The Parramatta Eels have been a team with so much promise over the last handful of years, but have fallen short at every hurdle come September.
Whether it has been the Melbourne Storm or Penrith Panthers, they seemingly never get the timing of their season anywhere near right and run out of steam come the pointy end when knockout football begins.
Their recent finals record reads a second-week finals bomb out to the Panthers in 2021, the same to the Rabbitohs at home in 2020 and another against the Storm in 2019.
While they came close to extending their season in a tight tussle with Penrith last season, it was ultimately another exit which fell short of fans expectations.
With Reed Mahoney and Isaiah Papali’i among those set to exit the club at the end of 2022, and the pressure seemingly still on Brad Arthur, the question has to be asked about just how long their premiership window will be open for following this year.
That only mounts more pressure on the key personnel with the club, most notably Arthur who got a contract extension, but it realistically may not be worth much if the Eels can’t find a way to go further through the finals this time around.
A team with the likes of Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses, Mahoney, Papali’i, Junior Paulo and some powerful backs should be good enough to be challenging for the competition, and yet, over the last three years, save for some brief periods where the blue and gold have gone on serious runs through the middle of the season, they haven’t looked all that close.
This must be the year, but there is plenty still that’ll need to go right for the Eels if they are going to get anywhere near a drought-breaking premiership.
Here are the burning questions which will ultimately define season 2022 for the men from Parramatta.
Can Mitchell Moses find consistency?
Mitchell Moses can hardly be blamed for the Eels early exits in the finals for three years on the hop, and if anything, he was among their best players at the pointy end of 2021.
His performance against the Newcastle Knights in the elimination final on the first Sunday of the finals, in particular, was outstanding.
But that doesn’t mean he is completely free of blame.
Injuries hurt him in 2021 after State of Origin, but for all of the last three years, he has been slightly below the top tier of halves. Players like Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker who simply refused to ever drop their level, even for a single match.
Moses has done that to the Eels at times over the last three seasons, and if he is going to stand up and call himself one of the best halves in the game, it has to stop in 2022.
Of course, he could be helped along if Dylan Brown finds some of his own form and consistency, but Moses is the big-money player and with that comes a certain level of expectation.
Can Brad Arthur get his team firing at the right time?
There are a multitude of reasons the Eels haven’t been able to find their way in September, but peaking too early has certainly played a big part in it.
Take 2021 for example, where the Eels won nine of their first ten before hitting the skids through the middle of the season. So bad was it at one point that there was genuine danger of the club falling outside of the top six and being in a scrap to make the finals.
It never came to that, but it’s not the first time the Eels have fallen away after a strong start or big run of form through the middle of the season.
The Eels simply put don’t appear to have tried a whole lot different to taper their run and form to ensure they peak at the right end of the season.
Something needs to change in 2022. Whether that’s players being rested around the Origin period, or a slightly different approach to the early rounds, Parramatta fans won’t want to see their team doing similar to the last few years.
Will Reed Mahoney stay fit?
Parramatta fans will argue they could have gone further in last year’s finals series if Reed Mahoney had of been fit - and to be fair, they had a pretty good point.
Mahoney is undoubtedly one of the best number nine’s in the competition.
He consistently churns out good performances at both ends of the park and took his game to another level during the 2021 season, particularly in attack.
The fact he missed the final weeks of the regular season and then September’s knockout games cost the Eels, and while Ray Stone did a solid job of filling in, it hurt in that loss to Penrith.
Mahoney had two injuries last year, both of them particularly untimely around Origin and the finals.
If he can stay fit though, the Eels could be a different beast in what will be his final year with the club before linking up with the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Can Junior Paulo find support in the middle?
Junior Paulo is a certified Origin starting-calibre player, and only solidified that reputation when he regularly churned out more than 60 minutes in the final weeks of the 2021 season.
His performances went to a whole new level, and while it can’t be expected that sort of effort will continue on a week-to-week basis for six months, he will continue to lead the blue and gold forward pack.
The problem seemed to be a lack of support in the middle of the park.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard struggled to find his best touch, while Nathan Brown was many miles from his best. It got to the point where bench toiler Ray Stone was potentially the most reliable option for Parramatta alongside Paulo.
That can’t be allowed to happen again if Arthur’s side want to compete.
Do the Eels have enough depth in the outside backs?
They were already somewhat thin on the ground before letting go of Blake Ferguson and Michael Oldfield. Add that to the mixed form of Maika Sivo and Waqa Blake, and the problems are immediately visible.
Bailey Simonsson from the Raiders will be a superb in, while the emergence of Will Penisini could be one of the stories to watch this year. Haze Dunster too will continue to push for minutes in first-grade.
But that doesn’t mean the depth is there if form or injury problems hit the club on the wings and in the centres.
The short answer to this question is no, and they will need a lot to go perfectly.