2021 Season Review: Parramatta Eels – So close yet so far, again

Eels players celebrating a try. Photo: nrl.com

Parramatta entered 2021 with a huge chip on their shoulder as they looked to avenge their poor finals run from 2020.

The Eels were riding high for the majority of the season, sitting in the top four until round 21 where their poor run of form towards the back-end of the season came back to haunt them.

Parramatta managed to get past Newcastle in week one of the finals, before falling agonisingly short to Penrith by two points in the semi final, in a game that could have gone either way.

The 35-year premiership drought (longest in modern NRL era) has continued for another year, however the Eels have built some strong foundations for a serious run in 2022.

What worked?

For the first 15 rounds of the 2021 season, everything seemed to click for Parramatta on both ends of the field.

Parramatta started the season with an impressive 12-3 record before it all began to fall apart from there.

Defensively the Eels were elite, ranking 4th in points conceded for the year, Parramatta put together yet another strong season in that department.

Their defensive efforts translated to some impressive attacking display, they ranked in top three in line engagements (3rd), possession (T-2nd) and post contact metres (3rd).

The Eels also lead the league in offloads and set completion, the groundwork for these impressive stats was led by the deep forward pack which staked its claim as one of the best packs in the NRL.

In a pack led by Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown, the Eels forwards remained consistent throughout the season and were regularly some of the best players on the field.

A consistent spine of Reed Mahoney, Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown and Clint Gutherson seemed to be the foundations for this strong start and helped lead the others through the high-flying start to the season.

Reagan Campbell-Gillard was a leader of the Eels forward pack this season

What didn’t? 

Whilst Parramatta remained elite defensively, their attack let them down throughout the season.

It seemed for large parts of the season there was no real threat or ‘X-Factor’ when they were close to the opponents line.

They ranked 8th in attack which isn’t bad, however considering the elite attack of everyone else in the Top 8 and the fact that they scored 178 less points than anyone in the top 4, attack is a slight concern.

Another concern for the Eels is the way they rapidly spiraled out of form after the origin period.

After Round 15, they struggled to play as a unit as the poor results continued to pile up, as did the rumours around the future of Brad Arthur, it seemed a distraction all too big for all members of the organisation to handle.

Although Arthur remained consistent with his spine and forwards, he continually changed his backs seemingly by the week.

There were some bright lights including the early form of Tom Opacic and Maika Sivo, Arthur was quick to replace any of the backs at will, leading to constantly changing combinations on both wings.

Who impressed?

The four members in the spine shined for Parramatta in 2021.

Mahoney was arguably the most consistent player in the squad, with 13 try assists and line breaks in 17 appearances.

The incumbent hooker highlighted his elite defensive game with a 96% tackle rate, whilst showing his improving kicking game with 3 forced drop-outs.

Mahoney’s season was heart-breakingly cut short with a pectoral muscle tear on the eve of the NRL finals, his presence was heavily missed in the 9 jersey.

Clint Gutherson added another impressive season to his resume in 2021, the Eels skipper was the heart of their attack with 13 tries, and 20 try assists.

Gutherson’s kick-returns and running game was elite this year, finishing 3rd in run metres whilst leading the league in kick-return metres.

Leading from the back has always been Gutherson’s forte and he yet again showed why he is one of the best with the ball in his hands.

Isaiah Papali’i displayed one of the best comeback seasons in recent memory, becoming arguably the best player for Parramatta in the 2021 season.

Papali’i finished 3rd in post-contact metres and 11th in run metres, for his efforts he was awarded the Ken Thornett Medal as the Eels player of the season.

He was also awarded with the Dally M second-rower of the year in a stellar debut season for Parramatta.  

Finally, Maika Sivo impressed with 17 tries, 81 tackle breaks and 19 line breaks in another stand-out year for the imposing Fijian winger.

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Season highlight 

The season highlight for Parramatta undoubtedly has to be defeating Melbourne twice in 2021.

The first of these victories came in Round 2 with a Maiko Sivo double helping the Eels to a 4-point victory over the reigning premiers.

The second win came on the heels of three brutal losses, where they conceded a combined 122 points.

In the lead up to the game, all the attention was surrounding the Storm as a win against the Eels would set the new record for consecutive games won in the NRL.

With all the odds stacked against them, Parramatta fought hard and handed the Storm their first defeat in 19 matches, a monumental effort considering the circumstances.

These two victories along with the emergence of Isaiah Papali’i stand out as the two major highlights of the season.

Season lowlight 

The biggest season lowlight for Parramatta came when Manly dismantled the ever-strong Eels defence and ran away with a 56-10 win.

A red-hot Tom Trbojveic seemingly toyed with the Eels defence with a try, 4 try assists and 5 tackle breaks.

This loss highlighted the disastrous form post-origin and gave the Eels the harshest of wake-up calls as they prepared for a finals campaign.

Although not self-inflicted, the Reed Mahoney injury was a devastating blow to the Eels already diminishing premiership hopes.

Mahoney hobbled off the field in tears as he realised his season was over, up until that point he had staked his claim as one of the best dummy-halves in the game.

The Eels faithful and players alike knew the magnitude of Mahoney’s injury as they were forced to continue to play without him.

Number one off-season priority?

The number one off-season priority for Parramatta has to be getting some much needed depth in the backline.

With exciting youngsters Haze Dunster and Will Penisini set to become first-grade regulars in 2022, the Eels are in desperate need of some quality backups.

With Brad Arthur not shy of wielding the axe for under-performing backs, it will be crucial for them to gain some much needed experience and quality to fight for the remaining back positions.

Another quality utility player could help the squad out during the origin period, with Gutherson and Mahoney being called up for Origin in 2021 it seems likely they’ll remain in their respective setups for the next couple of years.

Ray Stone was thrown into the deep-end and forced to play hooker with Mahoney’s injury, something that didn’t work and left the Eels lack of depth on full display.

Way to early best 17 for 2022

Final Say

The Eels again put themselves amongst the top six teams of the competition and should be able to do so again next season.

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