The Parramatta Eels have, surprisingly, been one of the most consistent sides since 2019. They are the only side to remain in the top eight since round one of that season.
It’s one of those stats that’s both impressive and irrelevant given the way they have finished all of those seasons.
Throughout his tenure at the Eels, Brad Arthur has always sought to make inroads early with his starting forward pack and use that dominance to allow his backline to do its thing.
Brad Arthur’s starting forward pack in 2014 was one scarred by multiple wooden spoons but still featured Fuifui Moimoi and Tim Mannah as well as Manu Ma’u and Kenny Edwards.
But his bench was one mostly designed for power. Peni Terepo, Mitchell Allgood, Darcy Lussick, Pauli Pauli and Junior Paulo all came off the bench that season.
They’re big, powerful ball runners. But aside from Junior, that’s all they are. And even Junior, who was in the infancy of his career, wasn’t the ball playing behemoth he is today.
Occasionally a Joseph Paulo or Kenny Edwards would also be there to provide a point of difference.
This set up though wasn’t too dissimilar to what most sides were doing in the competition at that particular point in time.
Virtually every side ran with an 80 minute hooker and stacked four forwards on the bench.
But the game has steadily developed since then and in many ways it has gone back to the future.
Backs and/or utilities are now regulars on NRL benches and most sides look to use them as a way to change the game.
Brandon Smith is often charged to come on and replace Harry Grant to ramp up Melbourne’s middle when he comes off the bench.
The Panthers have used a combination of Jaeman Salmon, Soni Luke and Mitch Kenny throughout the year. Although their style of play means their most important bench players are Spencer Leniu and Scott Sorensen.
As we covered back at the start of the season, everything runs through Isaah Yeo for Penrith, and Api Koroisau is an 80 minute hooker.
They simply need a bench that won’t drop the middle intensity.
Parramatta seem to have decided this is the way they want their bench to operate.
Brad Arthur’s modus operandi for the 2022 season has been to roll with Oregon Kaufusi and Makahesi Makatoa as like-for-like changes with Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Junior Paulo.
Their third bench player has generally been a forward capable of playing in the middle and on an edge. Ryan Matterson or Marata Niukore have filled that role. Nathan Brown played it for a few weeks given he would come on in the middle and push Matterson to an edge.
At the start of the season Ray Stone also played that role. In many ways he was Parramatta’s version of Brandon Smith.
Not quite as dynamic a ball runner but a brutal, mobile defender capable of stitching the middle together. His efforts against Melbourne in round two earned him plenty of admirers, least of all for his match winning and season ending try.
However, the fourth addition to Parramatta’s bench rotation is a bit of a mystery.
Jakob Arthur, Wiremu Greig, Tom Opacic, Bryce Cartwright, Ky Rodwell, Mitch Rein and Ofahiki Ogden have all played that role.
And that fourth bench player averages just 12 minutes per game. If he gets on the field. Both Jake Arthur and Wiremu Greig have spent a full 80 minutes named in the 17 and warming the bench.
This type of bench rotation isn’t unheard of. Tim Sheens used to do it towards the end of his first stint at the Tigers. Brian McDermott did it when he was head coach of Leeds Rhinos.
But Arthur has persisted with it throughout 2022, and in the cases of Opacic and Jake, they are both specialist players. Opacic plays in the centres and Arthur is a halfback.
Only once this season has Arthur come off the bench and played in the halves and that was in round one after Sean Russell’s ribs were broken, forcing Dylan Brown to the centres.
On the other occasions he’s filled in for a handful of minutes at hooker. He most recently did this in round 25 against the Storm.
Arthur has averaged 15 minutes of game time this season when coming off the bench, and that’s including his 46 minutes at five-eighth in round one. Remove that game and he’s managed a paltry seven minutes.
Now, that’s not exactly his fault. He’s an out and out halfback. No other club carries a player like him on the bench and he’s mostly there as injury cover. In rounds 24 and 25 he was basically on the bench if Mitchell Moses couldn’t get through the game due to his finger injury.
“Our identity is intensity.”
That was a quote from Liverpool FC assistant coach Pep Lijnders last season when he fronted a press conference and was asked about the philosophy of the way the side played.
And that too could be said of Parramatta’s starting forward pack. They look for that “collision” Brad Arthur often talks about. And the starting props are more than capable of winning said collision.
The question mark though is often over the lock and what happens when Campbell-Gillard and Paulo need a break.
How is the intensity maintained? For much of the season, it hasn’t.
Ryan Matterson has been asked to start a lot of matches at lock, meaning he goes off the same time the starting props do, and there has been a notable drop in quality once that occurs.
The middle effectively goes soft.
So how can that be rectified?
Well, Arthur seems to have addressed that particular issue and demonstrated so in round 23.
At the end of round 22, the Eels weren’t in a great position on the ladder and had just been held scoreless by South Sydney at home.
There was no intensity that night and no seeming willingness to stage a fight back.
Parramatta sat on 28 points, two points behind fourth placed Melbourne, but only four points ahead of the Raiders and were in seventh position.
