AFTER the unmitigated disaster that was 2010, no club has undergone such radical change during the off-season as the Parramatta Eels.
The NRL powerhouse reacted strongly to their shock 12th-place finish by sacking coach Daniel Anderson and putting a broom through the playing roster.
On their way out are retiring veterans Nathan Cayless and Eric Grothe as well as Timana Tahu, Feleti Mateo, Krisnan Inu, Kris Keating and Jonathon Wright, while new coach Stephen Kearney will welcome an influx of new blood to the blue and gold.
They include Titans winger Jordan Atkins, former Brisbane utility Casey McGuire and veteran backs Chris Hicks and Paul Whatuira.
However, big question marks linger over the arrival of controversial trio Reni Maitua, Chris Walker and Carl Webb, who have all been thrown a lifeline by the Eels after some tough times in recent seasons.
Maitua will return from a two-year drugs ban mid-season, Walker makes his comeback to the NRL after 12 months with Super League club Les Catalans, while Webb is hoping to rediscover his best form after being unwanted by North Queensland.
And much like the prospects of their recruits, we will have to wait and see just what this new-look Eels side comes up with in 2011.
Brilliant fullback Jarryd Hayne remains the key to their success and when he is in form, Parramatta are lethal, but they still boast a worrying lack of depth in the halves.
Time will tell if progress has been made.
How They’ll Play It… How will Stephen Kearney use Jarryd Hayne? The Eels custodian was the driving force behind his side’s remarkable surge to the grand final two years ago but it was all too evident at times last season that he was expected to do too much. In fact, it often seemed that the side’s default tactic was to give the ball to Hayne and wait for him to do something. In 2009 the Eels’ success came from a dominant forward pack and relentless second-phase play, with Hayne chiming in when needed to provide his own unique form of brilliance. It’s a lesson this new squad should learn from.
Expect Plenty From… Casey McGuire. An intriguing acquisition, McGuire has the potential to be among the most important players at the Eels in 2011. Used as a utility during his time with Brisbane, he is a dangerous dummy-half runner with the ability to slice through a gap but also an accomplished ball-player who will provide welcome relief to regular halves Jeff Robson and Daniel Mortimer. He will bolster the club with a much-needed new option.
They’re Going to Really Miss… Eric Grothe. Although injury was the bane of Grothe’s career, his value to Parramatta over the past few seasons can’t be underestimated. Never mind his occasional brain snaps in defence – he was a real workhorse with the ball in hand: a dynamic ball-runner who regularly featured among the top metre-gainers with his powerful dummy-half scoots. He averaged 14 runs and 114 metres in 2010.
Time To Stand Up… Daniel Mortimer. After a brilliant debut season in 2009, Mortimer endured the dreaded second-year syndrome last season as he struggled to make an impact. The 21-year-old looked lost with the ball in hand and with the side’s second-phase play falling away, the support play that was such a feature of his game 12 months earlier was basically non-existent. He will be hoping for a much-improved season.
Coach Watch… The pressure is on incoming coach Stephen Kearney, who must surely be aware of the constant boardroom niggle, media leaks and general lack of support for former coach Daniel Anderson that had made his job so difficult. Kearney has the benefit of at least being employed by the current board – who seemingly had a major issue with the fact that Anderson was a Denis Fitzgerald legacy – but the Kiwi Test coach will be hoping for a much more stable environment in 2011 so that all involved can focus on the task at hand.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The arrival of more experience up front. In fact, should Webb and Maitua live up to their potential, the Eels will certainly boast one of the most fearsome forward packs in the competition with injured prop Shane Shackleton also returning alongside Nathan Hindmarsh, Tim Mannah, Justin Poore, Fuifui Moimoi and Ben Smith.
Predicted Finish… 10th.
Toyota Cup… Some ill-timed injuries and a simple case of too many players failing to live up to expectations saw the Eels’ youngsters finish with the wooden spoon last season but at a club renowned for their junior development, moves have been made to ensure there is no repeat in 2011. Coach Matt Cameron took the initiative late last year once the finals were out of reach by dropping all of the uncontracted 20-year-olds and promoting 11 members of Parramatta’s SG Ball squad for the back half of the season. The results will hopefully be seen this year, with eight of those kids heading into the new season with at least 10 games of Toyota Cup experience behind them. The Eels have high hopes for young halfback Cameron Bruest – who has joined the club from Canberra – while Jacob Loko and Pat O’Hanlon have impressed in the pre-season.
Gains… Paki Afu (Bulldogs), Jordan Atkins (Titans), Cameron Bruest (Raiders), Eni Folau (Brisbane Easts), Chris Hicks (Warrington Wolves), Casey McGuire (Les Catalans Dragons), Reni Maitua (suspension), Brad Murray (Roosters), Billy Rogers (Storm), Chris Walker (Les Catalans Dragons), Carl Webb (Cowboys), Paul Whatuira (Huddersfield Giants).
Losses… Nathan Cayless (retired), Eric Grothe (retired), Krisnan Inu (Warriors), Kris Keating (Bulldogs), Feleti Mateo (Warriors), Tim Robinson (Sea Eagles), Timana Tahu (released), Jonathon Wright (Bulldogs).