Mid-Season Review: Parramatta Eels

Position after 13 rounds: 11th
Wins: 4
Losses: 7
Draws: 1
Byes: 1
Competition points: 11
Differential: -86

So far in 2011 it’s been a case of new coach, new team… same old Parra.

At the start of the season Eels fans would have been hoping that former Storm assistant coach and World Cup-winning Kiwi mentor Stephen Kearney would have been able to instil a new-look Parramatta side with the discipline to challenge for a top-four spot.

The early signs were good as the Eels opened their account with a determined away win over the Warriors on the back of strong trial form, but the blue-and-golds soon fell into their 2010 habits.

A few ugly wins have been interspersed with some heavy-handed beatings from the top sides, as the Eels have struggled to put points on the board and flirted dangerously close to wooden spoon territory.

The Eels’ form has improved somewhat leading up to the midway point of the season, mauling the Gallen-less Sharks 40-6 at home as the new halves combination of Casey McGuire and Jeff Robson immediately clicked into gear.

A dour 8-6 loss to Newcastle the following week presented a reality check but the commitment and communication in defence would have pleased Kearney. Parramatta then led the almost-untouchable Dragons most of the way in Round 13 and emerged with a point to show for the effort after another strong defensive display.

Four wins and a draw to go with seven losses sees the Eels in 11th place, three points adrift of the eight-placed Bulldogs – still within striking distance – but they can ill afford too many more slip-ups. One of the big positives to come out of their draw against the Dragons is that with an odd number of competition points they are highly unlikely to finish level with another team on the ladder, meaning their terrible points differential of -86 is now unlikely to come back to haunt them.

The Eels have the personnel to worry the top sides at the business end of the season but whether they’ll still be in contention by then is another matter.

Are Things Going To Plan? It was always going to be a tough ask to expect the Eels to click immediately under a new coach and with so many new players, but fans would have been expecting the Eels to be placed better than they are at the season midpoint after showing some early promise.

After ditching the prolific offloading that was key in their run to the 2009 grand final, the Eels were clinical in overcoming the Warriors in Round 1. Notably there were zero offloads in that game, and a relatively low 11 errors for the match.

But that game plan quickly went out the window and at times the Eels have seemed confused about exactly what style of football they are trying to play. Their 75 offloads at 6.25 per game is well short of the team with the second fewest, Canberra, who have 120 offloads at 10 per game, while the Dragons and Warriors each have 173 at 14.4 per game.

Despite being statistically still amongst the poorest teams in terms of tries conceded (47 – fourth most) the Eels have looked much more cohesive in defence in the past three weeks. They have leaked just four tries in their past three games, suggesting things may just be getting back on track for the Eels, although they will still need to find a way to put some more points on the board.

Two tough away games against Manly and Canberra could well define the rest of Parramatta’s season.

Injury Front… The Eels have been fortunate that most of their key players have remained injury-free but there have still been plenty of disruptions. Representative prop Justin Poore remains a long-term absentee, while off-season recruits Chris Walker and Carl Webb have hardly been sighted. Centre Joel Reddy was recently ruled out for the season with a torn pectoral and hooker Matt Keating, utility Casey McGuire, centre Jacob Loko and lock Ben Smith have all missed game time due to injury. In all, the Eels have used 25 players so far in 2011 which is actually the fifth-least, meaning the Eels have had a more consistent roster than most teams.

If Only… Jarryd Hayne and Nathan Hindmarsh had resisted some niggle from the Bulldogs in Round 6. Coming off a 38-0 hiding in Melbourne the Eels came out firing, with Hayne the star as Parramatta raced out to a 14-0 lead. But Hayne’s headbutt on Corey Payne in response to a high shot saw him spending 10 minutes in the bin and a further two weeks on the sidelines. Hindmarsh then let ’Dogs hooker Michael Ennis get under his skin and threw a punch that saw him also cooling his heels for 10 minutes.

Although the ’Dogs also lost two players to the bin in those incidents they dealt with it better than the Eels, who were clearly rattled. Fullback Ben Barba ran riot in the 11-a-side passage, the ’Dogs scored 34 unanswered points and the Eels’ season was again on the ropes. If the Eels had gone on with the job here, their year could be looking a lot better at the midway point.

Who’s Flying… One thing is for sure – the Eels have looked a much better team when their representative starting props Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi are on the field.

In terms of metres gained Moimoi (125 metres per game) and Mannah (122 metres per game) trail only Hayne (156 metres per game), and have both lifted in the absence of Poore and the retired Nathan Cayless. After making his State of Origin debut in Game Three last year Mannah was the best of the Blues’ beaten props in Game One this year and was rewarded with a starting spot for Origin II.

Despite the Eels’ lowly position on the ladder Hayne has again been a standout. He is second in the NRL for line-break assists with 13, and his nine try assists are the ninth-most in the NRL, but the most by an Eels player. He also leads the competition for kick-return metres (767) despite missing two games through suspension.

Needs To Lift… With the defence looking better the Eels still need to find a way across the tryline more often. The Eels struggled last year as they tended to look to Hayne to do everything, and so far in 2011 it looks to be happening again. Jeff Robson now has five try assists but three of those came in the Cronulla game, and no player other than Hayne has more than two line-break assists. The Eels will need their new halves pairing to show more of the form they displayed against the Sharks to take the pressure off their fullback if the Eels are to be a force in the back half of 2011.

Coach Stephen Kearney tells NRL.com... “Up until the Cowboys game our performances were inconsistent, we’d perform okay for periods of the match then not so good. The last three weeks have been a positive step for us in terms of our defence. From the halves point of view I thought our attack has been okay for the last three weeks; the more time they spend together the better they’ll get. There are a couple of tough games coming up – Manly over at Brookvale and Canberra away. The focus is on our performance and making sure we maintain things from the last three weeks and keep improving on the areas we’re improving on.”

Predicted Finish… After the coming bye the Eels will likely need to win eight of their remaining 12 games to make the finals. Seven of those are away games while the Eels also have tough home games against the Broncos and Storm to come.

While a finals appearance for Kearney’s charges isn’t out of the question, NRL.com’s pre-season prediction of 10th place still looks to be on the money.

Under-20s… Parramatta’s junior team is faring slightly better than their NRL counterparts, currently sitting in seventh place with six wins, five losses and a draw. This represents something of a recovery after winning just one of their first five games.

Their points differential is in the positive to the tune of 28 points but the two sides immediately below them on the ladder actually have a far superior differential, meaning the junior Eels will probably need to stay ahead of them in terms of wins to ensure a finals berth.

Marmin Barba, younger brother of Canterbury fullback Ben, has been one of the stars playing at fullback and on the wing, notching 12 tries and seven try assists.

Parramatta's player stats for 2011

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