This time every year the chatter begins, on TV and radio, in newspapers and online – who is the NRL’s coach of the year?
The general consensus: Dessie has it in the bag, a short half head ahead of Ricky and the consistently magnificent Bellyache. But wait a second, check that photo finish again, who’s that unfashionable nag in the blue and gold colours loping along down the outside?
I’m not here to poo poo the Sea Eagles, Raiders or Storm mentors’ claims to be the 2019 King of the Clipboard. All have done an incredible job and any one of them would be a worthy winner, but I do contend that Brad Arthur has earned a place in the debate.
In 2018, the Eels came last. Stone. Motherless. Trent Barrett was resting easy on his garden furniture, comforting himself in the knowledge that at least his side wasn’t as bad as Parra. I mean, seriously, even the Titans were looking down their noses.
Parramatta has won 12 games so far this year, compared to just six in 2018, and that’s with four rounds yet to play. The -176 points differential of last year has blossomed to +27 in 2019, an improvement by more than 200 points. In terms of sheer numerical improvement year on year, no other side can boast such figures.
I keep hearing people tripping over their platitudes in praise of Des lifting Manly from 15th in 2018 to fifth this year, yet little mention of Arthur lifting the Eels an equal number of rungs up the ladder from 16th to sixth. Why is this?
Look, I get it, Parra hasn’t looked like a top six side this year. They have had some good fortune – meeting a Panthers side reeling from a sex tape scandal in round one, an injury-ravaged Sharks in round four, the Origin-depleted Rabbitohs in round 12, a hopelessly out of form Broncos in round 14, a Warriors side that couldn’t buy a penalty in round 19.
Sure, their consistency has rightly been questioned – failing to score a point in Canberra, spanked by Melbourne during Magic Round, beaten by Penrith at Bankwest in what remains a contender for worst game of the year, carved up by Wade Graham on a cold Saturday night in Cronulla and being an unwilling participant in the Tommy Turbo Show at Brookie.
But strip away how it’s looked and let’s revisit the fact that matters most, Parramatta is sixth on the ladder, with a good gap back to seventh. There are 10 other sides right now who wouldn’t mind being as “inconsistent” as the Eels. So, how did they get there? Look no further than the coaches box.
Somewhere along the line this year, the Eels have learned something that’s very un-Eels-like, they’ve learned some resolve and how to grind out a win. In all of those games I mentioned where the opposition wasn’t at the peak of their powers, Parra won. They didn’t fluff around like the Parra of old, winning a few and letting a few they were expected to win slip through their fingers, they won them all.
More recently, games against a desperate Dragons and Knights; on both occasions, Parra hung tough, managed the closing stages, won the big moments and took home the two points. Who is this side and what have they done with the real Parramatta?
Remember the Eels versus Raiders in Darwin? The Raiders got out to a big lead and were run down. The narrative afterwards was that the Raiders got complacent and lost, right? In hindsight, maybe it was the Eels who got hungry and won? Just a thought.
Yes, Parra has a new rampaging Fijian winger on the left and that ex-Rooster with the wonky nose is more than earning his keep on the right, but between the wings, Brad Arthur’s squad is largely the same as the one that took home the spoon last year. The Eels don’t have any future immortals (Storm), no sets of home grown sibling superstars scheming with a State of Origin captain/halfback to terrorise their opposition (Manly) and no influx of highly talented bruisers from the north of England (Raiders), but they do have a bunch of blokes who have slowly learned to apply themselves, dig in and work as a team.
Quietly going about their work, no fanfare, no headlines, no frills – just like the Eels mentor himself, who is unassumingly compiling one of the coaching performances of the year without many people even noticing.
So come on Zero Tacklers, give it to me, comment away, tell me why I’m wrong and why the editors of this fine website erred in publishing this dross – as long as it gets Brad Arthur into the debate, my work here is done.