Eels' 2014 Season Review
After back-to-back wooden spoons, pretty much anything would have been an improvement for the Eels – and improvement is what they got.
They didn't quite scrape into the finals but to be in with a chance of that scenario heading into the final round of the regular season, you'd have to call 2014's eventual 10th-place finish a positive result – which in itself pretty much sums up how poor the previous two seasons have been for the blue and gold faithful.
Still, it must be said their finish to the season was a disappointment – precariously placed with three rounds to go, a stunning second half against then-ladder-leaders Manly meant they needed just one win against either the lowly Knights or even-more-lowly Raiders to cement a spot in the eight.
At Newcastle in Round 25 they produced their worst 40 minutes of the season after taking a below-par four-point lead into halftime to go down 42-12 following a 34-0 avalanche of points against them, then backed it up with an almost-as-dire opening 40 in Canberra to fall behind 32-6 before briefly threatening a comeback.
Still, that Manly win, and a strong 14-12 win over the Roosters back in Round 6 that was packed with character coming, as it did, just a month after they were lapped 56-4 by the same opponents, were among the season's highlights.
The vintage form of star fullback Jarryd Hayne had everyone talking and the fact Hayne was getting good support from his halves in Corey Norman and Chris Sandow, and from hookers Nathan Peats and later Isaac De Gois, was most encouraging.
Peats himself was looking like being one of the buys of the year until an unfortunate knee injury ended his season early; impressive back-rower Manu Ma'u was in Rookie of the Year calculations before a broken arm ended his season early, and Hayne himself was in Dally M consideration right throughout.
Then there's rookie coach Brad Arthur – a local junior who understands the club and the area, but who cut his teeth as a coach in highly professional Melbourne and Manly outfits. A no-nonsense operator, a man of few words, and just what the doctor ordered for a disjointed club needing some direction.
There were also hugely encouraging signs from some talented young forwards – the likes of Pauli Pauli, Junior Paulo, Peni Terepo, Kenny Edwards and the youngest of the lot in Tepai Moeroa will be a force for years to come.
English Test prop Lee Mossop was barely sighted due to injury but will almost certainly be an asset to the club next year, the Peats/De Gois/Kaysa Pritchard hooking rotation is the strongest the club has had in recent memory, and Will Hopoate will be better with a full season and second pre-season under his belt back after two years out.
The Eels very much look like a club on the rise, and after four years in the doldrums since 2009 that, more than anything, will be music to the ears of long-suffering fans.
Where They Excelled: When the Eels were hot, they were smokin'. Some of their point-scoring sprees were ultra-impressive and once they learn how to cut out their poor patches they will truly be a force, based on what we saw in 2014.
Three tries in six minutes in that Round 26 loss to Canberra, and three tries in 10 minutes in the Round 24 win over Manly, are two quick-fire bursts still fresh in the memory. Their Round 1 win over the Warriors featured two tries in the space of four minutes twice in the game – a feat they repeated when they machine-gunned tries past Cronulla in Round 9.
The Eels remain very much a momentum side but it is the occasions, like against the Roosters in Round 6, where they figured out how to graft a win, that provide encouragement ahead of next year.
Stats-wise the Eels finished up, unsurprisingly, fairly middle-of-the-pack in most categories but the fact they were fourth-best when it came to breaking tackles spoke to a dangerous running game, largely off the back of Hayne, with 720 busts for the year.
Where They Struggled: Defence, and handling. The Eels finished equal eighth on competition points, but 196 points worth of differential behind the actual eighth-placed finishing Broncos. Their eventual -103 differential (Brisbane +93) was threatening to keep them out of the finals a long time before it did eventually keep them out of the finals and aside from the above-mentioned debacles in the final two rounds and the 56-4 Round 2 battering at the hands of the Roosters, there was a 42-14 loss in Townsville, 38-12 loss at Penrith and woeful 48-0 hammering in New Zealand. They finished 10th on the ladder but were down in 13th defensively, better than only the beleaguered trio of Cronulla, Canberra and Wests Tigers. It was like once their morale was defeated the heads went down and floodgates opened. They need to work out how to keep their heads in the game even when things aren't going their way to avoid having their for-and-against knocking them down the end-of-year ladder.
