger during the early rounds of the year. So disappointing was he at one point that he was dumped to the Eels’ NSW Cup side Wentworthville.
His halves partner Ben Roberts, who arrived from Canterbury in the pre-season, has shown promise at times but a lack of a steady inside man and a few absolute howlers haven’t helped his cause.
And star centre Willie Tonga – who was supposed to add some much-needed spark to the backline – has struggled to get involved. His one try and one line-break so far in 2012 is far from the result coach Stephen Kearney was hoping for.
Still, in the salary cap era where playing rosters are supposed to be of reasonably similar strength, Parramatta’s 2-10 commencement to the season is spectacularly dismal and after a glowing start to their rule in 2009, the club’s board is now rightly coming into the sights of a disgrunted fan base.
Their come-from-behind win over the Sharks in Round 13 shows the desire is there – but the victory came with their backs well and truly against the wall. It remains to be seen whether they can repeat the effort regularly enough to keep the wolves from the door.
It has certainly been a difficult year for retiring captain Nathan Hindmarsh, who after 15 years of loyal service doesn’t deserve to depart under these circumstances. A finals berth is already well out of any realistic reach in 2012, so what remains for the Eels in the coming months?
Simply put, this is now a case of a number of players playing for their futures, with plenty needing to prove why they deserve to be a part of Kearney’s plans long term.
And what of Kearney himself? Rated one of the game’s top prospects when he first joined the Eels from Melbourne in 2011, he remains highly rated by most board members and they have promised that he won’t be sacked before his contract runs out at the end of next season. Amazingly, there has actually been talk of the board extending Kearney’s contract in the coming months, although such musings are surely a defiant stand from a board desperate to avoid further embarrassment given their hasty sacking of former coach Daniel Anderson.
Kearney and his staff have helped establish some crucial development pathways at Parramatta over the past 18 months and the club’s long-term success remains the key goal, but at the end of the day just two wins from 12 starts is unacceptable for any club in 2012, and it can’t go on.
For Kearney’s sake, and the sanity of Eels fans across the country, they simply must build on their most recent win and turn things around over the next three months.
Are Things Going to Plan? To borrow from Phil Gould: no, no, no, no, no! If there was one saving grace last season it was that the Eels never stopped trying. Despite their obvious lack of game-breaking ability, they lost eight games by only six points or less and, incredibly, three games by a single point.
That’s why the arrival of Sandow, Tonga and Roberts was greeted with such excitement by fans, who figured those close calls would go the other way in 2012. Instead, Parramatta have gone backwards.
Just like last season, the Eels are averaging 17 points per game but their defensive problems have been telling, with 28.7 points conceded per game compared with 22.4 in 2011.
Similarly, Sandow’s presence was supposed to ease the load on Jarryd Hayne, yet the star fullback continues to look confused as to exactly what his role is given their continuing struggles in the halves. The irony is that Hayne was among NSW’s best in State of Origin I when simply given the task of running the football. The Eels would be well served giving him a similar message.
Injury Front… Injuries have hardly been debilitating enough to stand as any sort of excuse, although the Eels certainly haven’t escaped the wrath of Lady Luck. Most telling has been the season-ending injury to exciting young centre Jacob Loko (knee), while back-rower Ben Smith returned only in Round 13. Also, Willie Tonga missed the opening game of the year with a hamstring strain and has endured a slow start to the year as a result.
If that weren’t enough veteran utility Casey McGuire will miss the rest of the season after injuring his pec in their narrow loss to the Dragons in Round 12.
If Only… The Eels didn’t leave it so late, so often. Despite their terrible start to the year, there have been patches of pure brilliance – so much so that fans must be shaking their heads at times wondering exactly what just happened.
Parramatta’s Round 8 clash with Wests Tigers will go down as the strangest game of the season. Trailing 31-0 with 13 minutes remaining after another forgettable performance, the Eels suddenly clicked into gear to score five tries and ultimately fall short by a single point, 31-30. No other side has come close to such a feat in recent times.
And against Canberra two weeks later the Eels scored three tries in four minutes, to close to within two points, having trailed 36-18 with nine minutes remaining. Just where that form goes the rest of the time remains a mystery.
Who’s Flying… Ever since his stunning 2009 season, expectations of Jarryd Hayne have been impossibly high and while he could still put his running game to better use he continues to be his side’s most dangerous attacking playe – averaging 148 metres, scoring seven tries and contributing nine try assists, eight line-breaks and nine line-break assists in 2012.
Prop Tim Mannah has also been solid up front, while young winger Ken Sio has worked hard (132 metres, nine line-breaks and six tries).
Needs to Lift… Chris Sandow. Encouragingly, the troubled half looked upbeat during the Eels’ 14-12 loss to St George Illawarra in Round 12 after a much-needed bye weekend and was responsible for both of his side’s tries. However, with question marks still lingering over his fitness and the Eels desperate to get on a winning streak after their victory over the Sharks, he is the man they need more than anyone else to make a consistent and telling difference.
Coach Stephen Kearney tells NRL.com… “The simple facts are that we underperformed the first six to eight games of the season. The last couple of weeks have been a step in the right direction. To be fair I think the young guys have probably been our most consistent performers. Guys like Ken Sio, Matt Ryan since he has come on board, Joseph Paulo and those sorts of guys, I think it’s been a real plus for us that we’ve been able to give those guys opportunities. But from a recruitment point of view our new recruits haven’t lived up to what we expected of them so far. We’ve just got to keep working our way through that. With Chris (Sandow), I’ve seen some improvement in his game the past couple of weeks but it’s a process we have to work through.
“We’ve had some good moments but for me it’s not so much about our attack, it’s about our defence. The game against St George [Illawarra] was probably the first time all year, apart from maybe the Manly game and our first game against the Broncos, that we consistently showed an effort for the full 80 minutes. That’s what we need to do every week.
“For us, I think the back half of the season is about being consistent with our performance and that means 80 minutes – not on for 10 and off for 20. Thats’s all the focus is for me. Where that takes us? I can’t give that prediction but what I want to see is some real consistency in our performance from week to week and minute to minute.”
Predicted Finish… Last. Even if they do find some considerable improvement, the Eels still boast two wins fewer than their nearest rival and it seems the wooden spoon that they just avoided in 2011 will be theirs in 2012.
But they can’t afford to drop their heads. They have to improve, because even though most fans have resigned themselves to a last-placed finish, both they and the players need some sort of faith that they are going to be a club on the rise.
Under-20s… With just seven players remaining from last year’s squad, new coach Steve Speechley wasn’t expecting miracles this year and it’s fair to say that his players haven’t provided any great surprises. With just four wins from their opening 12 games, the Eels are in danger of falling away from the pack with tough games against Souths (8th), Penrith (1st) and Newcastle (4th) to come over the next few weeks.
Defence has been Parramatta’s Achilles heel and Speechley will be disappointed by recent efforts against Canterbury and Canberra where they conceded 58 points and 62 points respectively.
Five consecutive losses have hurt the Eels’ finals hopes; however they look to be onto some exciting prospects in Jason Wehbe and Jason Seage in the halves.
Wehbe has contributed eight try assists, six line-break assists, seven line-breaks and five tries this season while Seage has added 11 try assists, six line-break assists and five line-breaks.