Prior to the start of the 2019 season, only the most optimistic of Eels fans rated Parramatta a chance of playing finals football.
And that was fair enough.
On the back of a wooden spoon season, the Blue and Golds were a popular pick to go back to back with the NRL’s least treasured “trophy”.
There was little to no respect for the Eels team. The players would probably be honest and say they didn’t deserve any – after all you can’t earn any redemption before a ball gets kicked in anger in the new season.
What I was certain of was improvement.
From November 2018 to March 2019, I witnessed what I’ll term as the best pre-season I’d ever seen. All pre-seasons are “the hardest ever”, but this one was smart.
Skills sessions saw the coaching staff of Arthur, Murphy, Kidwell and Potter develop the attacking football we are now marvelling at. These switches, long passes, short passes, offloads and kicks aren’t a new phenomena for the team. It started during the preseason.
Blood was shed in the sand pit tackling drills. Just as the team has found its attacking mojo, the defence has now found its sweet spot – leaking only 75 points across the last 8 games.
The physical preparation was all quality. It’s continued throughout the season proper. Adrian Jimenez, Lachie Wilmot, Scott Fraser, Brendan Inkster and Alex Rooke have done an outstanding job. Consider this – with two grades playing finals football only one player is unavailable – Will Smith (a broken arm suffered last week).
We knew that high profile players such as Mitch Moses, Michael Jennings, Brad Takairangi and Kane Evans and others hadn’t lost their talent. But without doubt, their ability was being stifled by whatever was happening in their mindset.
As far as Brad Arthur was concerned, the 2018 version of the Eels lacked a bond – there just wasn’t the unity that successful teams need. The players have since spoken about the pre-season camp, how they opened up about themselves to their team mates. And then there were those honesty sessions with BA.
That’s what they needed to do inside the squad – to sort themselves out.
But let’s get back to earning respect.
Arthur was determined to start the season well. To be on the front foot from the opening whistle, round one. It was a message delivered time and again during the summer months.
He wasn’t aiming for the respect of other clubs, he wanted to set up for a successful season. But when the team delivered the victories, such respect was conspicuous by its absence.
There’s a fact that needs to be emphasised: The Eels are one of only four teams to have sat in the Top 8 at the end of every round throughout the season. The others are the Storm, the Rabbitohs and the Raiders – there’s no question about the respect given to those clubs.
There’s no flying under the radar. They haven’t scraped into the Top 8 – they’ve been in there all season!
Yes, Parra have had their hiccups. The Magic Round capitulation to the Storm earned derision and kicked off a three game losing streak.
Moving on through the rounds, the loss to the Sharks probably emphasised the total disregard opposition teams had for the Eels. The Sharks bench was captured laughing during the second half and captain Paul Gallen later agreed with Phil Gould who put it to him that the Sharks had allowed some late Eels tries due to boredom.
It would be easy to say that Karma is a bitch – but rather than focusing on the unearned arrogance of Cronulla, such comments and reactions spoke to a complete lack of respect for the Eels.
But it didn’t stop there.
At the end of round 19, the Eels were sitting in 6th place with a favourable draw over the final six rounds. Yet a number of rugby league journalists were still nominating the Eels as the team to drop out of the Top 8. Paul Gallen maintained his stance that the Eels wouldn’t qualify for finals footy.
Last week we saw the ultimate disrespect for our Eels.
Plenty has been made about the Broncos and “Pokiesgate” – and the poor preparation that this was for a finals match.
Forget any focus on poker machines. There is another take that can be offered.
Would the Brisbane players have “prepared” the same way if they were playing the Rabbitohs, the Storm, the Raiders or the Roosters? You know the answer.
It was a lack of respect for their opposition that was a big factor in staying out late when they had a 7am team breakfast on the day of the match.
So we come to this past weekend. And the major headlines? We can’t have a Storm and Roosters grand final. Despite coverage of this week’s clash, talk about their match up in the preliminary final has remained. Seems like the Eels are just a minor speed bump on the Storm’s path through the semi finals!
Finally, we arrive at the lack of respect extended to Eels coach, Brad Arthur. Despite Parramatta’s improvement from wooden spoon to a team which has remained in the Top 8 for the entire season, Arthur has never featured in coach of the year discussions.
Instead, the focus has been on the likes of Hasler and Stuart. While not denying that both have enjoyed great success this season with their respective teams, there can be no denying that Arthur’s achievements are at least worthy of similar recognition. Not that he’d want it!!!
Does respect earn you a Premiership?
Does it help the Eels play better?
It could even be argued that if teams haven’t respected Parra, that this works in the Eels favour.
What is certain is that Bellamy will ensure that his Storm players are focussed on producing their best this week. They’ll consider the Eels to be a dangerous opponent. They must. The minor premiers are facing sudden death footy.
Regardless of the result, our Parramatta Eels have earned respect in 2019.
And they might just push for a bit more in the weeks ahead.