NRL Rd 18 - Panthers v Eels
PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Clinton Gutherson of the Eels looks on during the round 18 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at Panthers Stadium on September 11, 2020 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

November 1st is one of the most important days in the rugby league calendar.

It is the day recruiters and player agents have circled months and months in advance as off-contract players for the following season become fair game.

For most sides, it's a date to look forward to. Unfortunately, though for one club, November 1st, 2021 was a time they were hoping would never arrive.

That club? The Parramatta Eels.

As soon as the clock struck 12 midnight on the first day of November, literally millions upon millions of dollars of talent came off-contract.

Talent that Brad Arthur, his coaches and those responsible for salary cap management need to navigate if they're going to keep the nucleus of this side together.

Current off-contract players for the blue and gold include: Clint Gutherson, Junior Paulo, Reed Mahoney, Isaiah Papali'i and Ryan Matterson.

They're already lost Marata Niukore.

Unfortunately for the Eels, Junior Paulo, Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney are all managed by Sam Ayoub, whose major negotiation tactic is to make contract discussions as public as possible.

We've seen photos of Mahoney, who had a marvellous 2021 season prior to a season-ending injury, dining with the Bulldogs "leak" to the media.

Further complicating efforts to retain the aforementioned stars is the fact that come November 1, 2022 the Eels will see Dylan Brown, Maika Sivo and Nathan Brown come off-contract.

Any decisions made re the current crop of off-contract players will have to be made with one eye on the fact that Dylan Brown will potentially command closer to a million dollars a season than not.

We've already seen club captain and rusted on Eels superstar "King" Gutho paraded around through the media while being linked to multiple clubs.

I simply cannot see Gutherson run out for another club following making the former Bankwest Stadium his own. That dance simply does not look right in a jersey sans the famous Eel logo.

That said, the sticking point of an extra year (The Eels have reportedly offered two, Gutherson wants three) looks as though it stands between now and what I would have previously seen as the inevitable; Gutherson re-signing.

At only 27 years of age and given his importance to the club on and off the field, I cannot believe that a third-year could possibly be the reason for any holdup.

Surely the Eels relent and re-sign their captain. Especially with the Dolphins lurking.

Losing Gutherson (who truthfully I just can't see leaving) would send a massively negative message to the Eels faithful, as well as the remaining off-contract stars.

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Isaiah Papali'i shocked the entire NRL community in two ways in 2021. Firstly by becoming one of the game's elite forwards and secondly by testing his value on the market after the Eels took a punt.

Having now signed for the Tigers, pressuring is mounting on the Eels to re-sign the likes of Matterson, Mahoney and Paulo, it does not look so simple.

Salary cap limitations suggest that the club will lose one, and with Reagan Campbell-Gillard having just secured a monster contract extension, Paulo looks the odd man out.

Papali'i showed he is equally at home in the front row so it looks as though Paulo, himself gunning for a career-best contract given his age and worth, may be squeezed out.

The Dolphins are reportedly in talks while the Sharks look a superstar prop short of doing some serious damage. You have to believe, especially with Andrew Fifita's $800,000 coming off the books next season that Craig Fitzgibbon would have been in Paulo's ear.

Ryan Matterson has shown in his career that he is more than willing to back himself.

He left a premiership-winning team to play for the Tigers, chasing a pay upgrade and regular first 13 footy.

He was by far and away the Tigers best prior to forcing a move across Sydney to the Eels where he has again pressed his claim for a maiden Origin spot.

If the Dolphins have been in contact with Matterson and his management yet, I would be absolutely shocked.

The big fish though looks as though it may come in the form of 175 centimetre hooker Reed Mahoney.

His performances in 2021 saw his stocks rise exponentially. He was on the cusp of Origin selection until the Maroons made the error of going with the underdone Harry Grant.

Only injury ruled him out of hooker of the year honours in the Dally M team of the year.

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We've already seen his very public meeting with the Bulldogs, although I strongly suspect that was a ploy and ultimately he will remain with the Eels.

It's not ideal to have two of your starting spine off-contract, with a third being able to speak to other clubs next season.

Truthfully I don't understand the delay. The Eels need to prioritise Mahoney and Gutherson's re-signings and then make their decisions up front.

If they aren't quick, there are literally a line of clubs at each player agent's door. Once again, the Dolphins loom large over each and every single off-contract star.