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Eels 2021 season preview: Finals frontier next on agenda

Was 2020 a success or a failure for the Parramatta Eels?

For a club that collected the wooden spoon in 2018, you'd take a third-place finish and second-week finals exit. For a club that had already made it to the second week of the finals in 2019 and looked to be on an upward trajectory, it's a little disappointing.

It was a strange year for the Eels, who looked near-on unstoppable in the first nine rounds before hitting a wall. They mostly continued to scrape together wins thereafter but in less convincing fashion as the points and dominant running game evaporated.

By the time the finals hit they were ripe for the picking as eventual premiers Melbourne and the late-surging Bunnies (putting 38 on the blue-and-golds for the second time in six weeks) dismissed them in straight sets.

The club was blessed with a minimal injury toll and one of the gentlest draws in the NRL and while they were able to take advantage of that through the regular season, an ongoing struggle to match the best teams in the big games is cause for concern.

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The 2021 outlook

What's new

The Eels have undergone one of their biggest roster overhauls in recent memory, with 11 of last year's top 30 departing. But despite the mass changes, the differences in the club's best 17 will be minimal. Were it not for a provisional suspension for centre Michael Jennings over a drugs breach, there may not be any.

Promising ex-Warrior Isaiah Papali'i should play plenty of first grade this year while coach Brad Arthur will be hoping to get former Titans back-rower Bryce Cartwright's output to match his obvious ability. Michael Oldfield or Tom Opacic will slot into the vacant centre spot.

Joey Lussick provides back-up to Reed Mahoney and another ex-Titan in Keegan Hipgrave will jostle with Cartwright for chances on an edge.

The draw

Tough but fair is probably an apt summation of the Eels' run in 2021. They get double match-ups against all the best teams from 2020 but overall have a very low travel burden and the only time they're out of Sydney on successive weekends is for their own home game in Darwin.

There are no five-day turnarounds either. They have a very tough final seven weeks leading into the finals including both 2020 grand final teams in the final two weeks, so will be battle-hardened for the playoffs if they get there.

The burning question

Can Brad Arthur unlock the mystery to beating the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Panthers at the business end of the year?

Despite sitting in first for half the season and finishing third, the Eels barely fired a shot at the business end against the best teams, for the second year running. It was a similar story in their previous finals campaign in 2017.

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That is the key for this side - taking the next step from being a team that consistently contends finals series and one that is a serious chance of pushing through those finals.

The stat that gives you hope

The Eels just need to figure out what they were doing so well in the first half of 2020 and bottle it.

On the face of it, it boiled down to controlling possession and running like men possessed; the Eels made far more metres per week than any other side in that imposing nine-game run that had them sitting pretty atop the ladder mid-last year.

Through those nine games Parra ran for an astonishing 1943 metres per week – averaging 360 metres per game more than their opposition. If they can bottle that they'll start 2021 on the right foot.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

Ryan Matterson ($807k) is one of the few elite scorers in the new edge forward position, while Mitchell Moses ($766k) is among the top few Fantasy halves.

Nathan Brown ($734k) is a cut-price keeper in the middle forwards while Blake Ferguson ($393k) looks good value after scoring a career-low four tries last season.

The Eels' 2020 season review

Contract matters

Despite the large roster refresh, there are a ton of off-contract players this year with most of the new names signed on one-year deals including Cartwright, Oldfield, Opacic, Lussick and Hipgrave (who has a club option for a second).

Blockbusting wingers Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo are off contract with the former appearing unlikely to be extended and Sivo needing a big year. Origin forward Nathan Brown is also currently unsigned.

Breakout player to watch

Haze Dunster

Made his NRL debut in unusual circumstances: in a semi-final, the club's biggest game of the year, because two outside backs were injured the week before then a centre failed a game-day drugs test.

The New Zealand-born flyer acquitted himself well and should get a chance on the wing or even at centre as the season progresses.

The quote

"It's probably one of the biggest turnovers I've seen in a long time at this club. It's good for us, it freshens it up, we've got a lot of young kids coming in who are energetic and ready to learn. It makes us older guys look at that and it makes training fun."

-Eels skipper Clint Gutherson on the 11 changes to the top 30 roster this year.

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The good, the bad, the likely

The good: Based on the first half of the Eels' 2020 season, you'd have to say their premiership window is at least somewhat ajar. They may not be favourites, but best case scenario this year is a title.

The bad: Well, we saw the club fall off a cliff after making the finals in 2017 to come last a year later. They had a favourable run last year with their draw and injuries and are still working on developing the mental toughness and consistency the top teams display. You'd have to say there's too much talent in this side to flirt with another spoon but worst case is a drop out of the top out.

The likely: The most likely outcome for the Eels is something similar to last year – enough wins to be assured of a spot in the top eight but without the firepower to truly threaten for a title. We have them landing anywhere between third and eighth.

Eels in 2021

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