Coming Or Going? What To Really Make Of The 2021 Parramatta Eels

The Parramatta Eels backed up a disappointing effort in Round 5 to dismantle the Canberra Raiders 35-10 in Round 6. The win allowed them to avoid what would have been a worrying stumble on their way to a possible fifth-straight season of finals football.

After crunching the numbers following the somewhat surprising result, the Stats Insider Futures Model has elevated the Eels up to a 9.8% chance of winning the 2021 premiership, up from 6.9% a week earlier.

While the 26-12 loss to the St. George-Illawarra Dragons in Round 5 raised some uncomfortable questions around over-achieving across the first month of the season, the model has little doubt about Parramatta's September potential, slotted in as a 92.3% chance of playing finals, and a 54.9% chance of cracking into the Top-4.

We've seen enough out of Brad Arthur's Eels side to be confident that this team will at least feature in finals football, if not present as a smokey premiership chance by the end of Round 25. 

So, how has it all happened?

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's 2021 NRL season projections

The Middle

It starts in the middle for the Eels.

Junior Paulo's 123 metres per game in 2021 is considerably lower than 2020 (155m) and his lowest mark since 2018, but make no mistake, the big prop forward is having a massive impact on this side. His reputation as a ball-carrier and elite ball-playing game for somebody of his size is causing havoc for opposition defences. Teams know he can engage the line and throw the ball out the back to a jockey runner. As teams adjust, Paulo is now starting to hit the lead runner short. 

Reagan Cambell-Gillard can be one of those lead runners when he isn't trucking the ball up for his 147 metres per game. The 27-year-old has been tasked with getting the team up the field and is doing the job so far in 2021. He's not going to break too many tackles (7 in 2021) or release an offload (3). Instead, he's going to lay the foundations and allow the players behind him to provide the attacking flair. 

Nathan Brown, of all players, has become an increasingly large part of the Eels attack. Only Victor Radley has completed more passes (71) than Brown's 66, while no lock forward has engaged the line more than his 31times through six games per Fox Sports Lab. Brown is a destructive runner of the ball. He has built a career around a total disregard for his body and how bashed up it might be after 80 minutes. Now, as the game changes and middle forwards are asked to do more than cart the ball up, the 28-year-old has adjusted and is impacting a match in different ways.

It's helped the Eels run for 1,825 metres per game so far this season (2nd-most in the NRL) and earn 185 tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line. Parramatta are 5th in the NRL in attack scoring 25.2 points per game on the back of that surge up the field.

The Little Men

Dylan Brown hasn't played his best football to start the 2021 NRL season. 

As a young half coming off an excellent 12 months before being asked to shift over to the right side of the field, the 20-year-old has been slow to adjust to the new expectations and changes on the field.

However, the career-best form of Reed Mahoney and Mitchell Moses has allowed Brown to ease into his work without so much pressure.

Mahoney has taken his game to another level to start his third full first-grade season. It looked at one stage like he might be too one-dimensional to take the next step to elite hooker status, but 2 tries, 5 try assists, 5 line-break assists and a career-high 52 running metres per game have him among the best #9's in the NRL at the moment. 

The subtleties around the ruck are dragging in markers and opening things up for the likes of Paulo and Moses around the A and B defenders. His decision making close to the line has produced tries throughout the opening weeks and is becoming a major consideration for opposition defences too. The best sides in the NRL are shrinking the defence in the middle before sending it wide. Mahoney's improved play has allowed Parramatta to do that this season. 

Moses has been a big beneficiary of the improved play out of dummy half. He's not had one of 'those' Moses games yet this season. We'd have normally heard about him being a flat-track bully and failing to fire against top teams in the competition by now. Instead, he has produced two top-tier performances against the Storm in Round 2 and Raiders in Round 6.

