Parramatta Eels Season Preview
He once hit a patch of form so purple that it would've forced Barney to join the unemployment line. And then he resurrected an entire state when he rose in front of the Blues bay and openly wept tears of joy.
Good times. But now the Eels officially enter the daunting times of the post-apocalyptic Jarryd Hayne era.
Arguably the league's best player dropped the ultimate bombshell late last year when he announced his dream of being a running back instead of a fullback, shattering a fanbase rejuvenated by an impressive move up the ladder in 2014.
Led by cranky rookie coach Brad Arthur, the Eels didn't quite earn a finals spot. But they sure as hell earned plenty of admirers as they clawed their way, with some inspiring performances, to a grand total of 12 wins – the same number as eighth-placed Brisbane and more than their previous two seasons combined.
Now their hopes of further improvement will hinge on their ability to make do without their mercurial superstar and co-captain, an Everest of a job made slightly easier by the coup recruitment of rugged veteran Anthony Watmough.
The keys to this NRL buggy will now be in the hands of cheeky halfback Chris Sandow, who needs to make good on (another) promising pre-season for the Eels to be any chance of becoming a threat, not to mention earning himself another lucrative contract.
They'll also have to do it with the toughest draw in the competition. Nine teams finished above them in 2014 and this year, they play seven of them twice, including a blockbuster opener against Choc's old team-mates in front of his new fans.
We ain't gonna lie – this is going to be one testing year. But fear not: if they get through it alive and even take off to the finals, there'll be quite a few more good times to remember. And it won't be because of some Hayne plane.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Anthony Watmough (Eels), Brad Takairangi (Titans), Reece Robinson (Raiders), Danny Wicks (unsigned), Beau Champions (Rabbitohs), Cody Nelson (Titans), Ben Crooks (Hull FC), Shannan McPherson (Salford Red Devils), Adam Quinlan (Dragons)
Losses: Jarryd Hayne (NFL), Willie Tonga (Catalan Dragons), Ken Sio (Hull Kingston Rovers), Ben Smith (retired), Kelepi Tanginoa (Cowboys), Liam Foran (London Broncos), Lee Mossop (Wigan Warriors), Fuifui Moimoi (Leigh Centurions), Mitchell Allgood (Hull KR), Evander Cummins (Queensland Cup), Daniel Harrison (London Broncos), Api Pewhairangi (Warriors)
What We Know
We know that under the guidance of Arthur last season, the Eels improved significantly from last to 10th. Suffice to say they'd jump off the harbour bridge for him if he asked them to. We also know that Hayne, one of the most influential players in the league, is gone. It's fact. It's real. The locker's empty. Lastly, we know Nathan Peats offers something they lacked in the pre-Peats era and missed when he was injured last year: a bit more ticker, a bit more mongrel, a bit more oomph. Expect all that and more this season from your Pirtek, Parramatta Eels.
It's the big one, the number one question. The one which will be scrutinised and picked at until the Eels make the eight. Who becomes the chosen one of the post-Hayne era? Where do they find his leadership? How do they replace the 34 tries he personally accounted for last year – more than a third of the club's 90 meat pies in total? It's a hard one to stomach.
There are other, more long-term matters befitting someone with a title of CEO. Like whether Chris Sandow is in the club's future plans; what Will Hopoate will be worth by the end of the season; and what on earth do they do with the ocean-wide space in their salary cap for next season if they don't manage to entice Kieran Foran out west?
Rookie To Watch
John Folau. The easiest thing to do would be to wax lyrical on how the younger Folau looks, moves and jumps like his more decorated older brother. But when putting together a highlight reel of John's combined Holden Cup and NSW Cup campaign in 2014, at the top of the list would be his jarring hit on an unassuming Newcastle prop that almost shook the entire Hunter region last year. With Will Hopoate slated for the no. 1 jumper, Folau will be challenging Ryan Morgan, Brad Takairangi and Beau Champion for the two centres spots. And judging by how impressed Arthur was with his Nines campaign, he might've jumped the queue on them.
Room For Improvement
Hit, and damn well stick. That should've been the message steaming out of Arthur's nostrils over the summer, particularly after a calendar year where they gave up a league-high number of offloads to opposition teams last season. To put this in perspective, the premiership-winning Rabbitohs conceded the fewest, minimising their opponent's ability to get a second, third or fourth phase in attack. In other words, we want many more Moeroa hits please!
Adam Quinlan gives them another option at fullback after Robinson; Bureta Faraimo and Halauafu Lavaka gives them some cover on the wing; and they've got at least four centres – none of them standouts – to pick from, not including English project Ben Crooks. Development talents Zach Dockar-Clay and Ryan Matterson, together with Peter Sterling favourite Luke Kelly, back up the halves; while Kaysa Pritchard's pectoral injury means Isaac De Gois has first dibs on a bench spot. Mannah, Junior Paulo, Darcy Lussick and David Gower will get all the playing time they can handle in the middle, meaning the likes of Joseph Paulo, Danny Wicks and Richie Fa'aoso will fight for spot minutes in the centre. Arthur has more talent in the second row than he knows what to do with, although Kenny Edwards' ACL injury is a blow.
Fantasy coaches are hoping Hopoate ($243,000) will return to his best in Hayne's old fullback role, while hard-working second-rower Tepai Moeroa ($269,000) is another player who could benefit from a positional switch if he is handed a starting berth for Round 1. One back-rower who is all but certain to score well is Watmough ($432,000), who can play the full 80 minutes each week and make a big impact in attack.
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Arthur won plenty of admirers in his rookie year at Parramatta, stressing his defence-first philosophy to no end and resurrecting the back-to-back wooden spooners all the way to NRL relevancy in the space of 12 months. So impressed were Eels suits that, in the midst of their routine boardroom battles, they tied down the promising mentor until the 2017 season. It's the sole reason why not even the Jarryd Hayne bombshell could dampen their hopes of a return to the finals this year.
The team at NRL.com aren't overly confident of simply forgetting the Hayne Plane, let alone replacing him with one. The blue-and-golds are undoubtedly a more stoic bunch under Arthur's watch, but we're thinking it's going to take more than a single pre-season to remember that Hayne isn't going to be around to single-handedly win them games. NRL.com prediction: 12th