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Season review: Parramatta Eels

Ben Blaschke NRL.com Tue, Oct 02, 2012 - 3:13 PM

Chris Sandow made a rocky start to his Parramatta Eels career. Copyright: NRL Photos

REGULAR SEASON
Wins: 6
Losses: 18
Position: 16th
Home Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (=14th)
Away Record: 2 wins, 10 losses (=15th)

Longest Winning Streak: 2 (Rounds 20-21)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (Rounds 6-12)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 73 (15th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 120 (16th)

By far the greatest disappointments of 2012, it seems almost inconceivable in hindsight that just seven months ago Parramatta fans were anticipating the dawn of an exciting new era at the club.

Buoyed by the arrival of Queensland Origin centre Willie Tonga, enigmatic Bulldogs five-eighth Ben Roberts and, most significantly, South Sydney halfback Chris Sandow, expectation was high that the Eels now boasted the firepower to launch a genuine assault on that long overdue premiership.

Instead, they delivered the club their first wooden spoon since 1972.

It’s fair to say that nothing went right for Parramatta in 2012. The loss of both Jarryd Hayne and Tonga through injury for their opening round clash with Brisbane was a huge letdown following the massive build-up to the season and while Hayne showed glimpses of his best when fit, Tonga’s return to his original club proved largely forgettable.

It was the terrible form of Sandow during those early rounds that attracted most criticism however, with Parramatta’s big-money recruit sensationally dropped to NSW Cup side Wentworthville at one stage.

By the time the Eels had lost 10 of their first 11 games their season was already over and the vultures soon began circling around increasingly embattled coach Stephen Kearney. Touted by the controversial Eels board less than two years earlier as the brightest young coaching talent in the NRL, Kearney’s fate was sealed by a lame performance against rivals Canterbury in Round 18, with the 40-year-old shown the door a few days later – barely halfway through his three-year contract.

Events outside of Parramatta’s control also left fans frustrated.

The announcement that club legends Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt would be retiring at the end of the season had Eels officials planning a spectacular send-off at Parramatta Stadium, yet even that didn’t work out as planned. The decision to move their Round 26 clash with St George Illawarra to ANZ Stadium in order to accommodate more fans made sense, but coming only a week before the game meant that nobody knew at the time that their Round 23 clash with the Roosters would be the last time Hindmarsh and Burt played on their home turf. Both deserved better.

Still, if Eels fans had met season 2012 with great anticipation then there is certainly a lot to look forward to.

Kearney’s departure saw interim coach Brad Arthur to give his side a licence to thrill and they responded with three wins from their next four games – as many as they had won in their first 17!

They also showed that there exists plenty of raw talent within the club and although they struggled defensively all year, the Eels also produced some stunning periods in which they seemed able to pour on the points at will.

Whether they are able to harness that ability in the coming seasons will come down to the abilities of new coach Ricky Stuart, whose appointment could have huge ramifications for the club. After four years in which the Parramatta board has hit the headlines as much as the players, Stuart is one man that won’t accept any such interference from above and if he can lift Parramatta from the ashes and guide them to that elusive NRL title, 2012 may, ironically, be looked back on as the year the Eels finally got it right.

Where They Excelled… Although consistency was a huge problem for the Eels – particularly through the course of 80 minutes – they showed a remarkable ability to pile on quick points at times throughout the year. In fact, they were involved in what must surely go down as the most incredible game of the season when they trailed Wests Tigers 31-0 with 14 minutes remaining and ended up losing by a solitary point, 31-30, after scoring five quick tries. That performance was no fluke either. Two weeks later they trailed Canberra 36-18 with eight minutes remaining but scored three tries in four minutes to very nearly steal the win.

Notably, Parramatta based their game-plan around a simple, no-frills style of football in 2012 and it was only when they were given free rein to throw caution to the wind that their attacking abilities came to the fore: it was no surprise that Brad Arthur’s instructions to open their game up saw them win three from their last seven after winning just three from their previous 17.

Where They Struggled… Defence, or lack of it, was Parramatta’s Achilles’ heel in 2012. The Eels conceded 30 points or more on 10 separate occasions and 40 points or more five times on their way to the wooden spoon.

The statistics don’t make for pretty reading. The 120 tries scored against them were 10 more than the next worst side in the Telstra Premiership, with their edge defence conceding a whopping 104 of those. They ranked 15th for both tries conceded from within 10 metres of the try line (58) and tries conceded from beyond halfway (19) and were also 15th for missed tackles (869), ineffective tackles (444) and poor kick-chases (56).

