After falling short in the grand final last year, many believe that Parramatta’s premiership window has closed following the departures of multiple key players.
Isaiah Papali’i, Reed Mahoney and Marata Niukore headline a long list of players to move on from the Eels, leaving a tough task for Brad Arthur to clean up.
The club have signed some solid players, but it will be a tough ask to climb to a top-four finish once again.
The Sporting News previews the Eels season below – including their best 17, the key to their success and predicted finish for 2023.
EELS TOP 30 SQUAD | EELS OFF-CONTRACT LIST | EELS ROUND 1 PREDICTED TEAM
Josh Hodgson, Jack Murchie, Matt Doorey, J’maine Hopgood, Jirah Momoisea, Daejarn Asi
Reed Mahoney, Isaiah Papali’i, Marata Niukore, Oregon Kaufusi, Tom Opacic, Ray Stone, Hayze Perham
Parramatta have perhaps lost more quality NRL players than any other club heading into the season, with four members of their grand final 17 leaving in the off-season.
While the losses in the forwards will be tough to replace, the Eels still boast a fantastic front-line pack that includes the likes of Junior Paulo, Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson.
The depth in both the middle-forward and edge-forward positions is still rather strong despite the losses they suffered, with players like J’maine Hopgood, Matt Doorey and Jack Murchie all vying for spots in the side, while unheralded players such as Ky Rodwell and Toni Mataele will be knocking on the door.
The major depth issue for the Eels is in the outside backs. Maika Sivo and Will Penisini are locks for the starting backline, while Waqa Blake is an experienced campaigner despite some of his rocks and diamonds moments.
Apart from those three men, there is a lack of quality and experience out wide. Haze Dunster is coming off a serious knee injury, Sean Russell has barely played first grade and Bailey Simonsson will be sidelined for half the year.
Another problem for the Eels is the hooker position. Reed Mahoney and Ray Stone have both left, and while the addition of Josh Hodgson is astute, the only noted back-up to him is Mitch Rein, whose best football is well behind him.
WEAKNESSES: Outside backs/hooker
The overall quality of their forward pack has taken a hit, but the Eels still boast a solid middle and edge rotation. Their backline is crippled with experience and injury, which could make it tough to score points and defend against quality opposition.
While their front-rowers are both rep players and their halves are some of the best in the competition, Ryan Matterson is perhaps the most important man for Parramatta this season.
The 28-year-old enjoyed a strong 2022 campaign playing in the lock-forward role, where his ball-playing and offloading ability gave the Eels a major point of difference in attack.
Matterson is capable of covering both edge and middle, making him a valuable commodity, and his defensive workrate is extremely underrated.
With so many experienced and quality players moving on from the Eels, especially in the forwards, this is a year where Matterson really needs to stand up and build on his role.
After a fantastic 2022 campaign that saw the Eels make the grand final, Brad Arthur will be forced into somewhat of a rebuild following the exit of some key players.
Marata Niukore, Isaiah Papali’i, Reed Mahoney, Oregon Kaufusi and Ray Stone have all moved on from the blue and gold, leaving some major holes in the side’s forward pack.
And that’s exactly where second-rower Toni Mataele could fit into the equation for Parramatta. The 20-year-old local junior had a short stint at Newcastle, before returning to the Eels and recently re-signing until the end of 2025.
Mataele is signed to a development deal for 2023, but there is no reason why he couldn’t receive an upgrade or force his way into the top 17 at some stage during the year.
Rounds 21-26: Cowboys [A], Storm [A], Dragons [H], Broncos [A], Roosters [H], Panthers [A]
Parramatta will start the season with some tough assignments, but it will be their run home that could cause them a major headache come finals time.
In the final six rounds, the Eels will take on four opponents from the top-eight last year, with three of those clashes coming away from home.
In Round 21, the side will take on the Cowboys up in Townsville, before heading down to Melbourne the following week against the Storm.
A slight reprieve against a Dragons side that is expected to struggle will only last one week, with their final three games including two away clashes against Brisbane and Penrith, as well as a match at CommBank Stadium against the highly-fancied Roosters.
Parramatta are going to need to be on their A-game if they are to secure a strong finish to the season with that incredibly tough run-home.
PREDICTED FINISH: 8th
Given the departures of so many fantastic players, coupled with some depth issues and an extremely unfavourable draw, there is very little chance of Parramatta finishing inside the top-four this year.
While they still have enough quality across the park to compete with most sides, it’s hard to believe the Eels will be pushing for a grand final berth like they were able to achieve in 2022.
This season looms as arguably the biggest test of Brad Arthur’s coaching career and Parramatta fans will be hoping he can keep them in the hunt for as long as possible.