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Mongrel money: Bargain buys, strategy shake-up powering Parra

"To win a competition, if it means I’ve got to pick up dog poo for the rest of my life, I’m happy to do that."

Brad Arthur offered up that backyard analogy the day before his season started, referencing a long-held, yet to be delivered promise to his daughter – the Arthurs get a family pooch when Parramatta gets a premiership.

In most eyes, the Eels' summer at the market saw them pick up a mismatch of mongrels and 'bitsers' that wouldn't amount to much.

But with bargain buys Isaiah Papali'i, Tom Opacic and Bryce Cartwright all picked up for less than a combined $500,000 late last year, each is playing well above their cut-price salaries already.

It's not the first season Arthur has rescued a few NRL strays to round out his roster with stunning pay-off.

In concert with overhauled in-game tactics, an honest assessment of Parramatta's recent pitfalls and a maturing collection of marquee men, the Eels have started 2021 in formidable fashion once more.

Bulldogs v Eels - Round 8

Interchange overhaul – bargain recruits hold key to energised Eels

In the wake of last year's finals fade-out – Parramatta's only back-to-back losses in 2020 – all manner of theories were floated on whether Arthur is still the man for the Eels, mindful enough (whatever that means), too intense or too old school as a coach.

Arthur himself saw the NRL's newest rule changes and developed one himself.

"At times last year our bench let us down," Arthur tells NRL.com.

"So it's been made a real focus for us this year playing more of a role."

It's an analysis that fits with concerns around big men Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Junior Paulo among other Eels, who came belting in off the back fence to start 2020, but appeared to tire by the end of a gruelling, unprecedented COVID-19 impacted season.

For Arthur the devil lies more in the detailed use of his interchange so far this year.

"Previously your bench is looked at basically as a support role," he says.

"For us it's not support. They've got a specific job to do, and to be honest it's almost more important than anyone else's right now.

"There's more ball-in-play time and less rest [in 2021], that's what the GPS numbers are telling us - there's less rest intervals and they're a lot shorter.

Papali'i down a shortside for the Eels

"And that's why the bench is so important, if you can get fresh legs on at the right time, you can speed up the tempo on your terms."

It's this bench impact, and the roster additions to what was already a settled starting 13, where Parramatta are getting serious bang for their buck.

After taking a significant, six-figure pay cut from his last Warriors deal to sign for less than $200,000-a-year, Papali'i is the form back-rower of the NRL.

Opacic is on a similarly-priced, one-year deal. At 27, he described this as "a make or break year" in February.

Playing outside Papali'i, his five line breaks are the most of any centre in the competition.

As a centre pairing, the 51 tackle busts he and makeshift three-quarter Marata Niukore have made this year are the equal best of any combination, matched only by Cronulla's Jesse Ramien (30 busts) and Josh Dugan (21).

Cartwright meanwhile is on little more than the NRL's $115,000 minimum wage, copping a $300,000-plus hit from his last deal to take up the lifeline.

His impressive 26 minutes (a try, two assists and 129 running metres) against the Broncos last week helped turn a 6-all deadlock into a blue and gold bash-up, and ranked as his best NRL outing in year.

In each of Parramatta's six wins this season, one of the Eels' lesser lights has stood up and then some.

Round 1 v Broncos

  • Isaiah Papali'i: 200 run metres, 29 tackles
  • Oregon Kaufusi: 110 run metres in 29 minutes

Round 2 v Storm

  • Marata Niukore: 116 run metres and six tackle busts

Round 3 v Sharks

  • Oregon Kaufusi: 161 run metres, 80 post-contact metres
  • Ray Stone: one try and 146 run metres in 24 minutes

Round 4 v Tigers

  • Tom Opacic: two tries
  • Isaiah Papali'i: one try, 165 run metres and 36 tackles

Round 5 v Dragons

  • Isaiah Papali'i: one try, 141 run metres, six tackle busts and 42 tackles

Round 6 v Raiders

  • Isaiah Papali'i: two tries, 156 run metres and five tackle busts;
  • Wiremu Greig and Keegan Hipgrave: 130 combined metres and 26 tackles from 33 minutes between them

Round 7 v Broncos

  • Bryce Cartwright: one try, two try assists and 129 run metres;
  • Oregon Kaufusi: one try, 159 run metres and four offloads;
  • Tom Opacic: one try, 114 run metres and six tackle busts.

League leaders: The Lyon inside Gutho

Parramatta's highest-paid stars Clint Gutherson and Mitchell Moses have led the way as their salaries dictate.

