Eels 2016 season review
There's little to be served by another in-depth post-mortem on all the off-field dramas that cost the Eels in 2016 but for the sake of a quick and probably not quite complete summation:
It started with whispers that long-term salary cap breaches may lead to sanctions. That culminated in a range of penalties, the most significant of which was the loss of 12 ladder points effectively ending their season, but crucially for the future, the removal of the fractured old board and appointment of administrators and implementation of improved governance which should pay healthy dividends into the future.
Sadly it also forced out popular hooker Nathan Peats and an early departure for Raiders-bound prop Junior Paulo. These absences, combined with the personal issues that led to star signing Kieran Foran's departure and a disciplinary suspension that ended Corey Norman's season early – plus an avalanche of injuries in the outside backs – tested the club's depth sorely.
However the emergence of one-time injury-prone prodigy Clint Gutherson as a multi-skilled bona-fide first grader is a massive plus moving forward. Exciting fullback Bevan French is a star of the future and Norman – despite his late-season off-field faux pas – heads a host of big names who re-signed which, on the back of his breakout year on the field, is another huge plus for the future.
Where they excelled: Mentally. And defensively. To not fall apart at the seams despite a mountain of injuries on top of losing 12 ladder points was a huge feat. But to have the level of disruption they endured and finish the year as the sixth best defensive team conceding 19 points per game is an impressive accomplishment.
Where they struggled: In the board room. And the casualty ward. Years of mismanagement across different administrations eventually culminated in the salary cap debacle of this year which effectively wrecked the team's on-field aspirations because the team otherwise looked good enough to be in the finals race. A slew of long-term backline injuries certainly didn't help though. Which brings us to…
Missing in action: With the dramas around first-choice halves Norman and Foran, to have their two back-ups in Luke Kelly and Mitch Cornish unavailable virtually all year was a big double blow. Key man Brad Takairangi's absence was felt keenly in the eight games he missed. Left edge pair Michael Jennings and Semi Radradra missed six games each and back-ups like Josh Folau, Vai Toutai and Bureta Faraimo were unavailable for much of that time. Anthony Watmough retired without playing a game which is significant mostly because of the proportion of the cap he was taking up.
Turning point: Rounds 18 and 19, on and off the field. The Eels needed to win almost every game once their 12-point deduction was announced after Round 9 and they got off to the worst possible start with two straight losses in Rounds 10 and 11 to Souths and the Storm. But with the aid of two byes the club racked up 12 of 14 available competition points through the rest of the Origin period to be in with a finals shot after Norman wrecked the Roosters with his virtuoso kicking game in Round 18. It proved to be his last of the season as he was disciplined for a graphic leaked video, while Radradra was also injured in that Round 18 win. The following week the team shot out to a 14-0 lead at Penrith before being run down in what was the first of three straight losses that put the last rights on a horror season.
Hold your head high: Arthur is at the top of this list but every player who kept putting in over the closing rounds with the finals gone deserves praise. As mentioned above Gutherson and French have been real finds. Newly re-signed hooker Isaac De Gois was an unsung hero who plugged a huge gap. The forward pack across the board was excellent but special praise goes to another pair who recently re-signed in Kenny Edwards and Danny Wicks. Tim Mannah again showed exemplary leadership after being removed from the captaincy for Foran at the start of the year to fill the breach after first Foran then an injured Beau Scott were unavailable late in the year.
2017 crystal ball: If nothing else, we'll boldly tip next year to be a happier one for fans than this year. There will be a little bit more pain in terms of salary cap management, but the club is again in a position to recruit players and has the basis of a quality roster already there. The ability to (hopefully) just worry about on-field issues will be a huge advantage as well. Even with all the 2016 turmoil the club earned 30 ladder points so would have played finals but for the salary cap penalty and we see no reason why they couldn't match or exceed that tally next season.
Conclusion: While it's easy to look at the train wreck of 2016 and say nothing more could have gone wrong for the Eels – and you'd have a case – there were some good news stories and plenty of silver linings.
If you're an Eels fan, think about the year just gone as major corrective surgery on an ongoing injury. It ended the season early but you'll be better for it in the long run.
But the way coach Brad Arthur was able to keep the playing group united and focused (even in a run of losses late in the season they were consistently competitive) was a huge credit to his ability to manage a team. Who knows what he could achieve next year with more stability around him?
Home Record: 7-5
Away Record: 6-6
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Round 2-4, 12-15)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Round 19-21)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored: 79
Tries Conceded: 79
Game on. Data off.
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