When looking back at this season from the Parramatta Eels it is hard to put into words how disappointing it has been. Touted as a genuine premiership contender before a ball was kicked at the start of the season, there was hope among the Eels faithful they could win their first premiership since 1986.
On the back of the excitement of their backline including Mitchell Moses, Corey Norman, Bevan French and the returning Jarryd Hayne it seemed it would be a foregone conclusion they could improve on their top four finish from last season. However, that would not be the case as injuries and sudden loss of form from key players meant they would finish with the dreaded wooden spoon with a record of six victories and 18 losses.
There were signs in those six victories of a good side but everyone expected better so with the only way being up everyone around the club will cross fingers and toes for a return to form in 2019.
Before we look forward to season 2019, let’s deconstruct the 2018 season from the Parramatta Eels.
When a team only wins six games in a season, it's hard to find too many highlights to parade at the end of the season.
One player who might sit on both highlights and lowlights is Jarryd Hayne. When he signed in the off-season, there was mixed feelings. It was not the most fruitful return to the game from NFL when he made the move to the Gold Coast Titans. A lot of Eels fans were not impressed that he didn't return to the club he made his name from and that sentiment continued in the off-season.
At the start of the season it looked like he was a shadow of the player who won the Dally M award in 2014 before departing the game as he struggled with injury and general fitness. His fitness was questioned from day one when he was beaten in a pre-season fitness test by his coach, Brad Arthur. However, after returning from a hip injury midway through the season he showed what he could offer the organisation.
In 15 appearances this season he finished with 10 tries, four try-assists and averaged 117 running metres. While he has had far more successful seasons, his ability to fit into the structure and still use his natural talents has been a positive. In the past he could be guilty of trying to win games single-handedly but this season that was not his role, and he knew of that, particularly in the back-end of the season.
From a game highlight point of view, the win against the Dragons in round 22 would have to be the clear standout. Beating one of the premiership contenders at the time 40-4 is no easy feat and while the Dragons had already showed cracks in their campaign, the Eels weren't exactly on fire either so they lifted when they needed to and got the two points. A first-half hat-trick from Hayne capped off the great performance and at the time gave the club hope they could avoid the wooden spoon.
The whole season for the Eels could realistically be classed as a 'lowlight' but the signs were there early on that they could be in for a long season.
All the way back in round two, the Eels travelled to Brookvale Oval to take on the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles. Manly were coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Newcastle Knights in round one while the Eels had thrown away a victory against the Penrith Panthers so both teams were looking to get two points on the board. Few could have predicted what followed over the next 80 minutes, though, as the home team blew the Eels off the part to the tune of 54-0. They were comprehensively beaten as the Northern Beaches club ran in nine tries to zero. Considering that Manly end up being in contention for the wooden spoon at the end of the season makes the result even more remarkable although the Eels got revenge in round seven in the return fixture when they won 44-10.
The other major lowlight was their performance in the final two rounds when they had everything to play for to avoid finishing on the bottom of the ladder. In particular, the performance against the North Queensland Cowboys in round 24 was diabolical. Granted, they were coming up against a Cowboys side that were farewelling their greatest player, Johnathan Thurston, but that doesn't take away from the fact they conceded 44 points and registered just six.
Finally, finishing the season with the least points scored and losing all 12 away matches would make any fan following their team disappointed.
When trying to think of the best performer from this season it was a struggle. Hayne had his moments throughout the season and Moses and Norman were underwhelming compared to their form in 2017.
One player that was highly underrated this season was Daniel Alvaro. In a forward pack that was constantly dominated all season, he was a player that gave his all in his 19 appearances this season. He made a total of 748 tackles with a 93.1% tackle efficiency and averaged 105 metres a game. Looking at those statistics they don't show a world beater or Dally M contender but he consistently got through the hard work and never let his team down.
A special mention goes to Clint Gutherson who missed the start of the season and was forced to play multiple positions when he returned. In his 19 appearances he scored six tries, five try-assists, eight line-break assists and kick 10 goals.
Can I say every aspect of their game needs improvement? They couldn't score points and conceded 30 points or more in seven games this season. However, the main area they need to improve is stability in their spine. The dummy-half position has been an issue for the club for a while and this season was no different. At stages this year Cameron King, Kaysa Pritchard, Reed Mahoney and Will Smith has spent time in the number nine role which limits cohesion and an ability to strike up combinations.
They could say the same for the fullback role as Bevan French, Jarryd Hayne, Corey Norman and Clint Gutherson wore the number one. The best teams have a clear combination in their spine and that was not the case for the Eels. Brad Arthur will need to find space for all of his star players and stick to those roles to give the side any hope.
2019: A brief look ahead
Gains: Junior Paulo (Canberra Raiders), Blake Ferguson (Sydney Roosters), Shaun Lane (Manly Warringah Sea Eagles).
Losses: Kirisome Auva'a (retired), Kenny Edwards (mid-season - Catalan Dragons), Suaia Matagi (Huddersfield Giants), Beau Scott (retired).
The gains for next season far outweigh the players they will lose in the off-season. The signing of Junior Paulo will bolster their struggling forward pack, Blake Ferguson is a strike outside back that could be the man that finally replaces Semi Radradra and Shaun Lane is an astute signing that will offer a strike option on an edge.
In terms of re-signings they have locked down Daniel Alvaro (2019), key forward Nathan Brown (2021) and utility Will Smith(2020) . The big talking point going into the summer break will be whether Jarryd Hayne will stay for another season. There have been rumours he wants to try representing Fiji in Rugby again but all signs point towards him lining up in blue and gold in 2019.
Other squad members who have yet to have their future sorted is George Jennings, Cameron King, Kaysa Pritchard, Siosaia Vave and Tony Williams.
2019 has to be a year of improvement for the Parramatta Eels and on the back of some quality signings and a strong off-season, we could look at a top-eight side once again. If not, we could look at yet another coach who has failed to deliver a premiership to the Eels faithful.
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