But every single week a different man has been dubbed players' player after full-time.

"That's been the approach for a while now under 'BA'," Moses says.

"Whoever comes in, doesn't matter who you are, we need you to your job for us, that's why your here.

"Even if it's just 15 minutes in a game, if that's all we ask that's all we need. That's what we expect. I've seen straight away how hard each of these guys, Carty, Ice [Papali'i], Keegan Hipgrave, they've bought in right away and are pushing themselves with extras, they're in on their days off.

"And the growth that we've seen is fantastic."

'Smell of an oil rag': Balancing the big names and bargains

When Opacic was presented his blue and gold jersey before round one, he stood before his teammates and Eels football staff holding his new strip.

"You can trust me, I'll do my job," he told them.

Signed initially as a back-up outside back around the time Michael Jennings was being handed a provisional ban by ASADA, Opacic is fast gaining fame for refusing to smile after scoring any of his three tries this season.

"I have seen him smile, I swear he does," Arthur laughs.

The karate kick try: Moses and Gutherson's beaut

"People say the same thing about me all the time too."

Arthur and Opacic would seem cut from the same cloth. A heavy whack in the back against the Tigers on Easter Monday had the centre battling to stay on the paddock.

The message from Parramatta's trainers was simple – 'if you can stay out there, hold the left-edge edge defence, the 12 other blokes will sort out the attack'.

Opacic did, the Eels won, and he bagged two tries to boot.

The former Bronco and Cowboy fits a similar mould to the Eels cheapies of 2017, when Nathan Brown (picked up from Souths for $170,000) helped lead fellow bottom-dollar earners like Will Smith, Suaia Matagi and Siosaia Vave and the Eels to their first finals appearance in eight seasons.

Parramatta have been premiership fancies now for the past two years, and circling the top four consistently, aside from a 2018 wooden spoon outlier.

The likes of Moses, Gutherson, Brown, Campbell-Gillard, Paulo, Ryan Matterson and Maika Sivo all rank among the elite players in their positions, with representative honours and big money deservedly coming their way in turn.

"With the squad we've got, it would be nice to have everyone as a $500,000-plus player. But you can't," Arthur says.

What makes Turbo so special

"That's why you've got a salary cap and we've got a lot of players who do take up a decent chunk of it because of the quality players they are.

"So they need support around them and we've looked to pick up blokes that present good value for money.

"A guy like Nathan Brown came to our club on the smell of an oily rag at first. A kid like Marata [Niukore] is the same.

"Part of our job as coaches is to win, but another part of that is improving your players.

"We haven't bought in too many guys at the top of their game, where there's not a hell of a lot more we can do with them from a coaching perspective."

'Give me a competitor, I'll do the rest'

As with a lot of things at Parramatta, the current Eels ethos starts with captain Clint Gutherson.

Regarded by many as the fittest player in the NRL, and a self-described "sook" if he so much lost the toss in backyard games of footy, Arthur saw a leader in Gutherson when he was still a teenager at Manly.

"He and Jake [Trbojevic] would come and train with the first-grade side back then," Arthur says, recalling his stint as Sea Eagles assistant coach in 2013.

"They both went toe-to-toe with the senior players, they didn't always keep up, but they wanted to.

"And they did it respectfully of course too. That's what I see Gutho instilling in some of our younger kids now too.

"What we're working towards here, it starts with him. And it's exactly why I brought him to the club."

Parramatta players describe Arthur's ability to convert the hard work and desire as a largely simple science.

"It's tough to pin down what BA does to be honest but I think for me anyway, it was clear that I had a great opportunity here," Brown offers.

"He tells you what he wants and what you can bring. And I think just how clear it is, why I'm here and what I need to do, I think that's how he does it."

Papali'i adds: "This is a simple game. We make it hard on ourselves sometimes, but it really is quite simple, for me anyway.

Match Highlights: Eels v Broncos

"I think I'm similar to a few of the guys that have come here, it wasn't a difficult conversation that first one with BA.

"He just laid it all out in front of me and it was a very simple game plan with an individual focus for me."

Parramatta's recruitment starts and ends in a similar vein.

"My priority is a competitor," Arthur says.

"If our recruitment guys guarantee they've found that in a player, then I worry about the coaching and the rest of it.

"Give me someone who scraps and fights for everything any day of the week. Absolutely you can have the talent and flashy players, try scorers, but if they're not willing to compete or work hard for the teammates, it doesn't matter.

"I don't need blokes who only want to play one part of the game. I want to see someone who's selfless, doing what's best for their teammates, not themselves."