Round 1 Predicted Teams – Eels: Another fine mess as Matterson banned three games after appeal denied
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2023, the Eels are again expected to be contenders to break the competition’s longest title drought.
After making the Grand Final for the first time in 13 years, Parramatta should be on the verge of going all the way but the exodus of several key forwards has cast doubt over their credentials.
Eels coach Brad Arthur maintained all the way through last season’s run to the premiership decider that they expected to remain title contenders in 2023 and judging by the squad they’ve assembled, they can’t be written off.
The rise of Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown into an elite halves pairing gives the Eels one of the best playmaking duos in the NRL while they have size and strength in the forwards as well as pace and creativity out wide.
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Their western Sydney rivals Penrith remain the team to beat but Parra should be a top-four side unless injuries strike.
Parra’s bid to start the season with a bang has hit a snag after star forward Ryan Matterson will be forced to sit out the first three games after Parramatta failed in their bid to have his suspension changed to a fine.
Matterson drew controversy last October when he opted to take a three-game ban for a crusher tackle on Dylan Edwards in the Eels’ grand final loss, rather than cough up a $4000 fine.
At the time, the NSW State of Origin backrower claimed the fine was too “hefty”, and hit out at the NRL for regularly changing rules and leaving players out of pocket.
Matterson, however, had a change of heart in November and appealed to the NRL’s judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew to revert the sanction to a fine.
The Eels were told there was no process available through the judiciary to change Matterson’s sanction, with any plea or decision considered final. Parramatta are believed to have subsequently made applications to the NRL hierarchy to have the decision overturned, but were again told there was no mechanism available for the change.
Signing veteran Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson could be a very astute decision if he plays anywhere near his best. But after an ACL tear on the back of a series of other injuries in recent seasons, he could struggle to recapture his peak form or stay on the park.
The Eels have bolstered their pack with a few younger players who have shown promise but have not been able to cement regular starting spots elsewhere in J’maine Hopgood (Panthers), Jirah Momoisea (Knights), Jack Murchie (Warriors) and Matt Doorey (Bulldogs).
There are four main players who will be missed, starting with fringe Maroons hooker Reed Mahoney, who has taken up a lucrative deal at the Bulldogs.
Marata Niukore (Warriors), Isaiah Papali’i (Wests Tigers) and Oregon Kaufusi (Sharks) were integral members of the pack that challenged Penrith for the title.
Ray Stone, who missed most of the season after knee surgery, has headed north to the Dolphins, centre Tom Opacic was nabbed by Hull KR while utility back Hayze Perham is now a Bulldog.
Key spots to unlock
Ryan Matterson, after initially accepting a three-game ban instead of a fine, has failed to reverse that decision at the judiciary and he will sit out matches against Melbourne, Cronulla and Manly.
After being told he could sign elsewhere in 2023, Nathan Brown could end up starting at lock in Round 1 but Hopgood has impressed the Eels in his first pre-season at the club to emerge as the favourite to replace Matterson when Parra open the season on March 2 against Melbourne.
Replacing Papali’i on the right edge is another spot up for grabs with Doorey and Bryce Cartwright the main contenders.
Opacic’s departure means Waqa Blake will get a crack at centre and with Bailey Simonsson nursing the knee injury suffered on Grand Final night, Sean Russell or Haze Dunster (on the comeback trail from his own knee injury) will be on the wing.
The club is yet to confirm speculation that Brown and Blake are struggling to be fit for the start of the season due to pre-season training injuries.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Clint Gutherson
2 Maika Sivo
3 Waqa Blake
4 Will Penisini
5 Sean Russell
6 Dylan Brown
7 Mitchell Moses
8 Reagan Campbell-Gillard
9 Josh Hodgson
10 Junior Paulo
11 Shaun Lane
12 Matt Doorey
13 J’maine Hopgood
14 Jakob Arthur
15 Makahesi Makatoa
16 Nathan Brown
17 Bryce Cartwright
Other squad members: Ryan Matterson (suspended), Haze Dunster, Jack Murchie, Jirah Momoisea, Ky Rodwell, Mitch Rein, Ofahiki Ogden, Samuel Loizou, Wiremu Greig.