The numbers don't do Moses' form justice at the moment. He's without a try, has just 3 try assists, 3 forced dropouts and three offloads along with 62 running metres per game. On paper, he's not having a massive impact. The stats pages don't show is long passes to switch the play or how he's setting up a short side raid. Moses has been asked to "take control" of the side for years, and he's finally doing just that.

It was fair to be sceptical of the Eels before Round 1 kicked off this season. It all looked a little bit stale. However, the jumps Mahoney and Moses have made to start 2021 are a major reason for their rise from 55.7% to make the Top 8 to 92.3%.

The Edges

Clint Gutherson is one of the best-supporting fullbacks in the NRL. 

His 66 supports through six rounds is equal-1st in the competition as he spends the majority of the time his side has the ball sniffing around the ruck and preparing to pounce. However, it's out the back of shape on the edges that he is finding a lot of success. It's an area of his game that has developed over the last 12 months and the Parramatta attack looks a lot better for it. Floating out wide has allowed Gutherson to feature in some of Moses' plans down the short side too. 

Isaiah Papali'i, in particular, has thrived alongside Gutherson as the pair play inside and out on the edges. We're only six games into the season, but Papali'i has wrapped up the 'Buy of the Year' conversation already if we're talking value for money. 

Tackle Breaks
Running Metres per game
2020 (Warriors)

The Kiwi international has been superb and more than filled in for the injured Ryan Matterson over the last month. If anything, Papali'i has played himself into the sort of form that could see him retain his place in the starting side when Matterson returns.

Shaun Lane is certainly under pressure to remain in the 13. Like Dylan Brown, moving over to the other side of the field while forming a partnership with a new centre has made things difficult. Lane hasn't been the destructive edge force he was to start the 2020 season. Still, he's churning out 104 running metres per game to play a positive role in how Parramatta get up the field.

If Matterson can return to the field and recapture his form, Parramatta will play with one of the best second-row rotations in the NRL.

Out Wide

It has been a strange start to the year for Arthur and the outside backs.

For a start, Marata Niukore has been a big part of their plans out wide. Forced into the side in the wake of Waqa Blake's injury, Niukore has been outstanding in his new role to average 128 running metres per game while providing a strong defensive presence on the edge. The 24-year-old has produced a handful of excellent attacking moments too. Most notably, his flick pass out wide to Blake Ferguson against the Sharks in Round 2.

Niukore's flick resulted in one of the five tries Ferguson has scored so far in 2021. A massive turnaround after crossing the line only four times in 20 games throughout 2020. His 178 running metres per game is the second-biggest mark in his 12-year career and a large reason for Parramatta's dominant yardage game. While he has had a few issues under the high-ball, Ferguson starts Parramatta's exit sets exceptionally well when he does catch it.

In contrast, Maika Sivo's opening six rounds of footy have been somewhat underwhelming. He has the numbers with four tries and 137 running metres per game while tackle break and offload numbers track similar to recent seasons. However, he hasn't had the same impact on games to the point Sivo touched the ball just 11 times against the Tigers in Round 4.

Crystal Ball

There is a lot to like about the Parramatta Eels in 2021.

The pack is rolling, Mahoney, Moses and Gutherson are thriving behind it, and the outside backs are starting and finishing sets well.

However, it's the likes of Dylan Brown, Lane, Matterson and, to a lesser extent, Sivo, that provide confidence in the rather positive projections of the Stats Insider Futures Model. Parramatta are performing well and winning games, while four key players from their 2020 season fall short of expectations.

But that has been a common theme for Parramatta in recent years, hasn't it?

Falling short of expectations...

It's easy to get excited about a side sitting at third on the NRL ladder, but we've seen this group stumble towards the final hurdle too often. They could have gone either way before a ball was kicked in 2021. Now, following a promising start and by highlighting the potential for improvement, we begin to reassess Parramatta's expectations.

Right now, a repeat of prior seasons and a straight-sets exit from the finals wouldn't surprise. A few more weeks of this version of Mitchell Moses along with the continued development of Reed Mahoney could however change that.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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