Missing In Action… A total of 27 players used wasn’t a huge number, although key players Jarryd Hayne and Willie Tonga were in and out of the side like yo-yos, with both featuring just 12 times in 2012.

Hayne’s absence during that time hit the side particularly hard given that he is their most dangerous attacking player and one man that can turn a match on its head. Tonga meanwhile battled an ankle injury through much of the year and never came close to the form that saw him represent Queensland and Australia just 12 months earlier.

The Eels were also hurt by pec muscle injuries to veterans Ben Smith and Casey McGuire that saw them miss a large chunk of the year, while hooker Matt Keating’s season ended after Round 18 due to a bulging disc in his back.

No doubt new coach Ricky Stuart will be looking forward to the return of impressive young centre Jacob Loko who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury suffered in the pre-season.

Turning Point… After promising signs against Brisbane in Round 1 and 2011 grand finalists the Warriors in Round 2, the wheels fell off in Parramatta’s third game of the season when they were thrashed 42-6 by North Queensland. It was an embarrassing performance so early in the year and unfortunately set the tone for what was to follow for much of 2012. The Eels won just one of their first 11 games to very quickly fall out of finals contention and, unfortunately, there were many more thrashings to come.

Best Games… Parramatta fans didn’t have a lot to cheer about in 2012 but a 42-22 blitz against Brisbane in Round 21 certainly had them on their feet. Showing what they are capable of when throwing off the shackles, the Eels opened the scoring through a Nathan Smith charge-down after nine minutes and then put Brisbane to the sword late in the opening half with four stunning tries in the space of 11 minutes to lead 30-6 at half-time. Chris Sandow starred for the Eels with two brilliant solo tries – the first when he darted through a gap from 25 metres out to score and the second a wonderful turn of pace to beat Gerard Beale in the dying stages following a thrilling 60-metre dash.

Worst Games… The Eels’ 42-6 loss to North Queensland was a sad display of soft defence and a complete lack of commitment as the home side ran in eight tries to one. The signs were bad when Ashley Graham easily beat three players on a 10-metre run to the try line after 22 minutes and it didn’t get any prettier when Jason Taumalolo brushed aside five defenders just a few minutes later. North Queensland led 26-0 at half-time before running in three more tries late in the game to score a win that was far too easy.

Hold Your Head High… He might have been overlooked for State of Origin selection but Tim Mannah certainly didn’t let anyone down at club level. One of only two Parramatta players to play all 24 games in 2012, Mannah worked tirelessly – averaging 100 metres and 24 tackles per game.

Just as impressive was rookie winger Ken Sio – the other player to play every game – who showed maturity beyond his years and topped the Eels’ try-scorers list with 13 for the year. While the absence of Jarryd Hayne for much of the season hurt the side, the emergence of young fullback Jake Mullaney bodes well for the future. Filling Hayne’s boots is no easy task but Mullaney posed a constant threat with the ball in hand and looks a star of the future.

Caretaker Coach Brad Arthur says: “Disappointing is probably the word. It was tough with the tragic death of Sean Burns our strength and conditioning trainer right at the start of the year, then it was five games before we had a win. It was a very inconsistent year. Injuries – by the end of the year we had eight or nine players unavailable that would have been in the starting 17. We lost our fullback, our hooker, one of our best defenders in Ben Smith and an Australian centre, so there are four quality players.

“But some of the young kids showed some promise and if we had a bit more experience around them they would have been better, too. Unfortunately I don’t think we handled the pressure well enough. In tight, grinding games we found it a bit hard. But that’s part of rugby league. The pressure is always there and you’ve got to learn to respond to it.

“In the end it was hard to see what happened to Steve (Kearney) but that was out of my control and I really enjoyed my own experience. I won’t be at the club next year but I’ll be very interested to see how some of the young blokes come on – Cheyse Blair, Ryan Morgan, Kenny Sio and Cheyse Blair. I spent a lot of time working with them and I think they have got the makings of good, regular first-graders.”

Conclusion… What can you say about the Eels? Whatever way you look at it, 2012 was a failure. The fact is long-suffering Parramatta supporters had every reason to feel optimistic at the start of the year. In 2011 it was their inability to cross the try line that hurt them. That problem looked to have been addressed with the arrival of Chris Sandow, Ben Roberts and Willie Tonga but instead the side went backwards.

It was simply an awful, awful year and a terrible way to farewell club legend Nathan Hindmarsh. The one positive is that things can only go up from here and with Ricky Stuart on board for 2013, perhaps it’s time to cross the fingers and start thinking of better days ahead.

*Statistics: NRL Stats