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The Parramatta Eels are on the verge of their first consecutive top four finish since 1999. Poupou Escobar previews their 2018 campaign.
The Eels surprised everyone but themselves in 2017, finishing in the top four after seven straight years in the bottom eight. A four-game losing streak early in the year had fans reaching for the razor blades, but the Eels recovered to grind out some results, staying in touch with the top eight.
The midyear acquisition of Mitchell Moses transformed the team and they closed out the regular season winning 11 of 14 games. They were unlucky to face the eventual grand finalists in successive finals matches, and the team's lack of big game experience was exposed.
The 2018 season sees largely the same squad that finished 2017, albeit with the massive loss of Semi Radradra possibly offset by Jarryd Hayne returning to the club. Kane Evans and Tony Williams (another returnee) boost a forward pack that nearly always ceded size to its opponents.
All this predicts another finish inside or near to the top four, with a well-balanced team, great depth, and increased finals experience. More than that, the competition is wide open this year. Why not Zoidberg?
This club is strong defensively across the park, with loads of attacking talent on the edges. Norman and Moses are quality general play kickers. But where the Eels are truly exceptional is in their squad depth.
Twenty-seven members of the (so far, 28-man) squad have played first grade, and only four have played fewer than 30 NRL games (Bevan French is on 29). Brad Arthur seems to subscribe to the philosophy that your worst player is as influential as your best, and the key to winning is to make sure you have 17 first graders in the team each week.
The Eels still lack big game experience, although they have a damn sight more than they did this time last year. Going into 2017, Parramatta had a combined 68 games worth of finals and Origin experience, with 20 of those (Robson and Frank Pritchard) not appearing in the finals campaign.
At the start of the 2018 season, Parra has almost double the finals-plus-Origin experience (133 games), largely thanks to the addition of Hayne (32 games), and the 34 extra games experience picked up by the squad (minus two games for the departing Radradra). By comparison, the two best teams in the 2017 finals series - Melbourne and the Cowboys - featured 306 games and 249 games, respectively. The composure of both these teams was a feature of their finals performances.
Parramatta is an extremely well balanced, almost egalitarian team, but like any team it still has members more valuable than others. It's safe to say the Eels would remain competitive after the loss of any given player. But as shown last year when they only had one legitimate kicker right up until June, carrying a manufactured half means you only have half a kicking game. For this reason, Norman and Moses are Parramatta's least dispensable players. Comparing their form last year, Moses just shades Corey Norman as the key player in this team.
The only player in the NRL squad who hasn't made his NRL debut is Marata Niukore, so it will probably be him. But the Eels have so much depth it's possible there will be no rookie debut, for a second straight year; 2017 marked the first year Parramatta hasn't awarded the Eric Grothe Snr NRL Rookie of the Year award. Is Niukore ready for first grade? We will probably find out in 2018.
Gains | Nathan Davis (mid-season 2017 - Titans), Kane Evans (Roosters), Jarryd Hayne (Titans), Mitchell Moses (mid-season - Wests Tigers), Jaeman Salmon & Tony Williams (Cronulla Sharks)
Promoted from 2017 Holden Cup squad: Dane Aukafolau, Greg Leleisiuao, Reed Mahoney, Ray Stone
Losses | Isaac De Gois, Frank Pritchard, Jeff Robson (retirement), Bureta Faraimo (mid-season 2017 - Warriors), Jamal Fogarty (mid-season 2017 - Titans), John Folau, Rory O'Brien, Jack Morris, Cody Nelson, Scott Schulte, Joseph Ualesi, Matthew Woods (released), James Hasson (mid-season 2017 - Salford), Semi Radradra (rugby union), Kelepi Tanginoa (mid-season 2017 - Sea Eagles), Alex Twal (mid-season 2017 - Wests Tigers)