Litmus Test: Are Parramatta The Real Deal?
The Parramatta Eels currently sit at 4th on the NRL ladder with 13 wins through 18 rounds. They've consistently held a spot towards the top of the ladder since Round 3, ending just one round since then outside the Top 4.
By the general numbers, Parramatta's attack ranks 5th in the NRL scoring 27.9 points per game while their 15 points conceded per game is the third-best mark in the competition. They're winning games by an average of 21.1 points and making it look easy at times.
However, if you ask the average footy fan outside of Parramatta about their premiership chances, most will have them a distant 4th behind the Melbourne Storm, Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs. It won't be long before Parramatta's straight-set exit from the finals in 2017, 2019 and 2020 along with a wooden spoon in 2018 is mentioned too.
Take the emotional element away from assessing them in 2021 and the Stats Insider Futures Model's 12.8% to win the premiership also puts the Eels at fourth on the list of potential premiers.
There is no question that their draw so far in 2021 has been on the softer side.
They've only played five games against top six teams: Beating the Storm is always a big scalp and a win over the Roosters set them up nicely after nine rounds. However, the Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs have handled them comfortably since then while Parramatta fell short of beating an injury-hit Penrith.
Parramatta still has a lot to prove. Lucky for them, they have the perfect opportunity to fire up the hype train and ride it into September if they can successfully navigate the next seven rounds. Their remaining draw is the hardest through to the end of Round 25 - and by some distance.
The Eels will play all five of their fellow top-five counterparts between now and Week 1 of the finals. It will either be the perfect preparation and announcement of their premiership intentions, or the doubts of their detractors will be confirmed.
To ensure the former and at least delay the latter, we need to see the best version of the Eels over the next seven rounds.
Winding Up For September
With a prime opportunity against the best teams in the competition to refine their game plan and build some trust in the process under pressure and fatigue, Parramatta needs to stick to what works.
They're one of the best defensive teams in the competition. As we know, defence wins premierships. None of the last 15 premiership winners have finished outside the top five in points conceded per game. 13 of the 15 have been in the top two, but Parramatta are there or thereabouts at third through 18 rounds.
It's in attack that they really need to continue producing, though.
Second in yardage with 1,886 running metres per game, third in tackle breaks at 35 per game and the most prolific offloading team in the NRL with 13.3 per game, the Eels are at their best when they're sticking between the scrum lines and playing on the back of second phase and quick play-the-balls.
That's Nathan Brown ballplaying through the middle. He has excelled in his new role to be completing 11 passes per game in 2021. Only Victor Radley, Jake Trbojevic and Isaah Yeo are throwing more this season. Junior Paulo (6 passes per game) is arguably the best ballplaying prop in rugby league with his ability to take possession on the run, straighten and fire a pass to the chest of a teammate as though he's a halfback.
Just the threat of Paulo being able to play out the back of shape creates opportunities. On this occasion, the defence reacts to the massive Paulo engaging the line by compressing in the middle. As Brandon Wakeham anticipates a pass out the back to Mitchell Moses, Paulo hits Reagan Campbell-Gillard on an overs line.
That ballplaying ability in the middle opens things up for Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown on the edges. They're able to direct the likes of Ryan Matterson, Isaiah Papali'i and Shaun Lane to specific areas of the field and at targets in defence.
Brown, Paulo, Moses and Papali'i linked up to perfection in Round 11 to provide us with the blueprint for Parramatta's attack at its best.
Brown drops Paulo off in the middle to set up a play directed down the left side of the field. It's a setup play. Moses plays early to Papali'i but takes note of how the Sea Eagles centre reacts to the shape - Gutherson is the drawcard. Paulo and Brown again play through the middle and set up at a similar spot on the field. This time, Papali'i changes his line slightly to target the outside shoulder of the Manly defender. With a halfback opposite him and the centre turned out on Gutherson, Papali'i can anticipate a legs tackle and prepare to have his arms free. His offload - a beauty - falls to his fullback who skips over the line to score.
When Parramatta play short and train the edge defence to focus on the lead runner, Gutherson is presented with opportunities out the back of shape. His decision making with the ball this season has come straight off the top shelf for him to already have 15 try assists this season - two short of his career-high.
The features of a 'good' Parramatta attack are all on display again in this one. Brown and Paulo work in concert, Moses plays at the line with Papali'i charging onto the ball, only this time, Gutherson takes it out the back and makes the right pass while drawing the last edge defender.
The best aspects of Parramatta's attack are on full display above. However, how they react to some pressure will be telling.
We've seen the Eels play too sideways at times this season. They run out of patience when success doesn't come through the middle and go searching down the edges too early. The best teams in the competition are finding success out wide, but not before they do the work through the centre-third.
For all of his top tier performances over the last 18 months, Moses is yet to prove that he can consistently take control of a game in the balance and produce with the ball. Dylan Brown, while in decent form, has recorded only one try assist and two line break assists in 13 games this season. Reed Mahoney is in career-best form, but a lot of his good work around the ruck comes after those compressing actions in the middle and quick play-the-balls on the edges.
If Parramatta turn away from their game plan in attack and fall into individual actions in an attempt to spark the side, there isn't a lot to suggest they will be successful.
While Parramatta's 2021 draw and their history playing finals football in recent years has plenty sceptical about their premiership chances, the dominance on display from the Melbourne Storm and the form the Penrith Panthers have produced this season must also be a factor.
This is the best Parramatta has looked since they started to become a consistent top-four side. Unfortunately, that coincides with Melbourne and what could end up being the best performing attack in NRL history along with a Penrith side that has looked unbeatable when healthy.
Still, this is a Preliminary Final-making squad. They've already proven as much on both sides of the ball through 18 rounds. Anything short of a Grand Final qualifier will see the 2021 season considered a failure. It does look like their year will end one win short of the big dance, though.
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