The top four seemed a long way off.
The Rabbitohs game was probably the oddest of the season when it comes to Arthur’s bench rotation.
He went with a four forward bench, utilising Ofahiki Ogden as that fourth bench player.
But his two starters played below average minutes.
Paulo was only on the field for 38 minutes compared with his season average of 44 minutes.
Campbell-Gillard played 47 minutes compared to his average of 49 minutes.
From there the bench simply looks odd.
Kaufusi played 35 minutes compared to his average of 33.4 minutes, Makatoa managed 38 minutes compared to his 31 minutes on average, Cartwright was a whole 10 minutes ahead of his average with 28 minutes against Souths, while Ogden was rolled on for eight garbage minutes at the end of the match.
So there were notable increases of game time for Makatoa and Cartwright. But that seems odd when all season the starting props have played big minutes and the Eels were behind for the entirety of this match.
And Arthur has previously said his starting props get paid the big bucks so he expects them to play big minutes.
Against the Bulldogs though, Arthur began making changes.
Ryan Matterson was named at lock but switched to the bench before kick off, replaced by Marata Niukore.
“Marata’s very good physically and like I said, physical was a big part of it. It’s what our game plan is, that’s what we’re good at is the physicality and it also allows Matto to just sit out of the first 20 minutes and then he played the whole game out. I only had to use one interchange that way, so it helps the team that way,” Arthur said in the press conference.
“It was selfless of Matto, it was best for the team today and then Matto came on and was able to use the ball through the middle.”
After 23 minutes Niukore was replaced by Matterson and Kaufusi replaced Paulo a minute later.
Campbell-Gillard though churned out a monster 32 minutes before he was replaced, somewhat interestingly, by Cartwright.
The Eels were now running with a single recognised prop and two ball-playing locks. Brian Smith, eat your heart out.
In the press conference, Arthur said it was simply a case of trying to press home a clear middle advantage his side had over a struggling Bulldogs.
“I just thought with what they (Bulldogs) had out there at the time we could handle that, we wanted just a bit more fast feet through the middle.”
By the end of the match, Parramatta’s bench was once again interesting reading.
Campbell-Gillard and Paulo played 50 and 47 minutes respectively, Niukore played 42 minutes splitting time between the middle and the edge, Kaufusi saw 49 minutes on the field, Matterson 59 minutes and Cartwright 20 minutes.
Ogden came on for another cameo, this time 13 minutes towards the end of the game which is slightly above average for the fourth bench player.
Perhaps the only real outlier to Parramatta’s bench rotation though was an early mark for Isaiah Papali’i who was taken off after an hour and replaced by Niukore.
It seemed this was the way the Eels would roll for the rest of the season.
Cartwright and Matterson offered genuine ball playing through the middle alongside an ability to play on either edge.
Kaufusi and Ogden covered both props.
But the very next week, things changed again.
Arthur returned to the bench, Ogden went back to NSW Cup and Makatoa was recalled to the 17.
During their demolition of the Broncos, Matterson again dropped back to the bench, replaced by Niukore.
Makatoa and Kaufusi both managed more than 30 minutes each despite Campbell-Gillard managing 56 minutes and Paulo 49 minutes.
Arthur again played 13 garbage minutes at hooker to spell Reed Mahoney.
Round 25 though, threw yet another spanner in the works of trying to understand Parramatta’s bench.
The now usual Matterson for Niukore swap happened, but then it got weird again.
Campbell-Gillard played 50 minutes straight and finished up with 64 minutes of game time compared with Paulo’s 49 minutes.
Kaufusi though was handed 34 minutes from the bench but Makatoa only saw 12 minutes of game time and Arthur received six minutes.
That means the Eels effectively played with a two man bench for most of this match.
Campbell-Gillard’s long starting stint provided more flexibility in the rotation given he could remain on while the other middles were interchanged.
In fact, his replacement was Junior Paulo who was coming back for his second stint.
Throughout most of this season, the starting lock goes off first, followed by Junior, then Campbell-Gillard.
The Eels generally use three interchanges in the first 40 minutes. They then use another three in the first 25 minutes after half time, saving two for the final 15 minutes.
One of those is usually for a forward, while the final change is usually some garbage minutes for a fourth bench player.
There are other permutations of that due to HIAs and overall fatigue, but it’s generally how Brad Arthur likes to roll.
All of this analysis does little to actually bear out what is going on with Parramatta’s bench.
Outside the two replacement props, which we’ve also ascertained aren’t a certainty, the bench is incredibly flexible.
Sometimes they will run with just a two man bench for large chunks of matches, others they will utilise three but leave a benchwarmer for 80 minutes.
For the first week of the finals Arthur has entrusted the bench that helped defeat Melbourne to get it done against Penrith.
The question is, will this bench rotation help Parramatta to a grand final berth, or could it trip the side up when they get into the deep end?
One thing is for sure, if you’re Parramatta’s fourth bench player, you’d better get comfy.
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.