And here's a telling stat – the Eels completed the fewest sets in 2014. Their 604 completed sets in 24 games was below Wests Tigers (612) and the Sharks (613).
Missing In Action: The Eels were hanging around in the top four for a fair stretch at the start of the year, but from there, there were two very big absences that hurt their chances. The major one was hooker Nathan Peats, whose recruitment from South Sydney ahead of the 2014 season proved a masterstroke. His ruptured ACL in Round 12 was a crushing blow for Parra's season, and as impressive as emergency replacement Isaac De Gois was, they never quite recovered. A broken arm ended late-blooming rookie Manu Ma'u's season in Round 14 and combined with Jarryd Hayne's absence during the Origin period, the Eels slipped from third to 11th in a horror two months and never quite recovered. Added to that, high-profile recruit Lee Mossop played just three games due to an ongoing shoulder problem. Retiring veteran Ben Smith played just 10 games, largely due to an early-season hand injury, and at one stage late in the season there were four outside backs unavailable for a short period. Their 30 players was at the higher end and only three players – Semi Radradra, Corey Norman and Joe Paulo – played every game of 2014.
Turning Point: Round 12. The Eels had had a solid two months since their Round 2 battering by the Roosters, climbing back to third, with only one loss of over four points (42-14 to the Cowboys) and five wins, three losses and one bye overall. They also broke an away duck that was well over a year long. But a 38-12 hammering at the hands of a Panthers side they had disposed of easily just eight weeks prior and losing key man Nathan Peats for the season, headed into a representative season where their best player was going to be unavailable more often than not, was a blow from which the side couldn't fully recover.
Best Games: It's tough to split their two best efforts. While their biggest by margin – 36-0 against a rabble of a Dragons side in Benji Marshall's first game back in the NRL – came against a poor opposition, their equal smallest by margin – 14-12 against the Roosters in Round 6 – was absolutely brimming with character. They'd been walloped by the defending premiers a month earlier 56-4 at Allianz but produced arguably their best defensive game of the year (a huge try-saver from Hayne on Sonny Bill Williams the highlight). The 22-12 win over the high-flying Sea Eagles in Round 24 was the other contender for best effort of 2014 from the Eels.
Worst Games: Plenty of ashes to sift through here. The 54-6 grilling in Round 2 took the wind out of their sails after a good first-up win and it was their equal biggest loss along with a 48-0 effort over in New Zealand.
But surely their most disappointing effort, against a team that had been terrible the week before and with a spot on the finals beckoning, was the 42-12 capitulation at Newcastle in Round 25. After failing to capitalise on the howling gale at their backs in the opening half, leading by 12-8 at the turn, the blue-and-golds conceded 34 unanswered points to effectively kiss a promising season goodbye.
Hold Your Head High: Plenty of candidates here, actually. Brad Arthur deserves massive credit for what he was able to instil in the team in a short amount of time. Halfback Chris Sandow – who finished the year with easily the most 40/20s (seven, next best three) to go with his 15 try assists, deserves praise for how he's been able to turn himself around after being relegated to park footy in 2013. Nathan Peats was immense, with 380 stinging tackles and providing lots of spark in his 10 games before being injured and young Semi Radradra on the wing, with only a handful of NRL games under his belt as season's start, was the year's second-top try scorer with 19. But for massive efforts we can't go past the rejuvenated Jarryd Hayne – the year's top try scorer with 20, as well as most line breaks (23), second for tackle breaks (138), as well as 14 try assists and 16 line break assists – Hayne was simply immense in 2014 and any team with him in it will always be a threat.
Conclusion: A tough finish to an overall positive season, with plenty of promising signs that things could be on the improve. Consistency is still an issue, but if they can bring their worst efforts up somewhere closer to their best efforts the way clubs like Melbourne and Manly do, they could be a serious title threat in the next year or two.
Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses
Away Record: 4 wins, 8 losses
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 20-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Rounds 15-19)
Players Used: 31
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 90 (=7th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 101 (fifth worst)
*Stats: Champion Data