With 2014 NRL pre-season underway, we're profiling each team's biggest strengths heading into the new season. Here are five reasons the Parramatta Eels could be premiers at the end of 2014.
1. A foil for Hayne
It's no secret that through Parramatta's recent struggles – and pretty much ever since Jarryd Hayne's phenomenal run to the Dally M medal in 2009 – there looks to have been a "Jarryd will fix it" mentality permeating the Eels team. It has put a huge amount of pressure on Hayne to do it all himself, and when he is absent or doesn't produce there has been a distinct lack of a 'plan B'.
With the arrival of Corey Norman – who produced a club-high 12 try assists for Brisbane last year despite playing just 17 games – they have a similar five-eighth or fullback type playmaker who can ease the burden on Hayne's shoulders, take control of the play and run the ball effectively. With Hayne likely to start at fullback with Norman at pivot, Hayne can hopefully go back to choosing his moments more selectively the way he did in '09. Despite his injury woes (he played just 15 games in 2013), Hayne led the Eels for line-break assists with eight, and was second for try assists with six, behind Chris Sandow (nine). With Norman on deck the pair's combination, along with Sandow, could well prove a fruitful one.
2. Strike power out wide
The return to league of former Manly and NSW star Will Hopoate will add some serious firepower to the struggling Eels backline. In his last season, in 2011, Hopoate notched 14 tries and 14 line breaks in 19 games, and scored in his Origin debut. Combined with a (hopefully) fully fit Jacob Loko, who was among the leading tackle breakers in the NRL last season until injury struck, plus promising Souths junior Justin Hunt (two tries and two line breaks in three games last year) and the developing Semi Radradra (five tries in seven games), as well as Hayne, the Eels' backline is starting to look much more potent.
3. A coach who fits
Losing a high profile coach is never fun but plenty have suggested premiership-winning mentor Ricky Stuart wasn't really the best fit for Parramatta. Either way, the new clipboard holder is a no-nonsense operator, and a former Eels junior who professes to bleed blue and gold. Brad Arthur took over from a sacked Steve Kearney at the end of 2012 and his side responded with a free flowing 42-22 upset over the Broncos in Brisbane, and although they finished up with just two wins from his six games in charge they looked a more positive side under his brief stewardship. Players and fans will be hoping he's the man they need.
4. Back row mobility
The Eels have seemed bereft of ideas at times in the past two seasons when it comes to back row options. The emergence of Joe Paulo as a genuine attacking force last year is a huge positive and Arthur will be hoping Paulo returns from his World Cup stint with the USA Tomahawks an even more confident player. But add in English Test forward Lee Mossop (from about Round 10 when he returns from a shoulder injury) and promising Tigers junior Brenden Santi (both of whom will also join Parramatta from World Cup duty with England and Italy, respectively) and the Eels may start 2014 with their strongest back row rotation since the retirement of Nathan Hindmarsh. Paulo led the club for offloads (22) and was second for line-break assists (seven) in 2013. Santi was a standout for the Tigers NYC side in 2013, averaging a club second-best 108 metres per game (minimum six games) and a club-high 35 tackles – with 46 tackle breaks. Eels fans will be hoping they form part of a formidable back row rotation for 2014 and beyond.
5. They can't get worse
Let's face it, not too many pundits will be backing an Eels premiership in 2014. But sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up and surely the Eels have managed it with back to back wooden spoons. As Tim Sheens said of England following their disastrous World Cup build-up, an embarrassed side is a dangerous side. The Eels are certainly that and with no real way of getting any worse they can only get better. With a new coach, new squad and hopefully a new attitude the Eels will be looking to make a dent in the 2014 competition.