Flawed signings strategy puts Eels on slippery slope

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The Eels are under fire for supposedly lowballing their off-contract stars but their problem is not offering too little, it’s the fact they’re targeting the wrong players to re-sign.

Parramatta are paying the price for having too many above-average players who have caught the eye of rival CEOs, which can happen to any successful team.

But questions have to be asked not about whether the Eels are splashing enough cash but who they’re making their retention priorities.

They re-signed Mitchell Moses in May until the end of 2024 – that’s a no-brainer.

He’s their playmaker, a fringe Origin representative who has now made his debut for NSW and his growth since leaving the Tigers four years ago has finally ended the constant stream of halfbacks occupying the famous No.7 jersey which is still seen as the possession of Peter Sterling even though it’s roughly three decades since it was last draped over his shoulderpads.

And as much as the Parramatta fan-base has a love-hate-love affair with captain Clinton Gutherson, his recent extension until the end of 2025 will be worth its weight in blue and gold.

He’s the team’s leader on and off the field – if some of his teammates put in as much as he does to the point of exhaustion every week, they would have gone a lot closer to breaking their 35-year premiership drought in recent seasons.

Of the rest of their squad, Maika Sivo is one of the few other elite players in his position – the Fijian, who is in the top echelon of NRL wingers, is contracted next season with an option for 2023.

Maika Sivo gives the thumbs up

Maika Sivo (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Parra adopted an egalitarian approach to their squad construction over the past few years – it’s rare a team wins the title unless they have at least two or three standout representative stars and the Eels are starting to feel the pinch.

They have come up short in the finals and the agents of their fringe representative players are looking to get full market value.

With a new shark in the waters in the form of the Dolphins, it’s a bad time to be trying to re-sign a large portion of your payroll.

There are probably five other players that Parra should have made a ‘no matter what, we’ve got to keep this guy’ guy – Reed Mahoney, Marate Niukore, Isaiah Papali’i, Ryan Matterson and Dylan Brown.

The first three have already signed elsewhere for 2023 while Matterson and Brown can leave at the end of next year.

The Eels refused to pay what they view is overs for Mahoney, Niukore and Papali’i but the fact of the matter is whatever number they ascribe to each player will become irrelevant if teams like the Bulldogs, Warriors and Tigers respectively weigh in with more lucrative figures.

These three players were consistently among Parra’s best last season – they were all in need of major upgrades and the Eels should have found the money for them even if it meant saying farewell to higher-profile stars like props Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Nathan Brown and Junior Paulo.

RCG has agreed to a new deal which will keep him at the club for four more seasons, Brown did likewise for an extra two years while Paulo is able to negotiate anywhere for 2023 and is looking for a lengthy new contract from Parra.

They’re all still very good players but they’re 28, entering a veteran period in which some middle forwards can maintain their output as they enter their 30s or their form can quickly drop off a cliff and become an albatross contract.

Brad Arthur is putting on a brave face in light of the recent losses of Mahoney, Niukore and Papali’i, saying the Eels have elite young talent ready to shine in Will Penisini, Jock Brazel, Larry Muagututia, Sean Russell and Blaize Talagi.

Every club says they have a promising crop of juniors coming through and it’s about time the Eels delivered on that front with a home-grown star or three, given their massive nursery in Sydney’s west.

This all adds up to a crucial campaign on the horizon for Arthur, who has re-signed until the end of 2024, and his team.

Eels head coach Brad Arthur

How far can Arthur take the Eels in 2022? (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

With so many players sorting out their contracts or in the final year of their deals before heading elsewhere, it could be Parra’s best chance in a while to finally get footy fans to stop bringing up the 1986 end of their golden era.

What’s new
Not a lot, as in no NRL standard recruits but they will give some of their young guns more game time, particularly centre Will Penisini. Veteran winger Blake Ferguson is trying his hand at rugby, utility Will Smith has joined the Titans and Keegan Hipgrave has been forced into retirement due to concussions, which will weaken the experience level among their depth.

Star on the rise
Will Penisini is only 19 and has just five NRL appearances under his belt but he’s seen as the Eels’ best long-term centre prospect in many years, filling the vacancy from Michael Jennings’s abrupt end to his career late last year due to a drugs suspension.

Who’s under the pump
Ryan Matterson’s elevation into the NSW ranks has been stymied by head knocks the past couple of seasons but there is also angst surrounding his commitment to the club long term following the surprising decision to omit him on form in the first week of the 2021 finals.

He needs a big year and to sign on the dotted line to convince the blue and gold faithful that he’s not going to think the grass is greener elsewhere along the lines of his controversial Wests Tigers exit.

Best-case scenario
Even if all the cards fall their way, it’s hard to see this team lifting the premiership trophy in 2022. Parra don’t seem to have the player with wow factor like they did the last time they made a grand final a dozen years ago. A top-four berth is a possibility but may be the ceiling on their capabilities.

Worst-case scenario
The Eels could slip and slide out of the finals equation relatively quickly if their recruitment issues continue to be a distraction and any of their impending departees try to get a mid-season switch to their next club.

Round 1 predicted team

1. Clint Gutherson
2. Maika Sivo
3. Will Penisini
4. Waqa Blake
5. Haze Dunster
6. Dylan Brown
7. Mitchell Moses
8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard
9. Reed Mahoney
10. Junior Paulo
11. Shaun Lane
12. Ryan Matterson
13. Nathan Brown
14. Isaiah Papali’i
15. Ray Stone
16. Oregon Kaufusi
17. Bryce Cartwright

Others: Marata Niukore (suspended until Round 2), Jakob Arthur, Wiremu Greig, David Hollis, Makahesi Makatoa, Solomone Naiduki, Tom Opacic, Hayze Perham, Sean Russell.

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