Brad and Bennett: Why Friday’s clash with the Dolphins might be a tipping point for Arthur and the Eels


Friday night’s clash between Parramatta and the Dolphins is likely to be a hot one – and not just because the game is being held in the Northern Territory.

It sees Brad Arthur meet Wayne Bennett, the man who many are tipping to replace him, at a time when his side are somewhat bumbling along.

Bumbling is fine – the Eels are 3-3 – but not when you’re over a decade into your role at a club that has invested significantly in top line talent to help break a multi-decade Premiership drought.

Throw in that the most obvious replacement, a guy who only really deals in Premierships in the here and now, is sat down the corridor coaching the opposition, and Arthur might need a comically large quantity of water bottles to cool him down again.

His side enter the match on the back of a middling start but with a make-or-break run ahead of them, not to mention a rock hard finish that might necessitate points on the board early.

Parra won their first three visits to the Top End, defeating the Raiders, Titans and Panthers, which is only worth mentioning to point out that the people who scheduled NRL matches once thought that a Battle of the West was of so little value that they could move it 4,000km away from Western Sydney just because.

The Eels lost handily to Brisbane in Darwin last year and heftily to the Cowboys before, and on both occasions, playing a side coming out of a Queensland summer in what is invariably the hottest, stickiest game of the year proved a major misstep.

This time around it’s the Dolphins, who do have the Sunshine State advantage, but crucially are also missing their three best players in Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Herbie Farnworth and Tom Flegler.

For the Eels, it has to be treated as a must-win, not least because of where it sits in their season.

Parra are a side that confounds expectations, with coach Arthur largely unable to form a strong pack into a coherent points scoring machine, especially since halfback Mitchell Moses went down injured in Round 3’s win over Manly.

The flow on effect of that is massive inconsistency, and in the most annoying of fashions for a coach, because his side are consistently inconsistent.

3-3 through six rounds is firmly in the not great, not terrible bracket.

All three wins have come at home, against Canterbury, Manly and last week against the Cowboys, while his side have lost away at Penrith (no shame there), at home to the Wests Tigers (some shame) and away at Canberra (less shame).

Having a record you can call ‘not great, not terrible’ is problematic for Parramatta, and for two reasons.

Firstly, their draw would suggest that it should be at least one win better – namely the Tigers at home – and that it might get worse in the coming six weeks, with a trip to Manly next up, the visit of the Broncos the week after that, a Magic Round clash with Melbourne then Souths in Indigenous Round and Cronulla at home.

Parramatta celebrate s try. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

That draw looks fairly stiff on paper, and gets worse with context.

Though Parra have already beaten Manly, they were a little fortunate to do so on the run of play even with Moses on deck, and have lost four of their last five trips to the Northern Beaches.

The Broncos have won three of their last four against the Eels and are, obviously, one of the best sides in the comp, while the Storm have won five of eight against Parra and have a formidable record at Suncorp.

Souths could be anything by the time they face Parra – and, prior to last year’s defeat, were on a six game winning streak – while Cronulla looked nailed on for the finals at least, and have beaten the Eels on both meetings in Craig Fitzgibbon’s reign.

There’s only so much you can read into historical records, but it’s worth discussion because the upcoming fixtures allow Arthur to change the narrative on his team and, indeed, his future.

All of those previous meetings took place under his tenure and, with a contract renewal under discussion, they’re all poor records that he could well do with fixing if he is to convince the higher-ups at the club that he is worth persevering with.

Parramatta were a touch unfortunate to finish 2023 with a 50% record – they were hit a lot harder than most in Origin and lost one of their biggest stars, Dylan Brown, to an off-field incident – but another even season likely won’t be enough to keep Arthur in a job.

After a decade in post and with other big fish about – none more so than Wayne Bennett – there’s a decent chance that CEO Jim Sarantinos and others will see a new voice at the top as a better way of getting results from an undeniably talented, not to mention expensively assembled, squad.

J’maine Hopgood looks to pass in Ipswich. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

That’s all bubbling in the background, but in the front lies a tactical issue that hasn’t gone away.

Parra’s reliance on impactful forwards is well known, but is only as good as their ability to convert that dominance into points.

They are second top for Tackles inside 20m, but only middling for actual tries, showing how poorly they have converted.

Manly, for example, are third but score a try from every 8.3 good ball tackles compared to 10.9 for Parra. The Cowboys are the most efficient on 5.4, ahead of the Roosters on 5.7.

Parramatta have improved their ability to stop opponents through the middle, hence playing the game in a more advantageous part of the field, but they are also conceding the most line breaks per game and the joint third most tries, level with the Dragons and with only the lowly Titans and Rabbitohs worse.

What those numbers tell you is that Arthur’s tactics are starting to look a little behind the times.

In a league where wide play is more and more common, his team have doubled down on the middle. It’s starting to look like they’re fighting the last war.

The tactics makes sense with the roster that they have built, with huge chunks of salary cap in the forwards that can’t be moved and the addition of Zac Lomax does at least go some way to fixing the problem for next year.

In the here and now, however, it’s a clear weakness that opponents have exploited.

Canberra shredded their edges and got the win, and both the Sea Eagles and Cowboys did too in games that they lost.

Payne Haas. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

With the Broncos and Sharks on the horizon, plus Manly again, that edge defence is going to be tested to the max.

It likely won’t happen this weekend in Darwin, as the Dolphins simply aren’t that type of team, but it’s worth bearing in mind going forward.

That fixture pile-up could be the making or breaking of Arthur with this board. They need to stick or twist, and while 3-3 is serviceable for now, 6-6 after 12 rounds would see the questions start up all over again.

For Parra to make the eight, they need to build up points now, too, because things get even tougher down the line.

Their immediate post-Origin period is horrific, with a run of Melbourne, the Warriors, Penrith, the Roosters and the Broncos on the way home, all of whom will have something to play for.

That will be when the whips really get cracking, but it’s this run in the next six games that will tell us if the Eels are serious about being around at that time.

If they were to go worse than 50/50 in this coming period, it might be enough to make the board lose faith in Arthur and move early. If they go better, however, it might get him an extension.

That all starts on Friday night in the Northern Territory.

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