Eels look to UK to plug player drain

It’s hard to replace experience with experience. So when a club like Parramatta loses big name players in the calibre of Eric Grothe, Timana Tahu, Kris Keating, Nathan Cayless, Krisnan Inu and Feleti Mateo from one season to the next, it makes sense their over-riding focus has been on finding the right blend of experienced replacements to ensure a return to semi-final football.

So where did the Eels turn? The answer appears more-and-more likely these days: within the UK Super League.

In a bit of irony, never before have we seen so many former NRL players – originally perceived as lost forever to the lucrative UK Super League market – lining up to have another crack at the NRL. And the Eels are leading the charge, signing four of the most experienced players on offer – Chris Hicks, Casey McGuire, Chris Walker and Paul Whatuira. Collectively they’ve won three premierships, played in six grand finals and have almost 600 NRL first grade games between them, so if you’re looking to replace experience with experience then Parramatta have certainly recruited well.
 
And it’s a proven commodity, with clubs needing to look no further than the recently retired Trent Barrett, whose heroics for the struggling Sharks and as captain of the NSW Blues, showed that following a two-year stint in the UK with Wigan he still had the metal to mix it with the best that the NRL and Origin had to offer.

“I certainly enjoyed my time in England, but the challenge of the NRL is always there and the thrill of the big games, I think that’s what you miss,” Barrett admits. “The semi-finals series over here, an Origin, a Test match – they’re big occasions and that’s why you play NRL footy. And whilst the Super League offers a great deal in terms of travel and the experience of living overseas, Australia and the NRL have a lot to offer.

“I think that each player probably has their own reasons and different ideas as to why they came home and why they went [in the first place]. I returned for more personal reasons, but there’s a few things working in our favour now and the pound is one of them. The strong Australian dollar against a struggling British pound is going to help keep our stars in our game, whereas for a long period of time it was the reverse... hopefully [this] stops the trickle from our best players going.”

Hicks, who turns 34 on Saturday, has a wealth of NRL experience having played 194 first grade games for Penrith and Manly. He is the eldest of the returning quartet, and since his last NRL game – Manly’s grand final loss to Melbourne in 2007 – he’s been a standout for the Warrington Wolves. Hicks was the team’s top tryscorer in each of his three seasons with the Super League club and played a major role in the club’s back-to-back successes in the prestigious European Challenge Cup finals in both 2009 and 2010.

“To be honest I thought that I would finish my career over there [in the UK], but this opportunity with Parramatta came up and I’m really excited to get back and give the NRL another crack,” Hicks explains. “Parramatta have lost a lot of experience with the players that have left, but the players that are coming in have a fair bit of experience and have won some titles, so it can only be a positive thing for the club.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what the differences are, like what it’s like playing with two referees and the toughness of the game, it might take a bit of time for me to adjust but I’m looking forward to getting in and getting the job done.”

Former Kiwi international and 16-game test veteran Whatuira brings a much-needed premiership-winning culture (2003 Panthers and 2005 Tigers) to the club, and along with his recent three-year, 59-game stint for the UK-based Huddersfield Giants, Whatuira’s 131 NRL first grade appearances for the Warriors, Storm, Panthers and Tigers will provide some much-needed depth and experience to the Eels’ suddenly-depleted backline.

Of the Eels’ UK-returning foursome, utility player and former Queensland Origin representative, McGuire, has been absent from the NRL the longest. Following the Broncos’ 2006 premiership victory, and having amassed more than 100 first grade games under leading mentor Wayne Bennett at the Red Hill-based club, McGuire traded in the sun-drenched Queensland lifestyle for that of the chills of a pre-season winter and a foreign-speaking country at the Catalans Dragons that culminated in a four-year, 91-game stint with the French side.

“The hardest thing was probably the training and pre-season; coming from Brisbane where it was very hot to going over there and training in a beanie and gloves, but obviously the language barrier was tough too,” McGuire concedes.

“The intensity here at Parramatta’s training is vastly different – once we get on the training field everyone is switched on – so you notice the intensity is a lot higher. Things like the recovery supplements – they don’t have that in France. The adverse weather conditions over there play a major role too, so they train accordingly.”

It’s also a case of significant nostalgia for McGuire, who returns to the club where he made his NRL debut as an 18-year-old way back in 1998.

“It definitely feels like I’ve gone the full circle as it’s been 10 years since I left the club, so it’s ironic that I’m back here again,” McGuire says.

“I only played the two first grade games in three years when I was last here. I really felt as though Parramatta invested a bit of money and a lot of time into me back then, and I feel in a sense that I do owe them something, so I really want to contribute for them this year.”

McGuire’s former Broncos, Catalans and now Eels team-mate Walker, looks fitter, leaner and appears more focused than when he left the Titans at the end of the 2009 season after a horror run of injuries that included two ruptured achilles tendons that limited his appearances to a mere 20 first grade games for the Titans from  2007 to 2009. Then his original two-year deal at Catalans ended amicably after just the one season where a serious neck injury restricted his UK outings to 11 games.

Despite an early 2011 season setback, where he dislocated a toe in one of Parramatta’s trial games, Walker firmly believes that his injury woes are a thing of the past.

“You can never be assured that you won’t get injured, but hopefully the worst of it is now behind me,” Walker says.

“I don’t think that I’ve lost any speed. If anything, with the weight that I’ve lost and how well I’m feeling, I think that I’ve even gained half a metre. We’re working pretty hard here on speed work and other aspects, and there are little things in my action that I believe will make me even quicker.

“I’d like to be able to finish my career on a positive and if I’m going to be remembered for anything hopefully it’s for how I performed at the end of my career. I’d certainly like to finish off my career with Parramatta; it’s a good club and I’ve been really impressed with how it’s run, how it’s coached and the response from the players. And if that’s any indication of how things will go, I’m hopeful that I can be here for a long time.”