Eels 2015 season review
Any side that misses the finals in any given year will be bound to look back and wonder 'what if' at a few of the moments that could have gone differently. But rarely has a team seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such unerring regularity as Brad Arthur's Eels. Injuries played a huge part, as did the pre-season departure of Jarryd Hayne to the NFL with the 2015 roster largely already set. But between 2016's big signings and the occasional solid win there is at least enough reason for blue and gold fans to hope their first finals campaign since 2009 is drawing closer.
Where They Excelled: Parramatta's good games shared some common themes: mature, controlled ball-playing from five-eighth Corey Norman and potent left-edge attack in the shape of – usually – Semi Radradra, Brad Takairangi, Manu Ma'u and Norman. Radradra surged to 24 tries for the season in just 18 games to be best in the NRL. Takairangi's 11 try assists were the second-most of any player in the NRL who plays outside the ball-playing 1-6-7-9 positions, behind Brisbane captain Justin Hodges (who had 14).
Where They Struggled: Clearly to leak 24 points per game (worse than all clubs other than the Titans, Knights and Warriors) isn't finals-worthy football. But what really cost the Eels a place in the 2015 finals was an inability to close out games from winning positions. From losing after being 30-6 up against the Cowboys in Round 8, to conceding a try inside the final few minutes to lose against Souths (in Round 11), Cronulla (in Round 25) and Canberra (after being taken to golden point in Round 26), to losing against the Warriors despite scoring more tries (in Round 10), it just kept happening.
Missing In Action: It wasn't quite Penrith-like carnage but the Eels certainly had their injury and other woes in 2015. It started in the pre-season when back-rower Kenny Edwards did an ACL, ending his year before it began. Centre Beau Champion was eventually forced into retirement by a hand injury that limited him to one and a half games. At one stage the Eels had none of their three hookers available with Nathan Peats (knee strain), Issac De Gois (fractured cheek) and Kaysa Pritchard (pec) all out. Peats returned only to fracture a vertebra, as did Pritchard (shoulder) with both ruled out for the rest of the year. Fullback Reece Robinson missed game time due to a fractured cheek while late in the season, and they started dropping like flies with season-ending injuries to Richie Fa'aoso, Anthony Watmough, Brad Takairangi and Danny Wicks. The Eels also lost first choice halfback Chris Sandow permanently when his troubled tenure concluded mid-season with a switch to English Super League club Warrington.
Turning Point: The Eels suffered an awful hat-trick of demoralising losses in rounds 10, 11 and 13 (with one win over Penrith in between), the third of which was the Cowboys'24-point comeback at Pirtek. Each dented the confidence in addition to depriving them of two important competition points. It was a triple blow they never seemed to recover from at a time their season was just starting to slip away.
The Eels had just one Origin representative in 2015 – centre Will Hopoate – and should have gone on a charge through the middle period of the season when more Origin-affected sides are doing it tough. From the nine weekends in Rounds 10-18, the Eels had two byes and four wins while those other three ended up preventing them getting their season back on track.
Hold Your Head High: In addition to the above-mentioned try-scoring feats of Radradra, Norman's maturity and leadership was such that he was made captain for the first time in his career in a game regular skipper Tim Mannah missed late in the season.
And if anything Mannah was the other player who can truly hold his head high. Mannah left absolutely nothing out on the field for his club to lead by example at every opportunity.
2016 Crystal Ball: The arrivals of Kieran Foran, Beau Scott and Michael Gordon will be massive. Brad Arthur will be moving into his third season as a head coach and is starting to bring together a squad of his choosing. There are plenty of positive signs if they can marry mental fortitude and consistency to potential. We won't be tipping for a premiership just yet but they should have enough improvement to challenge for a finals spot.
Conclusion: Eels fans may want to write off 2015 as a transitional year. Plenty went wrong but there were signs of hope that new blood arriving next year may signal a turnaround.
Perhaps coach Brad Arthur summarised it best. "We can't keep saying that we're trying hard and the effort's there – because it is – but we have to learn how to manage a game, we have to learn how to win a game, control a game," a dejected Arthur said after the Round 25 loss to Cronulla.
"No one's having a shot as us about our effort, our effort's great... we just have to learn how to win a game of football."
Home Record: 4-8
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Round 14-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Round 8-11)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored: 83
Tries conceded: 102