Profile: Parramatta Eels (1947-)

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If there’s a team that gives Souths a run for their money in terms of mythology, it’s Parramatta. Over the last half-decade or so, the Eels have been a team in a decline, as well as a kind of emblem for the fears and anxieties arising from a sporting franchise that always seems to be in a state of normalised crisis. Unlike Rugby or AFL, NRL only ever just seems to be keeping its head above water in terms of scandal, salary caps and sublimation of all the impulses sport is designed to contain and keep at bay. That all just seems to be intensified in the case of Parramatta, whose loss to Melbourne in the 2009 Grand Final felt as if it marked them as a fated team, especially once Melbourne were stripped of the premiership in the wake of their own salary cap scandal, leaving Parramatta in the enviable position of not having lost a premiership, but not having exactly won one either. Since then, the wholesale departure of flagship players – Nathan Hindmarsh, Jarryd Hayne, Reni Maitua – combined with four coaches in almost as many years – Daniel Anderson, Stephen Kearney, Ricky Stuart and Brad Arthur – has plummeted the Eels to the bottom of the NRL ladder, where they’ve tended to remain despite their best efforts. Hayne’s transition from NRL to NFL, in particular, has sparked a massive status anxiety on the part of the NRL that has tended to hone in on Parramatta as a team, with the team alternately praised for helping forge such an international sports superstar and blamed for having let him slip from their grip. Even Chris Sandow’s ignominious departure and on-again-off-again movements between Parra and Wentworthville felt as if it was somehow the franchise’s fault, as he became a one-man embodiment of the discipline they just couldn’t quite seem to muster. For all those reasons, it often feels as if every supporter in the NRL is also going for Parramatta as well as their own team – if your team loses to Parramatta, you can’t quite grudge it or hold it against them, since the fate of the whole franchise often seems to be bound up in the blue and gold. Add to that the fact that Parramatta has some of the most vocal Christian and Mormon players in the game – Tim Mannah, Will Hopoate, Jarryd Hayne – as well as some of the most hard-luck backstories in NRL – Manu M’au in particular – and you’ve got something like the most family-friendly franchise, as well as virtually the only franchise that hasn’t been plagued by systemic sexual scandal in the last couple of years. What you think of family values, of course, is a different question, but there’s no doubt that NRL precarity – and anxiety about itself as a values-system – is most intensified here, in what also appears to be its most regulated, reliable and stalwart stable of players, which is ultimately the peculiar paradox – and perhaps the pleasure – of watching the Eels take the field.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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