The Parramatta Eels’ premiership window appears as if it is about to slam shut following a trio of exits, with possibly more to come.
For a club who has made the semi-finals in each of the past three years, missing out on the preliminary finals at each occasion has been a major letdown for the club.
Brad Arthur’s side haven’t been able to make that next jump into the final four or onwards to a grand final, and it has reached the point where fans are demanding improvement.
2022 has become that much more important given Reed Mahoney is set to follow Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore out the door. It has all the hallmarks of a premiership window closing, and a failed one at that without a marked improvement in 2022.
In saying that, Parramatta pushed the premiers all the way to the post in the semi-finals of 2021, and it could be argued that had they had a genuine number nine playing the hooking role on that semi-final night, they may well have knocked Penrith out.
The fact of the matter though is that they didn’t, and their mid-season form slump suggests there is still improvement needed in this team wearing blue and gold.
So, if we released the salary cap, abolished contracts and allowed the Eels to steal whichever player they want to, who would it be?
Who would your club steal?
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The Eels’ current squad 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, Sean Russell, Maika Sivo, Ray Stone
Gaps in the best 17
While the Eels made the semi-finals for the third year on the trot, the club struggled to put the pieces together through a post-Origin window slump, and were ultimately knocked out before the final four.
As much as you’d like to think Parramatta’s side is good enough to go further, that’s three years in a row where they haven’t managed the feat, and it’s weighing heavily on the club.
While there are bigger problems on a raw numbers and depth scale, the halves is where this has to start.
Moses came good again in the finals and was instrumental in Parramatta’s victory over the Knights, but the bottom line is that Brown simply hasn’t been up to scratch. He managed just two try assists in 21 games in 2021. If the Eels want to improve, they need an upgrade there.
But if you could only steal one player, it makes it hard to justify going for a player in the halves when they are so desperate for a winger. Blake Ferguson’s exit, along with the experience of Michael Oldfield, has left Haze Dunster and Maika Sivo as the starting wingers in 2022. Sivo hasn’t been at his best for some time, and Dunster is still a youngster, so an upgrade (and addition to depth) could be imperative there.
The forward pack, on paper at least, is very strong. Reed Mahoney is first picked, Nathan Brown is excellent and both Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard are, or will be, in the mix for representative football in 2022.
Isaiah Papali’i won the second-rower of the year award at the Dally M Medal, while Shaun Lane has potential, but is probably better suited to coming off the bench - although you could argue that either Ryan Matterson or Marata Niukore should be starting. The Eels’ depth in the forwards is outstanding, and certainly not their area of contention.
So it’s halves or winger for the Eels.
The candidates to steal
Taking the South Sydney Rabbitohs all the way to the grand final, Walker put together a season that in any other year would have been the best individual one by a country mile - unfortunately he was beaten by Tom Trbojevic and Nathan Cleary.
But that doesn't take away from what he did for the Rabbitohs, breaking every assist record known to this sport.
He was the instrumental weapon on the left edge who led the Rabbitohs to an average of well over 30 points per game, and while Adam Reynolds has left the club, he will likely continue that in 2022.
From Parramatta's point of view, this works perfectly. Walker plays the left edge, Moses plays the right, and would take all pressure off Moses to do anything on the other side of the field given the abilities on both the running and kicking front he brings.
Hughes' running game was electric at times, and playing in an unstoppable Storm time who put on 40 points more often than they didn't, he was the star of the show.
Sure, he was playing off an unreal forward, and had the likes of Nicho Hynes, Brandon Smith and Ryan Papenhuyzen around him, but Hughes was in the right spot every time, and more importantly, defended quite strongly.
It's little wonder the race for his signature is already reportedly heating up despite the fact he can't negotiate with anyone until next November.
Option 3: Brian To’o (Penrith Panthers)
The Penrith winger was one of the most important players in his team this season.
It's hard to justify a winger being the most important player for the premiers, but in the case of To'o, he is right up there alongside the likes of Nathan Cleary and Apisai Koroisau, who will join the Wests Tigers in 2023.
He may not have led the competition for tries, but the most important metric for wingers is metres, post-contact metres, and how well you can start sets.
There was no one better in that regard than To'o.
His defence, just quietly, was excellent out wide too.
All Run Metres
Option 4: Alex Johnston (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
What Johnston loses to To'o in terms of metres and yard gainage is made up for in raw try-scoring. Sure, you could put a lof to that down to the likes of Cody Walker playing in the same team, but it's not a fluke that Johnston went nuts on the try-scoring front.
He has done it for his entire career.
In fact, you'd go as far as to say it's hard to remember a time when Johnston wasn't scoring tries for fun. He is excellent on that front, and there are few players you'd want finishing plays on the wing ahead of him.
All Run Metres
It’s fairly clear Walker is the best candidate here. As much as the Eels desperately need depth in their wing options, Dunster is a chance to become something this season with a solid run on the wing.
A winger, in this instance, isn’t going to be the difference between winning a competition and not doing so.
If they could steal anyone, Cody Walker is the ideal option. He would pair up with Moses brilliantly, running on the left edge and creating all sorts of havoc, while his play off players like Gutherson and Papali’i would be quite something to watch.
Next up, we check out the premiers, the Penrith Panthers.