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Eels coach Brad Arthur.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about. Not being talked about.

Oscar Wilde said it. Brad Arthur agrees with it.

Following a 2020 Parramatta Eels campaign that promised plenty only to fall all too familiarly short, there has been talk. Plenty.

Arthur has heard most of it. And wants more of it.

"If people aren't talking about you, if there's no expectation, then it means you're at the bottom of the ladder and you're no chance," the Eels coach says.

Parramatta enter 2021 much the same as they have the past few seasons.

With a premiership window well and truly open, but with repeated semi-final failings looming large, Arthur knows things are heating up out west.

"We want those big expectations again in 2021.

"That's what we need."

Embracing the expectation

In the week after Parramatta's semi-final loss to the Rabbitohs, Arthur's coaching approach was dissected from all angles.

Undeniably he has proven himself as the coach for a crisis, leading the Eels out of their 2016 salary cap scandal and then turning a wooden spoon into consecutive playoff campaigns.

The Eels' 2020 season review

Whether Arthur is the man to end Parramatta's 34-year premiership drought though, that can only be answered one of two ways.

So questions over whether he is "mindful" enough in his coaching, or conversely too old-school in his approach, take hold.

Arthur doesn't dismiss the criticism, but he doesn't give it oxygen either.

"You'll have to ask the club that one," he says.

But after seven full-time seasons and 176 games (88 won, 88 lost) at Parramatta, Arthur's tenure now sits behind only Brian Smith's for longevity.

The pressure that entails while ever the premiership drought continues, can also go down one of two ways.

"You actually end up wanting it," Arthur says.

"It's not just external, we know we want to be better and go further. We know we've got a good team and a good squad here.

"We've got blokes who are hopefully coming into the prime of their careers, others that are starting their careers. The ingredients are there.

"I love this job. I love the club and love this playing group. And the expectation is part of that. You like the pressure, it's one of the driving and motivating factors of our game and this job.

"The better you perform, the greater the expectations become. For me, that's how I see it. Because we started so well at the start of 2020, the expectations rose.

"That's what you want, I won't apologise for us starting well. We're always going to aim to start well. We want those big expectations again in 2021.

"That's what we need."

Analysing the Eels' 2021 draw

A fix for those finals flings

A second early finals exit understandably led the 2020 post-mortems for Parramatta.

Less so the loss of Michael Jennings 12 hours before a 38-24 defeat to South Sydney, officials knocking on his door that Saturday morning with a positive test to banned substances Ligandrol and Ibutamoren.

Star wingers Maika Sivo and Blake Ferguson were already scratched, both injured midway through the previous week's loss to eventual premiers Melbourne.

Parramatta led the Rabbitohs 18-8 at half-time and held the Storm to 12-all.

Eventual losses, conceding four second-half tries in each, echoed Phil Gould's declaration of a "soft underbelly" at the club based on their squandering of second-half leads.

"It's part of our game, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I disagree," Arthur says.

"If we had a soft underbelly we would've looked for excuses in the last games against Souths and Melbourne. We fought to the death in those finals.

Most streamed: Eels v Sea Eagles

"… Obviously everyone's disappointed with the finals fade-out. We're doing things to make sure we can avoid that again.

"There's nothing we can do right now. We have to make sure first we're in the position to play finals.

"Then when we get there, we can worry about the lessons learnt from this year."

Amid the hand wringing over Parramatta's finals efforts, Arthur sees stark improvement on the 12 months prior.

Captain Clint Gutherson, Nathan Brown and Junior Paulo all made NSW Origin debuts while Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson found career-best form.

"We finished in the top four, we came third and we improved our defence," Arthur says.

"We're very disappointed we didn't get it right in the finals. We didn't lose any back-to-back games in the regular season and weren't winning by 30 one week, losing by 30 the next.

"From the 2019 season, it was definitely an improvement and we'll be looking next year in 2021 to improve and be better again.

"We'd love nothing more than to be playing on grand final day, like everyone else. But there's plenty of work to do before then.

"The boys will gain experience from their past year.

"Mitchell [Moses] and Dylan [Brown] have had more time again as a halves combination and that will help."

Signings and the sweet spot

With Michael Jennings provisionally stood down, Blake Ferguson is the only first-choice Eel over the age of 30 in 2021.

Arthur declined to comment on reports Ferguson was told in November that his contract would not be renewed at season's end.

Not for nothing, Ferguson has been in this position before when off-contract at the Roosters, playing the house down in 2017 and earning a new deal after indications were made that he would have to move on.

Otherwise Parramatta's line-up is well and truly settled, and worthy of premiership contention with Gutherson, Moses, Campbell-Gillard, Brown, Paulo, Matterson, Lane and Waqa Blake all boasting between 95 and 154 NRL games.

Clint Gutherson's 2020 season highlights

"That sweet spot of having guys with 100-odd games of experience, we're happy with where the squad is," Arthur says.

"Dylan Brown's only played 33 games. Reed [Mahoney] has only played 50-odd games, Gutho as captain has only played 114.

"That spine, some of these positions we've got locked down are still quite young and improving."

As a result of having "1-13 covered" the Eels' off-season recruitment has been in the back half of their top 30 roster.

Summer signings Bryce Cartwright, Isaah Papali'i, Keegan Hipgrave, Tom Opacic, Joey Lussick, Michael Oldfield and Nathaniel Roache aren't world beaters, and they don't need to be.

Arthur has form getting the best out of players that have been around the traps, not least Brown, Matterson, Campbell-Gillard and Lane, or late-blooming sensation Sivo.

"I like these guys that have the ability, and we can try and get the best out of them," Arthur explains.

"I think as a club we've done OK with that.

"Each of these guys brings something, adds a bit more depth and some options around our bench spots.

"Keegan [Hipgrave] will complement the style of footy we like to play in the forwards; he's a tough, uncompromising hard worker.

"I like how solid Tom [Opacic] is, he focuses hard on his team efforts, which is very likeable. And then with Oldie [Oldfield] you can see he understands the game and he's got speed and experience across several positions.

We want those big expectations again in 2021.

Brad Arthur

"Isaah Papali'i has a lot of skill and has been nicknamed 'The Technician' by the boys because he's very clinical with his training.

"[Roache] has had some big injuries so we need to be patient with him. But he's good out of dummy half and quite strong.

"[Cartwright] – everyone knows there is a player there. He's on board with fitting our style of footy and is training excellently.

"I didn't feel like we needed to go out and recruit at the top end, we needed that depth that we've got."

Cartwright wants to make Eels proud

What won't change in 2021 is Parramatta's plans for the upcoming season.

The Eels' attack dropped off alarmingly in the second half of 2020, scoring more points than only wooden spooners Brisbane after round 10, having swept all before them in the 10 rounds beforehand.

Combined with their finals fade, an easy bow is drawn back to Arthur's intensity across the course of an NRL campaign.

"We spoke to the boys and got their feedback," he says.

"They said there was nothing wrong with the program, it got us off to a very good start (11-2 either side of the COVID-19 break).

"In the second half of the season we won a lot of tight games that we wouldn't have been able to win in 2019.

"We won by two and four points, we hung onto tight leads, we fought back and won in golden point when we were down a half, there were a lot of things we improved on."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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