The Parramatta Eels have been knocked out in each of the last three years at the semi-final stage, with the club not only desperate to go further, but now in a critical race against time as their premiership window threatens to slam shut.
2022 could well be the final chance for the blue and gold to find a way to the first Sunday in October, with a number of high-profile key departures set for the end of the year.
Other than a depth shortage in the backline, the Eels look more or less settled coming into the new season, with the recruits of Mitch Rein and Bailey Simonsson both set to add plenty to the team.
That doesn’t mean they come in as favourites though, with Brad Arthur’s team still not finding a way to stay consistent for the entirety of the season yet. That simply has to change in 2022.
Ins: Ofahiki Ogden (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2024), Mitch Rein (Gold Coast Titans, 2022), Bailey Simonsson (Canberra Raiders, 2024), Josh Tuipulotu (2023)
Outs: Blake Ferguson (released), Keegan Hipgrave (retired), Samuel Hughes (released), Joey Lussick (St Helens RLFC), Michael Oldfield (released), Will Smith (Gold Coast Titans)
Star player: Mitchell Moses
It became clear just how important Mitchell Moses is to Parramatta last year when he was injured in the post-Origin period. Picked for Game 3 with the Blues, Moses would then miss a number of club games, with the Eels going on a disastrous losing streak which ultimately cost them a spot in the top four, and a second chance in the finals.
It was a second chance they ultimately didn’t need, with Moses guiding the team past Newcastle, before they come up short against the eventual premiers in a tight affair.
Rising star: Will Penisini
Penisni might have only managed five games last season following a late-year debut, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t locked down a starting spot for 2022.
The star centre has gone past Tom Opacic and Waqa Blake as the first-picked three-quarters at Parramatta, with a superb running game, a strong pass at the line and high rugby league IQ. Watch for Penisini to continue making waves this year.
Most under pressure: Dylan Brown
By his own admission, Brown simply wasn’t good enough in 2021. He struggled to create or have any influence over Parramatta’s attack, with that only seeming to get worse when Moses was injured.
He would finish the season with just a handful of try involvements and very little else to write home about. He might be locked in at Parramatta until 2023, but if the club are going to hit the lofty heights their fans demand of them, Brown will need to be a lot better.
Five matches to watch
Match 1: Round 3, vs Storm, at AAMI Park (Sat, Mar 26, 5:30pm)
Match 2: Round 9, vs Panthers, at BlueBet Stadium (Fri, May 6, 7:55pm)
Match 3: Round 10, vs Roosters, at Suncorp Stadium (Sun, May 15, 4:05pm)
Match 4: Round 11, vs Eels, at CommBank Stadium (Fri, May 20, 7:55pm)
Match 5: Round 22, vs Rabbitohs, at CommBank Stadium (Fri, Aug 12, 7:55pm)
The Eels will be up the top end of the ladder once again, and there when the whips are cracking in September, with the big question really regarding whether they can put it all together in September and go where they haven’t in the past three years.
It will likely come down to just how well Brown and Moses can lead the team, but also how badly they are impacted by their depth shortage in the outside backs, as well as what their forward pack can produce on a consistent basis in big games - of which they will play plenty. Expect the Eels to fight for the top four once again, but a premiership will likely be beyond their means.