Pressure Points: Dylan Brown let down his team and himself in 2023 – in 2024, he has to pay it back
2024 was a year to forget for everyone involved with Parramatta, and for Dylan Brown, he only had himself to blame.
His off-field behaviour resulted in a suspension that derailed the team when they most needed senior talent to slip up, and in a season where they ultimately missed out on the Finals by just a single win, it wouldn’t be reductive to say that he cost his teammates the entire season.
Parra went 3-4 over the seven games that he missed, so roughly in line with their season as a whole (they finished with a 12-12 record), and it would have only taken a single victory to move the needle.
In the loss at home to the Warriors, with Clint Gutherson and Mitchell Moses both in Origin, they really could have done with their superstar five eighth. Ryan Matterson started in the 6 that day.
Away in Townsville, they lost by eight points against an eminently beatable Cowboys side, plus there was a defeat in Melbourne, where the Eels won in 2022.
When he played, Brown was generally pretty good.
Remember, he just signed a new deal that runs until 2031 (if he wants it to) and is worth an estimated $1m a season, so we’re not comparing him to just anyone, but he was above Cam Munster for run metres and line breaks and equal with Jarome Luai for creativity, so hardly a bad year.
Anyone who saw his performances for the Kiwis in the Pacific Championship saw how good Brown can be, but the problem for Parra was that, for a crucial part of the season, he wasn’t on the field at all.
Having gone from a Grand Final appearance to missing the playoffs entirely puts real downer on Brad Arthur and his team, but, much like fellow finals missers Souths, the Eels could certainly point to a lot of negative variance that counted against them.
We’ll not include Brown’s suspension in that, given it was entirely his own fault, but they did lose significant gametime to injury from their absolute best players.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard missed ten games, Shaun Lane missed 12 and Josh Hodgson, the big hope at hooker, was done by the end of May. That’s a lot of salary cap on the sidelines.
It was doubled down by Origin: Parra were almost unscathed in Game 1, with only Junior Paulo picked, but for Game 3, Brad Fittler picked Mitch Moses, RCG and Gutho for a dead rubber when the Eels had a must-win against the Warriors.
Throw in that draw, too. They had Penrith, Brisbane, Melbourne and the Roosters twice, plus a start that saw them play the Storm, Sharks, Penrith, the Roosters and a full-strength Manly, plus a finish that went Broncos, Roosters, Penrith.
Oh, and they didn’t get a bye until Round 14 and played everyone just after they’d had their bye. It’s tough being as marketable as Parramatta are. They would kill for the draws that Canberra and Cronulla continually get.
So, then: were they actually any good? Their list of mitigating factors is long and, having been through the pain of 2023, it’s possible that they will come out of it stronger.
Guys like J’maine Hopgood, Wiremu Greig and Brendan Hands are now nailed into the team having been fringe players before this year. Bryce Cartwright had his best season in yonks, if not ever.
The big problem in 2022 (and, when they were both available, 2023) was that Arthur wanted to bash in the front door with his forwards, but would invariably leave them on too long, with Parra often going ahead then getting reeled in.
The meta problem, which is how many metres they concede in the middle, was actually solved – Parra overperformed their ladder position for Run Metres Conceded – but was replaced with a different issue, which is that their edge defence was often shredded.
Their peers in terms of line breaks conceded per game were the Tigers and Dragons, so not a club to be in. Lucky for them, Gutherson was about the best player in the comp for a solid period in the middle of the year and often stopped breaks before they were tries.
The numbers would tell you Arthur’s power game strategy, basically, still worked and actually improved – and that was without its two best exponents always been on the field. If he now has the confidence to rotate Greig through, it could get better.
Brown and Moses are still good, which helps, and the hope will be that the outside back issue that many Eels supporters have noted over several years will now be worked upon.
In attack, Parra were fifth for tries, and sustainably so, with the team also fifth for run metres, line breaks and tackles inside 20m. In short, if they get everyone on the field, they’re a lot better than they played in 2023.
We mentioned in Smart Signings that they desperately need another outside back, which they do, and in all likelihood, adding Morgan Harper probably doesn’t do much in that regard.
Having run the stats, he’s probably not as bad as you think, but that doesn’t really make him a world beater either.
This might be where Parra return to Brown, and where he needs to pay them back big time.
When they were at their best in 2022, it was on the back of second phase play around the middles and Lane, with their wingers set really wide and the halves able to attack at will.
Moses is very set and forget in this regard, because he has two superstrengths in his kick and control plus an exceptional shortside game – perhaps the best in the comp – that almost always results in Brown being tasked with being up around the footy and working the big side of the field.
If the Kiwi is the dominant threat – and on his pay packet, he should be – then it only improves Moses’ ability to work the blind side and Gutherson’s chances of finding a gap.
Parra’s best pattern, generally, is a 70/30 field split – aka one moderately large side, one bigger than usual short side – that gives each half somewhere to play and allows Gutho to work the swing. In that, Hands has all the pressure off him and can just dish, much like Reed Mahoney did.
If the wingers stay maximally wide, then the likes of Ryan Matterson, Lane and Cartwright should have positive one-on-ones to either break through or force offloads, and if the defence don’t bite, then the OBs should be able to get a run on the line.
All of this, of course, hinges on Brown. He is the elite man in the 6 jumper to induce distract from the other guys, get the ball where it needs to be and, yes, go himself. Everyone else falls into place if Brown plays well.
If they are to succeed, it will live or die on what their number 6 does, because the other four big names are so consistent. Brown can be like that too, as long as it’s only his footy that we’re talking about.
Dylan needs to get on the field, make a difference and earn that contract – because he didn’t in 2023.