Parramatta Eels season preview
No NRL club is sitting on a longer finals drought than the Eels. After two seasons of near misses, third year coach Brad Arthur and a host of high-profile signings led my new skipper Kieran Foran will have the blue and golds pumped up for the season and ready to return to the finals.
Gains and losses
Gains: Kieran Foran (Manly Sea Eagles), Michael Jennings (Sydney Roosters), Beau Scott (Newcastle Knights), Michael Gordon (Cronulla Sharks), James Hasson (Manly Sea Eagles), Cameron King (North Queensland Cowboys), Kieran Moss (Penrith Panthers), Rory O'Brien (St George Illawarra Dragons), Mitch Cornish (Canberra Raiders), Kelepi Tanginoa (North Queensland Cowboys), Scott Schulte (North Queensland Cowboys), Clinton Gutherson (Manly Sea Eagles), Matthew Woods (Wests Tigers), Honeti Tuha (Newcastle Knights)
Losses: Darcy Lussick (Manly Sea Eagles), Ryan Matterson (Sydney Roosters), Ben Crooks (Castleford Tigers), Zach Dockar-Clay (Penrith Panthers), Chris Sandow (Warrington Wolves), Beau Champion (retirement), Fabian Goodall (Sea Eagles), Richie Fa'aoso (retirement), Reece Robinson (rugby union), Joseph Paulo (Cronulla Sharks), Josh Aloai (Wests Tigers), Will Hopoate (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Pauli Pauli (Newcastle Knights)
What we know
After an off-season spending spree like few in the club's history, we know this will be a very different Parramatta side to last year. We know they swept to the Downer Auckland Nines title without their big-name recruits in sight. We know those recruits – especially Foran and Michael Jennings – will carry a huge weight of expectation, as will coach Brad Arthur now that he finally has a squad of his own making. They lost plenty of winnable games from winning positions last year – the steely competitiveness of players like Foran and Beau Scott will be expected to alleviate those woes.
How quickly they will gel. Halves Foran and Corey Norman were both very good left-edge five-eighths last year. Foran is now the halfback and one of them will have to marshal the less familiar right side of the field. Semi Radradra was dominant on the left flank outside Brad Takairangi – will the addition of Jennings help or hinder his attacking prospects? The Eels also had a rotten run with injuries last year – will the footy gods finally smile on their health?
Former Sea Eagle Clint Gutherson is a star of the future and will start the season on the wing but provides great depth at fullback. Alex Twal is an emerging prop who played Junior Kangaroos while Daniel Alvaro showed glimpses of his massive potential late last season. It may be a bit soon to expect Auckland Nines sensation Bevan French to bust into first grade but he's definitely one to watch down the track. Rookie backs Kieran Moss, Honeti Tuha and Scott Schulte may each come into calculations for backline spots throughout the year while ex-Tiger and junior rep star Matthew Woods is a hard-working lock on the way up.
Top shelf, in every position bar front row. There will be several NRL-level outside backs running out for Wentworthville on any given week and ex-Raider Mitch Cornish adds wonderful depth to the halves alongside Luke Kelly. Eels fans will be hoping luckless hooker Nathan Peats will avoid the injury curse but either way, Isaac De Gois, Cam King and Kaysa Pritchard round out a wealth of dummy half options. The Eels have a battery of hard-hitting Polynesian back-rowers to complement the likes of Scott and Watmough but if starting props Tim Mannah or Junior Paulo get injured then rookies and fringe first graders like Alvaro, Twal, Rory O'Brien and James Hasson will need to step up.
Nathan Peats ($478,000) is a hard-working hooker who can stay on the field in the back row once the bench utility takes over. Winger Semi Radradra ($452,000) was a try-scoring sensation last year but can he maintain his frenetic try-scoring pace?
While Brad Arthur's job is certainly not in question at this stage, this is still very much a crunch year for him. It is his third year as head coach and the first year he has a squad that he has had a significant input into. He landed a coup bringing Manly star Foran across – now the pieces need to fall into place with a return to finals footy because we all know how impatient footy fans can be when their side falls short of expectations.
It's a tough one to pick with such a new-look roster and realistically Parramatta are one of 10 or 12 teams that could land anywhere from fourth to 14th. This Eels squad looks more confident and less fragile than those of recent seasons though so we'll tip a return to the promised land, somewhere in the lower rungs of the top eight.