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Eels must play like title window’s about to shut even though they should be contenders next year

Parramatta’s loss to Penrith last weekend may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as they look to defy the odds with a team that will lose five top-liners in the off-season. 

ICYMI, the Eels haven’t won a premiership since 1986 – the ever-reliable Wikipedia has confirmed this rarely discussed fact – and they are behind the eight-ball following the 27-8 defeat to the Panthers which cruelled their chances of advancing directly to the preliminary finals.

But they now face a situation where they will host a Semi-Final against the lowest-ranked team in the playoffs then a trip to Townsville where they will come up against an opposition which ran second-last in 2021 with the majority of the side getting their first taste of the post-season in this finals series.

Then of course if they clear those two hurdles, they would likely face Penrith again in the Grand Final unless the winner of Saturday’s Sharks vs Rabbitohs semi can upset the premiers.

Parra are indeed capable of knocking off Penrith – the only team to have done so twice this season – no other team left in the playoffs has beaten a full-strength Panthers side in 2022. No, Cowboys fans, Round 25 doesn’t count – you beat their NSW Cup side masquerading as an NRL outfit.

Winning last week would naturally have been better because they’d be straight through to week three and hosting a clash with Cronulla or South Sydney, although they lost their only clash to the Sharks this year and were beaten twice by the Bunnies.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Clinton Gutherson of the Eels makes a break during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

On the other, other hand, they copped a 35-4 flogging from the Cowboys in their only meeting with them this season so there’s clearly no easy path to title glory. At least they’ve got a healthy squad available as long as Mitch Moses passes the concussion protocols, as expected.

The topic of Parramatta’s title window has been a source of ongoing debate all season due to the fact five of their players who will line up against Canberra on Friday night will be elsewhere next season.

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Last year’s Dally M second-rower of the year Isaiah Papali’i (Wests Tigers), fellow forwards Marate Niukore (Warriors) and Oregon Kaufusi (Sharks), hooker Reed Mahoney (Bulldogs) and centre Tom Opacic (Hull KR) will play their last games in the Blue & Gold sometime in the next three weeks.

Eels fans and coach Brad Arthur are still holding out hope that Papali’i will somehow fernagle his way out of his lucrative three-year deal. 

Tigers fans should be worried that yet again this week when asked directly about his playing future, the Kiwi international was non-committal in a Fox League interview, saying he “can’t say anything just now” about his intentions, claiming he wanted to focus solely on the current season. 

Injured forward Ray Stone (Dolphins) is also on the way out while Nathan Brown is under contract for next year but the former NSW forward, who has been overlooked for selection repeatedly in recent weeks, is unlikely to be around after being told he was free to explore his options elsewhere. 

Papali’i, assuming he goes, will be the biggest loss for Parra and Mahoney’s workaholic efforts at dummy-half will be hard to replace. 

But the Eels have the means to replace the departing five – Raiders veteran Josh Hodgson, as long as he is over his ACL tear, will be a decent option at hooker even if it’s just for one year, Panthers recruit J’maine Hopgood could prove a handy pick-up to bolster the pack while the likes of Bailey Simonsson, Bryce Cartwright and Ofahiki Ogden are also capable of filling a role to support Parra’s nucleus of stars.

2022 finals team 2023 team
Clint Gutherson 1 Clint Gutherson
Maika Sivo 2 Maika Sivo
Will Penisini 3 Will Penisini
Tom Opacic 4 Waqa Blake
Waqa Blake 5 Bailey Simonsson
Dylan Brown 6 Dylan Brown
Mitchell Moses 7 Mitchell Moses
Reagan Campbell-Gillard 8 Reagan Campbell-Gillard
Reed Mahoney 9 Josh Hodgson
Junior Paulo 10 Junior Paulo
Shaun Lane 11 Shaun Lane
Isaiah Papali’i 12 J’maine Hopgood
Ryan Matterson 13 Ryan Matterson
Makahesi Makatoa 14 Makahesi Makatoa
Jakob Arthur 15 Jakob Arthur
Oregon Kaufusi 16 Bryce Cartwright
Marata Niukore 17 Ofahiki Ogden

Among the other players under contract for next year are young prop Wiremu Greig, another forward in Knights recruit Jirah Momoisea, veteran back-up hooker Mitch Rein and utility backs Haze Dunster and Sean Russell.

Depending on how many local juniors they upgrade to the senior squad, they will have a few roster slots to fill but despite losing several big-name players, they won’t have much cash to splash with Paulo, RCG, Moses, Gutherson and Matterson chewing up plenty of cap space. 

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Eels players look on after a Panthers try during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The premiership window is not necessarily shutting after this season but it will probably narrow somewhat given the turnover of players.

Irrespective of whether this hypothetical piece of glass is widening, contracting or shattering altogether, the Eels need to have a mentality of now or never. 

Rugby league history is littered with teams that stuck together for several years, making finals more often than not, never getting over the hump and then all of a sudden, coaches and players retire, move on or get moved on and like Keyser Söze, they’re gone just like that.

Balmain fans can tell you all about how they thought they were glory bound in the late 1980s, North Sydney’s long-suffering supporters had similar expectations in the ‘90s while in more recent times, the Broncos thought they were building towards a premiership in 2015 with a tightknit group before having a trophy snatched away with seconds on the clock.

Eels fans thought their squad built around Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and then Jarryd Hayne in the early 2000s was also destined to break the club’s title drought but after 10 trips to the finals in a 13-year span, the only addition to their trophy cabinet was more dust.

Arthur doesn’t need to be reminded about his team’s recent finals shortcomings – they’ve now made the semi-final stage five times in the past six years. 

If they beat the Raiders at CommBank Stadium on Friday night it will be Parra’s first trip to a Preliminary Final since Hayne’s purple patch propelled them from eighth place into the 2009 decider which they lost 23-16 to a salary cap-rorting Storm side. 

It’s wrong to call Arthur’s teams chokers over their recent seasons of post-season exits. 

They were never the frontrunners or even second favourites for the title in each of those campaigns – the closest they’ve come to a choke was in 2020 when they finished third, lost to Melbourne on neutral turf at Suncorp during the pandemic-shortened season before going straight out the back door on home turf in Parramatta with a 38-24 loss to Souths. 

Arthur was asked about whether it was fair to focus on Parra’s poor recent finals record at his midweek media conference on Tuesday afternoon and replied by saying “what’s fair in our game is just what it is”.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“Each year is a different year, each week’s a different week, it’s a different team to the finals last year, we’re playing against a different team. What we can only focus on is we’ve got a real good opportunity at home this week to play some good footy.

“What happened three years ago, what even happened three weeks ago doesn’t matter now. What matters is how we train tonight and it’s going to matter how we turn up ready to go on Friday.”

Arthur thought the Eels defended well last Friday against the Panthers but their attack was “clunky”.

Playing against what he termed an unpredictable team in Canberra, he said they needed to stay in the moment “set to set” to give themselves the best chance of winning, not being nervous about losing.

Arthur said Moses was on track to recover from his concussion in time to play the Raiders while winger Waqa Blake wouldn’t be “hung out to dry on the back of one performance” despite his horror handling effort against Penrith. 

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