Gains: Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs), Ben Roberts (Bulldogs), Esi Tonga (Titans), Joseph Paulo (Panthers – mid-season), Taulima Tautai (Sharks), Willie Tonga (Cowboys), Jamil Hopoate (Sea Eagles), Jon Mannah (Sharks), Semi Radradra (Fiji Sevens).
Losses: Jeff Robson (Sharks), Anthony Mitchell (Roosters – mid-season), Paul Whatuira (retired), Joel Reddy (Wests Tigers), Chris Walker (released), Chris Hicks (retired), Carl Webb (retired), Tom Humble (Wests Tigers), Daniel Tupou (Roosters), Etu Uaisele (Panthers), Manase Manuokafoa (Bradford), Daniel Mortimer (Roosters).
A raft of changes aimed at reversing the Eels’ horror 2010 performance backfired spectacularly in 2011 as the side managed to underperform even by their dismal 2010 standards. Then-coach Daniel Anderson’s decision to throw a lifeline to a number of journeyman players could not have gone worse as no fewer than four personnel retired mid-season after a small number of uninspiring performances.
Fans will be hoping for a far better showing from what is another large batch of new recruits, and they do have cause for optimism. While Casey McGuire was the only recruit to truly repay the faith shown in him last year (and Reni Maitua also finished the season well), Carl Webb, Chris Hicks, Chris Walker and Paul Whatuira disappeared having barely been sighted.
However 2012 sees the arrival of star former Rabbitohs halfback Chris Sandow and the return of Queensland and Australian centre Willie Tonga along with his brother, the promising Esi Tonga. The addition of former Bulldog and Kiwi international, five-eighth Ben Roberts, will also give coach Stephen Kearney plenty of options in the playmaking roles.
One of Parramatta’s all-time favourite sons and their most-capped player, club captain Nathan Hindmarsh, is running out of time to add an NRL premiership to his long list of achievements. Club stalwart, fan favourite and fellow veteran of the 2001 and 2009 grand final losses Luke Burt is in the same boat – their team-mates would love to help them fill out their trophy cabinets.
How They’ll Play It: The Eels’ biggest problem in the past two years seems to have been a lack of consistent performers in the halves to take pressure off fullback Jarryd Hayne – with Hayne himself spending much of last year in his less-preferred position of five eighth. The club have invested heavily in a new halves combination and still have utility Casey McGuire who can fill in in the halves or at hooker to rotate with Matt Keating.
Expect Kearney to continue to rely heavily on his star prop rotation to continue to batter opposition sides in the middle of the park, then hope new boys Sandow and Roberts can create some magic off the back of that – with Hayne to revert to his traditional role of chiming in from fullback when he spots an opportunity.
Expect HUGE Things From: So much relies on new halfback Chris Sandow. The diminutive playmaker will be donning the somewhat cursed blue-and-gold No.7 jersey but he arrives at the club with massive expectations given some brilliant performances at the Rabbitohs last year. He could wind up partnering any of Roberts, McGuire or Hayne in the halves but if they Eels are to be a threat at the back end of the season they WILL need a huge year from Sandow.
Bonus Points: The one really consistent bright spot for the Eels in the past two seasons has been the excellent form of their front row rotation. Tongan wrecking ball Fuifui Moimoi just seems to keep getting better with age and averaged more metres per game than any prop last year other than the late-surging Bronco Josh McGuire. Tim Mannah wasn’t far behind and was one of few specialist props chosen by Ricky Stuart in the NSW Origin campaign. With former representative prop Justin Poore looking to shake off an injury-ruined 2011, Mitchell Allgood looking at home in the front row and Mannah’s brother Jon joining from the Sharks, as well as Shane Shackleton, Parramatta boast one of the best front row rotations in the league.
They’re Really Going To Miss: A look at the list of departing players doesn’t reveal too many devastating blows for the Eels but blockbusting centre Joel Reddy will be sorely missed. His loss is offset somewhat by the arrival of the Tonga brothers but Reddy’s bruising backline defence and power close to the line, especially when running out wide, will certainly leave a hole in the Parramatta playing roster.
It’s Time To Deliver: Jarryd Hayne. We all know what he’s capable of. But aside from an extended run in late 2009, Hayne’s brilliance has been tempered with mistakes and inconsistency. Maybe he has been trying too hard to do it all himself (24 try assists and 23 line-break assists last year) but with the likes of Sandow and Roberts on board it’s time for the enigmatic fullback to lead his club forward. He is now one of the most experienced players at the Eels and his sides needs him at his best consistently.
How’s Their Depth: It looks better than last year. As mentioned above there is no shortage of front-rowers at the Eels and the Tonga brothers join a crop of promising youngsters and a few old heads in the outside backs. McGuire also gives them options around the playmaking and hooking roles.
Parramatta’s back-row depth will be sorely tested if Hindmarsh gets injured, however, or even if any of Ben Smith, Justin Horo or Reni Maitua suffer an extended absence. The return of Taulima Tautai will help and the roster also includes Taniela Lasalo and former Panther Joseph Paulo, but there don’t look to be any ready-made replacements should any top-line back-rowers go down.
Under-20s: Parramatta’s NYC team finished a disappointing 12th last year but will be hoping for a big year under new coach Steve Speechley. Speechley nominates five-eighth Jason Wehbe and back-rower Mathew Eisenhuth as two players to watch, with both earning plenty of NYC experience last year. Centres Vai Toutai and Trent Jennings are also primed for a big season, while Speechley also expects the younger brother of Will Hopoate, 17-year-old utility back-rower Jamil, to feature at some point.
Speechley told NRL.com that overall there were seven players in the side this year that featured in the NYC regularly last year but overall it’s a relatively young squad. Rather than focusing on winning games the aim was to develop traits in those players that they could take to the next level, but if they developed those traits then the wins would follow, he said.
The Coach: Stephen Kearney experienced a real baptism of fire in his first year as a top grade coach, although he had previously enjoyed plenty of success coaching the New Zealand national side. Having been there a year already, Kearney now has a side that he helped to build, rather than one he inherited, so there are no excuses for underperformance in 2012.
The Eels showed plenty of faith in Kearney, starting him off with a three year deal, but with plenty of ructions higher up at Parramatta, including a new chief executive (and remember former coach Daniel Anderson was unceremoniously booted out to make way for Kearney) there is no guarantee Kearney won’t feel some heat if he can’t turn the troubled Eels around.
Predicted Finish: Sorry, but we predict it will be a case of oh-so-close again. There are too many unknowns around the Eels this year. If they can get a halves combinations to gel, if Hayne plays the way all rugby league fans know he can, and if the key players stay fit – the Eels could still be alive come the cut-off point for the finals. But there is plenty that could go wrong, making it hard to tip a top-eight berth. They may just miss out – somewhere from 10th to 12th.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: He'll sit behind Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi in the pecking order, but prop Justin Poore looks excellent value after an injury-hit 2011.
The big gun: Nathan Hindmarsh has been the go-to Eel in Toyota Dream Team for years, but is the ageing skipper getting past his best?