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2013 State of Play: Eels

Nigel Wall, NRL.com Thu, Dec 20, 2012 - 2:30 PM
The only way is up for the Eels in 2012 and with the experience of Ricky Stuart at the helm, big things are expected.

Strengths: Ricky Stuart. The new coach will demand a change in attitude from his playing roster – and if he doesn’t get it, he’ll make it happen. Stuart’s credentials when taking over the reins at a club are impressive: he won a premiership in his first year at the Roosters in 2002 and guided the Sharks to the preliminary final in his second year in the Shire in 2008. He has also restored pride to the NSW Blues jersey after a tough period.

Stuart has already moved to bolster his forwards, signing emerging talents Darcy Lussick (prop) and Daniel Harrison (second row) from the Sea Eagles. Lussick in particular will add some mongrel to the pack and his rotation with Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi should ensure the Eels secure a better footing early in games, something they’ve lacked over the past few seasons.

We can see the Eels’ centres making good inroads in 2013 – particularly if Willie Tonga heeds his wake-up call. The Australian representative was basically told to look elsewhere this season but decided to stay put. He has a point to prove now. And fans will have their fingers crossed exciting 20-year-old Jacob Loko can make a successful return from a knee reconstruction that saw him sidelined for the whole of 2012.

Obviously Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow hold the key to Parramatta’s attacking fortunes. Chalk Hayne up for plenty of try assists and line-breaks; they just need him to stay on the park (he ran on just 12 times in 2012). Meanwhile Sandow needs to develop all-round consistency if he’s to justify his big-bucks price tag. Stuart’s just the man to make it happen.

Others set for standout seasons include impressive winger Ken Sio, who was the team’s top try-scorer with 13 in his rookie year, and evasive fullback Jake Mullaney who showed great dash and vision when filling in for Hayne at the back end of the regular rounds.

Weaknesses: Coach Stuart needs to plug the leaks in his side’s defence that saw the Eels finish 2012 as the worst-performed tackling unit. Their downward spiral to their first wooden spoon since 1972 included conceding 30 points or more in 10 games – and 40 points or more on five occasions. They let in the most tries and missed the second-fewest tackles – and that was with (now retired) inspirational leader and workaholic defender Nathan Hindmarsh in the ranks. In particular Stuart must wring out the apathy that saw the gold and blue concede the second-most four-pointers inside their 10-metre line.

The halves could be a sore point just as they were last year. Chris Sandow’s much-vaunted arrival in 2012 largely turned out to be a fizzer, with the diminutive No.7 unable to improve his line defence and remaining a speed hump as oppositions rolled over the top of him (he missed the most tackles by a halfback yet again).

Israel Folau’s back-down to join rugby union rules out Stuart toying with the idea of shifting Jarrod Hayne to five-eighth. While we think Hayne is best left in the No.1 jersey it does shine the light on the problem five-eighth position yet again. Mid-season recruit Luke Kelly did a fair job before injuring his eye socket in Round 19, which paved the way for enigmatic Ben Roberts to rejoin the squad. At his best Roberts is a good attacking option; unfortunately he fails to maintain ‘best’ form more often than not. He can be a streaky defender too. If the Eels are to push for the semi-finals they need stability in the halves.