There is a feeling that the Parramatta Eels’ premiership window could be about to slam shut.
Plenty of stars will leave the club at the end of 2022, but for the season ahead, it’s still full steam ahead for the men in blue and gold.
After back-to-back-to-back seasons of bomb outs in the second week of the finals, Brad Arthur’s side will be desperate to go one or two steps further this time around before players exit the club at the end of 2022.
The blue and gold fell to the Penrith Panthers in last year’s semi-finals and will argue it should have been more had Reed Mahoney been fit, but three years with the same result - regardless of injuries - won’t be accepted if it becomes four.
Here is their best 17 for 2022.
Jakob Arthur, Waqa Blake, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright, Haze Dunster, Wiremu Greig, Clinton Gutherson, David Hollis, Oregon Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Reed Mahoney, Makahesi Makatoa, Ryan Matterson, Mitchell Moses, Marata Niukore, Tom Opacic, Isaiah Papali’i, Junior Paulo, Will Penisini, Hayze Perham, Mitch Rein, Sean Russell, Bailey Simonsson, Maika Sivo, Ray Stone
Who plays where?
He might not be the sole captain of the club anymore, but that doesn’t mean Clint Gutherson won’t be the sole option considered to play at fullback for the Eels in 2022.
An outside chance of playing for the New South Wales Blues at State of Origin time once again, the Eels’ fullback has been a model and picture of consistency for the past couple of years as he led - and continues to lead - the Eels around the park.
The back-up to Gutherson - as with most of the Parramatta backline - seems a little thin.
Sean Russell is touted as an option at the back and played two games for the Eels during 2021. He is the most likely candidate to take Gutherson’s spot if injuries or suspension strikes, particularly given he will be able to press his case with the return of second-tier footy.
New recruit Bailey Simonsson is also an option, as is young winger Samuel Loizou, who is currently on a development contract, but either of the duo would be scraping the very bottom of the barrel for the blue and gold.
The loss of Blake Ferguson is offset by the arrival of Simonsson from Canberra, but given this is an area the Eels already lacked depth on last year, Michael Oldfield’s departure not being replaced is a baffling call by the Parramatta recruitment and retention team.
Dunster has been earmarked as a star of the future, however, Simonsson hasn't been signed to play reserve grade. He came away with six tries on the wing for the Raiders last year and was a constant threat with the ball.
He will edge out Dunster, who serves as the first back up option, while development player Samuel Loizou won't be a million miles away in the second half of the season.
This will be a case of three going into two thanks to the emergence of Will Penisini.
Penisini - a young gun who is a local junior - got his opportunity to make a first grade debut in Round 19 last year and didn't look back.
He spent a few weeks out aftert that, but played Round 23 and 24, before also playing the Eels' two finals games and impressing at both ends of the park.
His lack of experienced makes picking him something of a risk, but the indisputable talent means he should be in the first-choice 17 for Brad Arthur.
He will be joined by Waqa Blake, who despite previously having ball-handling and defence issues, put together what could have been his best season in the NRL last year.
That leaves Tom Opacic on the outer for now.
The halves are a fairly easy solution to work out for the Eels, although questions over Dylan Brown's form are lingering as we arrive at the new season.
Brown was very up and down in 2021 and put up numbers which simply weren't good enough.
He will be joined by Mitchell Moses though, who was on fire for much of the year on either side of injury. He is once again the key man for the blue and gold.
The starting middle third for the Eels is fairly straightforward. Junior Paulo is an Origin calibre prop and only took his game to another level at the back end of 2021.
His minutes and production went to the next level and he will again be the pack leader for Brad Arthur's side.
He is joined up front by Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who has struggled for consistency at times, but has a new deal and will look to get back to his best in 2021.
The lock is going to be once again Nathan Brown, who, like Campbell-Gillard, hasn't been quite at his best, but will have a point to prove in 2022.
Isaiah Papali'i was used a little in the middle third at the back end of the season, but his best position is clearly on the edge. Even without the Tigers-bound forward, the back-up in the middle is strong, led by Ray Stone and Oregon Kaufusi, with Makahesi Makatoa also in the side. Wiremu Greig, Ky Rodwell and David Hollis are all young props - the latter two having previously represented New South Wales junior teams - and will look to fight for limited minutes throughout the season.
Depth looks strong in the middle for the Eels however.
Reed Mahoney will lead the way at hooker in his final season with the blue and gold.
The former Titan, Panther and Dragon is a solid and serviceable option who could yet fight for a spot on the bench come Round 1, and will play whenever Mahoney - who heads to the Bulldogs in 2023 - can't.
On the edge, the Eels have a tricky question to answer. While Isaiah Papali'i will take one spot without question, the other is up in the air.
With his size and ability to break the line, Ryan Matterson would ordinarily take the other spot, and we will name it that way, but depth needs to be strong given his concussion issues.
It's also difficult to say if that's the way Arthur will go, given Matterson has reportedly not been offered a new deal by Parramatta to keep him at the club beyond the end of 2022.
The first bench spot goes to Ray Stone. While Mitch Rein is a tempting proposition, he can only play the one position. Stone is a lock who has worked out how to fill in at hooker and as such gives the Eels far greater versatility given Mahoney is an 80-minute player - and a good one at that.
With no obvious utility option, it means the Eels can name a full bench of forwards. They could pick Bryce Cartwright, but his ability to play in the halves has diminished greatly, which means there is no real benefit to picking him up ahead of forwards who are superior.
An ability to play on the edge or in the middle, as well as the stop gap centre versatility, means Marata Niukore goes onto the bench as the next selected.
The other two spots go to Shaun Lane and Oregon Kaufusi, who fill the needs of an edge and middle forward respectively. That leaves plenty7 of young talent out of the best 17, including Greig, Rodwell and Hollis, as well as Makatoa and Carwright.
The best 17
1. Clint Gutherson
2. Maika Sivo
3. Will Penisini
4. Waqa Blake
5. Bailey Simonsson
6. Dylan Brown
7. Mitchell Moses
8. Junior Paulo
9. Reed Mahoney
10. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
11. Isaiah Papali'i
12. Ryan Matterson
13. Nathan Brown
Other best 17s
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South Sydney Rabbitohs