Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. Chris Sandow
The former Rabbitoh arrives at Parramatta as arguably the club’s most significant signing since hooker Steve Edge, who captained the Eels to three successive grand finals from 1981-’84 after joining the blue-and-golds from St George in 1980. Amid huge fanfare and with a hefty paycheque, Sandow’s brief is straightforward: inject spark, drama and ingenuity at the Eels’ scrum base, aspects of play sorely missed by the team’s fans for as long as they – or indeed most other NRL fans – can remember (and no offense intended to outgoing Jeff Robson who was no slouch last year in a down-on-luck side). That, and be a match-winner.
Certainly the diminutive No.7 has the credentials. He was the leading points-scorer in the NRL last season, scoring six tries and booting 82 goals (at an impressive 85 per cent success rate), plus seven clutch field-goals. As the Rabbitohs’ rudder he conjured 18 try assists and his fearless running to the line yielded eight line-breaks and nine line-break assists, plus 57 tackle busts. Sandow is a committed, feisty competitor whose creativity will take a huge load off the Eels’ chief playmaker of the past four years Jarryd Hayne. Perhaps most importantly, Sandow’s kicking game will add another dimension to the Eels, especially his attacking kicks for his outside backs. And his tactical kicking will come as a huge relief to Parra’s big forwards – last year 60 per cent of his 136 clearing kicks found open space, and he booted the most 40/20s in the comp (four). Exciting weekends lie ahead.
2. New backline
Sandow’s signing isn’t the only shake-up out Parramatta way, with coach Stephen Kearney securing the return of Kangaroos tourist Willie Tonga (plus his younger brother Esi) as well as throwing a lifeline to former Kiwi international Ben Roberts. The older Tonga will add starch and a touch of flair in the centres, while Roberts’s acquisition hints that Jarryd Hayne may revert to fullback with Roberts suiting up outside Chris Sandow. Or perhaps even Casey McGuire. Which makes sense: it would seem silly to cluster two dominant playmakers in Sandow and Hayne – and some key stats from last year back that up. As a consequence of his playmaker focus in the No.6 Hayne scored just seven tries and made only five line-breaks, way down on his 11 tries and 17 line-breaks as a fullback in 2010. And his error count was an astronomical 40 – with Justin Horo’s 19 the team's next highest. Sandow’s guiding hand will allow both Roberts and Hayne freedom in attack, rather than either becoming bogged down as the go-to man.
3. ‘Hayne Plane’ to go supersonic
Unshackled from expectation, Jarryd Hayne can take his game to another level in 2012… or at least back to the level all fans witnessed in his whirlwind finish to the 2009 season. Hayne remains the Eels’ most valuable asset and his off-the-cuff injections and new combination with Sandow, regardless of whether it’s from fullback or five-eighth, will provide excitement rushes galore. Last season a clearly frustrated Hayne still tallied phenomenal statistics: he ranked second to Darren Lockyer for try assists (24 – with Jeff Robson the next best Eel with a paltry six), led all Eels players in metres gained (140 per game), line-break assists (23 – the next best Eels made four) and tackle-breaks (78), supplied the second-most team offloads (20), and the second-most team tries (seven). Significantly he was also their key kicker, booting on 196 occasions – but that number will drop dramatically with Sandow on board. Less pressure should free up Hayne to relax more and he’ll be able to take his time in sizing up opportunities rather than trying too much, too often, too soon. We foresee he’ll cross for double the seven tries he scored in 2011. At least.
4. Get even, Stephen
Finally coach Stephen Kearney gets to field the bones of a side of his own making, rather than a unit he inherited. Kearney fought a losing battle for consistency in 2011 as the Eels ploughed their way through 32 players – the second most used by any team. Along the way they lost some deadwood in the form of the ageing Carl Webb, Chris Hicks, Chris Walker and Paul Whatuira. Now Kearney gets the chance to show just why the Eels powerbrokers rushed to secure him as a replacement for Daniel Anderson. Also, it should be remembered that although Parramatta finished in 14th place on the ladder in 2011, they did play without luck. In fact, they seemed jinxed: they were just the second team in the past 30 years to lose three games in a season by a solitary point (joining the Sharks from 2008) and they agonisingly lost eight games by six points or less (plus a draw). What goes around comes around?
5. Forwards into the breach
The Eels have the potential to become the most damaging pack in both defence and attack. Led by Fuifui Moimoi and evergreen skipper Nathan Hindmarsh, last season their starting forwards made the fifth-most metres by any team (a tidy 529 each game). Moimoi was simply outstanding and if he can replicate his form they’ll steamroll most oppositions. Last year ‘Fui’ made more runs (353) and gained more territory (3068 metres) than any other Eels player, posting career-high averages for both (15.4 runs and 133.4 metres respectively). He showed an increased stamina too, averaging 48 minutes per game – almost five minutes longer than his previous career best. This flowed through to his defence, with a career-best 22 tackles a match. With former Origin prop Justin Poore primed for a big 2012 after a horror injury-plagued second season in the blue-and-gold, plus Mitchell Allgood, Shane Shackleton, and the newly-signed former Shark Jon Mannah to join brother and current New South Wales Origin representative Tim in the Parramatta engine room, their prop rotation looks fearsome.