Why are people getting behind the Eels?

This story was first written for and published by The Roar.

On Friday morning, it finally hit me. This year, for the first time since 2009, the Parramatta Eels will be playing finals football.

What’s more, after their 52-34 win over the Broncos on Thursday night, the Eels find themselves sitting in the top four. Should they finish there, it will be for the first time since 2005.

If my maths is correct, the highest the Eels can finish is second and the lowest is fifth.

It’s hard for me to put into words how much it means to me to see my team feature come September. The magic run in 2009 seems so long ago, and as an Eels fan, I’ve had to endure plenty both on and off the field since, including player movement, several coaches and some really appalling rugby league.

Heading into this year’s finals series, Melbourne are the benchmark. After the Storm posted their 19th win of the season, against the Rabbitohs last week, the question now being asked is not ‘who will feature in the grand final’ but, ‘who will play the Storm in the grand final?’

Plenty of teams have been thrown around. The Brisbane Broncos. The Sydney Roosters. The Cronulla Sharks. Even the Penrith Panthers on their day.

But over the last couple of weeks, the Eels have suddenly been mentioned as contenders, particularly with some of their more significant wins, such as the victory over Brisbane. Not only do many think that Parra have a genuine chance of playing deep into September, but it seems like they have plenty of support from the rugby league community.

How do I feel about that? Fantastic. The more the merrier – there is plenty of room on the bandwagon. But I must admit, this support has surprised me given what happened with the Eels last year.

I remember the fallout from the salary-cap scandals featuring the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Melbourne Storm several years ago. In the case of the Storm, it took years for people to begin forgiving them for what happened during those years.

But Parramatta, it seems different somehow. As the Eels have gone from strength to strength both on and off the field, I’ve heard very few references to the salary cap breaches which landed the club in so much hot water last year.

Why are the Eels different from the Storm and the Bulldogs? Why aren’t Parra experiencing the same sense of ill-will?

Is it pity? The Storm breached the salary cap and won the 2007 and 2009 premierships, as well as the 2006, 2007 and 2008 minor premierships. In contrast, during the years the Eels breached the cap they did not play finals football once (and even collected two wooden spoons for their troubles).

Is it because Parramatta have been genuinely unsuccessful for such a long time? When they make the finals this year, they will break what is the longest streak in the NRL for a club not having featured in September. The Eels also hold another unwanted record – they are the club with the most number of years between now and the last time they won a premiership.

I wasn’t even alive the last time Parra won the premiership, which was in 1986. Is it possible that rugby league fans pity us so much that they would be genuinely happy to see us finally succeed?

Parramatta Eels Rugby club signage

AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Is it because during those years the Eels were poorly managed? In sharp contrast to the Storm, who are the benchmark when it comes to discipline on and off the field, it’s clear that incompetence was a major reason Parramatta found themselves in so much trouble last year.

Factions. Infighting. A divided board. All these things have characterised the Eels’ management over the last decade and contributed to a club that was brought to its knees last year.

It’s almost unbelievable that Parramatta were over the salary cap by offering contracts to players like Carl Webb and Chris Walker.

Additionally, despite playing for little more than pride last year, the Eels showed a sense of resilience and togetherness which I found inspirational. There was no arrogance or attempt to convince the rugby league community that the club had not done anything wrong. There was acceptance and then a real willingness to move on.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to see so much support for my team heading into the finals. Because for Eels fans this is a genuinely exciting time and I would encourage other rugby league fans to share in this joy.

And while I’m not convinced Parramatta are contenders this year, I head into September knowing that success for our club looked like playing finals football this year. Anything more is an absolute bonus.