Parramatta Eels: 2018 NRL season preview
After several years of hardships and off-season turmoil, 2017 marked the first year since 2009 that the Parramatta Eels made the finals.
Boasting an impressive roster ahead of the 2018 season, the addition of fan favourite Jarryd Hayne has ruffled the feathers of some but his return to the club is a huge boost for a side looking to build on an impressive 2017.
As combinations form and players become even more familiar with each other, the key for the Eels from an off-field perspective will be retaining some of their crucial players beyond this season and next.
Bundled out in straight sets in the 2017 finals, the Eels faithful will hope that their team can stick around a little longer in 2018 and push other elite sides all the way.
What's old is new at Parramatta and it comes in the form of Jarryd Hayne.
He was once the blue and gold's favourite son – perhaps he still is – but the question is how long will the lustre on the ''Hayne Plane'' last in 2018?
When Hayne left the club in 2014 to chase his NFL dream, he did so as the reigning Dally M medallist.
The 30-year-old arrives back "home" in Sydney's west after stints with San Francisco 49ers, Fiji's national rugby Sevens team and a stint with the Gold Coast Titans. He brings with him both hope and with plenty of media attention.
Parramatta fans will be praying he can recapture his incredible form of 2009 when he led the Eels to the grand final.
Brad Arthur would have been one of the happiest coaches in the NRL when he caught a glimpse of the 2018 Telstra Premiership draw. It has been very kind to Parramatta.
The Eels face fellow top-four finishers from 2017 just three times this year – that's a better result than any other club. They take on the Broncos in round 12, the Storm in round 23 and the Roosters in round 25.
Parramatta also only have one five-day turnaround. They take on the Cowboys in Darwin on Saturday, June 9 before they head back to Sydney to face the Rabbitohs the following Thursday.
Parramatta will want to make sure they're well clear of the teams fighting for a spot in the bottom half of the top eight come the back end of the season. They close out the season with matches against the Storm (away), Cowboys (away) and Roosters (home).
The stat that gives you hope?
Parramatta lost just three regular season games following Mitch Moses' arrival in round 11, a 78 percent winning rate.
Prior to Moses' switch from the Wests Tigers, the Eels lost five of their opening 10 matches.
If the Eels are to win 78 percent of their matches in 2018, they should finish with at least 38 competition points which is what the second-placed Sydney Roosters finished with last year.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise?
Nathan Brown ($760,000) just got better as the season went on in 2017, regularly playing 70-80 minutes a game from round seven onwards, and the hard-working lock could join the NRL Fantasy elite this year.
Clint Gutherson ($651,000) was also excellent last season in a range of positions, but would need to keep a spot in the spine to stay Fantasy-relevant this season. Jarryd Hayne ($448,000) starts fairly cheap after a quiet campaign at the Titans last year and was once the most expensive player in Fantasy, while Kane Evans ($323,000) and Greg Leleisiuao ($212,000) are among Parramatta's potential cash cows.
Brad Arthur is one of the most respected coaches in the NRL. He got Parramatta through one of the toughest years in the club's history when they were stripped of 12 competition points in 2016 for salary cap rorting. Less than two years on, Arthur has turned the Eels into genuine premiership contenders.
Arthur admitted he was surprised at how clinical his team was in their 26-6 trial win against Newcastle.
"I'm pleased at how we looked physically," Arthur said.
Arthur is contracted until 2019, so there shouldn't be too much fuss over his future if the Eels live up to expectations this year. However, there will be plenty of focus on Jarryd Hayne and whether Arthur's decision to bring him back was too much of a gamble.
If Hayne returns to his best, Arthur will be hailed a hero. If Hayne doesn't, Arthur will be fending off questions all year.
Corey Norman isn't off contract until the end of 2019, but securing his services beyond then will be a priority for Parramatta over the next 12 months.
There have been numerous reports suggesting Norman isn't happy at his current club – and considering he's off-contract on November 1 this year – the Eels will want to sort out his future as soon as possible.
Nathan Brown will also generate plenty of interest from rival clubs if he backs up his breakout debut season with a strong start to 2018.
The off-contract lock was one of the buys of 2017 and took out the Ken Thornett Medal as the Eels' player of the year.
Hookers Cameron King and Kaysa Pritchard will also be closely watched in 2018.
Pritchard started 2017 as Parramatta's first choice rake before suffering a serious knee injury in round 15 and not returning until in the club's finals campaign. King played 11 games while Pritchard was sidelined and was the Eels' starting hooker in their trial against Newcastle.
Both players are off-contract and will be out to impress coach Brad Arthur in the early rounds of the season to prove they deserve to be the club's long-term No.9.
The burning question
How does Brad Arthur fit Clint Gutherson, Bevan French and Jarryd Hayne into his starting 13 without disrupting the balance of the team?
Hayne is one of the best fullbacks in the club's history, French starred at fullback in the Eels' trial win against Newcastle, and Gutherson established himself as one of the most exciting No.1s in the game in 2017.
Arthur won't have to worry about it while Gutherson is sidelined as he continues his recovery from his ACL injury. Once he returns, his coach will have a very tough call to make.
French is expected to start the season at fullback with Hayne at right centre, but that could all change once Gutherson returns.
It's a good headache to have until one of the players is moved to a position he doesn't want to play.
Corey Norman can light up the NRL – but can he ignite his Origin career in 2018?
The Parramatta five-eighth has never had a better chance of breaking into the Origin arena following the retirement of long-serving Queensland playmakers Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.
Michael Morgan played in the centres in the 2017 Origin decider and Cameron Munster partnered Cronk in the halves.
If his form is strong, Norman will be in the mix heading into game one. The 27-year-old's versatility could also help him win a spot on Queensland's bench.
Norman was part of the Prime Minister's XIII big win over Papua New Guinea last September. That side is coached by the most successful Origin coach of all-time in Mal Meninga and if he was to get into the ear of current Maroons coach Kevin Walters, then Norman's chances would no doubt be boosted.
The player you should follow on social media
Clint Gutherson wasn't the most popular player in the NRL last year for no reason.
The 2017 Provan-Summons medallist isn't just a fan favourite on-field; he has a massive following off it thanks to his presence on social media.
From stitching up mates at training to busting out in his budgie smugglers while holidaying in Italy and getting into full-blown Twitter wars with former teammates Nathan Peats and Darcy Lussick – 'King Gutho' is a must follow.
Brad Takairangi and Corey Norman are also notable mentions. They also have a strong 'social media' game and are worth a follow.
His fitness was put to the ultimate test in Parramatta's final trial against Newcastle. Hayne blew out the cobwebs in muggy, 33C conditions in Maitland. He lasted 60 minutes – 40 minutes at right centre and 20 minutes at fullback.
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says…
"The Eels biggest strength is their forward pack and how they work for each other. It's a real working side and it gives the outside backs plenty of opportunity to score points.
"Parramatta Eels finish 6th."
Beau Scott, Bevan French, Brad Taikarangi, Cameron King, Clint Gutherson, Corey Norman, Dane Aukafolau , Daniel Alvaro, David Gower, George Jennings, Greg Leleisiuao, Jaeman Salmon, Jarryd Hayne, Josh Hoffman, Kane Evans, Kaysa Pritchard, Kenny Edwards, Kirisome Auva'a, Manu Ma'u, Michael Jennings, Mitchell Moses, Nathan Brown, Nathan Davis, Peni Terepo, Ray Stone, Siosaia Vave, Suaia Matagi, Tepai Moeroa, Tim Mannah, Tony Williams, Will Smith.\
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in these rosters can remain free up until June 30.