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The Parramatta Eels look to continue 2017 where they left off 2016 - winning plenty of footy games.
The NRL 2016: Parramatta played 24, won 13, lost 11. The last time the Eels won more than half their regular season games was 2007. Michael Jennings made his debut that year. Only five members of the current squad were even playing first grade back then. Bevan French was eligible for the under 11s.
In that context, 2016 was a ray of light for Parramatta fans, as the team dominated with their defence and gained a reputation for toughness. Unfortunately the club again missed the finals after having 12 points stripped for salary cap cheating, or at least for being dumb enough to get caught. The club was forced to shed a huge amount of talent early in the year; star signing Kieran Foran realised he would never be Sterlo, Nathan Peats moved to the Gold Coast to be closer to family, and Junior Paulo is now the highest paid amateur rugby union player in the ACT. Ryan Morgan left too, and the Wenty Magpies went on to leak plenty of points down that right edge.
2017 couldn't come quick enough for Parramatta fans. There is new professional management and a new constitution that sidelines all the Leagues Club factional rubbish that has held the footy club back for decades. For the first time the Eels are operating under a modern management structure.
The squad is strong, featuring great defence and good depth, and the club is now allegedly under the salary cap. But there are still questions to be answered this year. Will Corey Norman handle the pressure and responsibility on his shoulders? How will he choose to blow off steam between games? Will Brad Arthur ever hear a question worth answering from a journo? Can Tim Mannah just punch somebody?
Defence. Parramatta have one of the quicker, more hard working forward packs in the NRL. This allows them to get off the line with aggression, jam the runner, and get back in time for the next play. The Eels also have very strong defensive edges, with solid tacklers from sideline to sideline.
In attack, Parramatta are led by Corey Norman, who challenged strongly for the 2016 Dally M, right up until white line fever and a thirst for the highlights reel saw him suspended for the final third of the season. His combination with out-of-nowhere try scoring wizard Bevan French will keep defenders on their heels. And the Parramatta left edge is as lethal as ever.
On top of that, the club has good experience and leadership in the squad, and massive depth everywhere except in the halves. Fortunately, Ma'u, Edwards, Takairangi and Gower offer playmaking ability on the edges. So a backup half only really needs a kicking game.
The only noted general play kicker in the Parramatta top 17 is Norman. He can expect plenty of pressure on the last play of each set. That is, unless he's the one tackled on the fifth.
Apart from that, it's fair to say the Eels have very few weaknesses. Bevan French showed excellent anticipation and composure last year, though he is inexperienced at fullback. Gutherson became a solid first grader, but he lacks experience in the halves. De Gois has enough experience for both of them, but he is no playmaker.
If Corey Norman goes down again (yuk yuk) the Eels will struggle in attack much like they did without him in the Auckland Nines.
Corey Norman has been mentioned plenty already but he is truly key to this team. With better vision than Star Casino security and more fizz than a can of Canadian Club, he will be the lynchpin of Parramatta's attacking and kicking games. Norman followed his breakout 2015 season with an even more impressive 2016. He finally came of age as a footballer, and hopefully this year he will come of age as a grown man. Because the Eels need him.
With the immense depth at the club it is hard to see any rookie getting an opportunity at Parramatta this year. Fogarty might get a run in the halves, and Scott Schulte is a chance on the wing, but neither is a particularly exciting option. It could be that Tepai Moeroa finally has his breakout year and fulfills those glimpses of promise he has already shown. He doesn't turn 22 until the end of the season, and by then he might've played over 70 NRL games. Moeroa has also recently joined the club's leadership group.
Gains | Kirisome Auva'a, Nathan Brown (Rabbitohs), Jamal Fogarty (Burleigh Bears), Josh Hoffman (Titans), George Jennings, Suaia Matagi (Panthers), Jack Morris (Eels NYC), Marata Niukore (Warriors NYC), Frank Pritchard (Hull FC), Jeff Robson (mid-season - Warriors), Will Smith (Panthers), Alex Twal (Eels NYC), Siosaia Vave (Sea Eagles)
Losses | Mitchell Cornish, Michael Gordon (Roosters), Kieran Foran (mid-season - released, Warriors), Tyrell Fuimaono, Luke Kelly (Rabbitohs), Ryan Morgan (mid-season - Storm), Kieran Moss (mid-season - Bradford Bulls), Junior Paulo (mid-season - Raiders), Nathan Peats (mid-season - Titans), Vai Toutai (released), Anthony Watmough (mid-season - retired), Danny Wicks (retired)
1. Bevan French
2. Semi Radradra
3. Michael Jennings
4. Brad Takairangi
5. Josh Hoffman
6. Clint Gutherson
7. Corey Norman
8. Suaia Matagi
9. Isaac De Gois
10. Tim Mannah
11. Manu Ma'u
12. Tepai Moeroa
13. Beau Scott
14. Kaysa Pritchard
15. Kenny Edwards
16. Nathan Brown
17. Frank Pritchard
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