This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
It only took until round two for the Parramatta Eels to make a statement about their premiership credentials in 2021 with an impressive 16-12 win over the Melbourne Storm at Bankwest Stadium last Thursday.
After an extremely disappointing first half against Brisbane the week before, many fans including myself were feeling very nervous about facing the reigning premiers.
Those nerves weren’t helped by seeing the Storm dismantle South Sydney the week before.
So dominant was the Storm’s performance in the first game of the post-Cameron Smith era that many were asking ‘Cameron who?’ after the game and ready to declare the Storm the 2021 premiers.
Then there was the weather. A storm was brewing in Sydney with torrential rain for most of the day leading into the match and predicted to last for almost the entirety of the game itself.
This was a game for the true believers. Only a certain type of fan ventures out in torrential rain to watch their team play against the reigning premiers. Turns out there were 10,146 fans willing to do so.
I was one of those fans.
What we saw surprised us all. A patient Parramatta team, committed to building their game slowly instead of trying to score off every play. Defence was tough and gritty. Ball control was exceptional considering the conditions, particularly from Maika Sivo who has in the past struggled under the high ball in the wet.
There were also some tremendous individual performances. Reed Mahoney seems to have taken his game to another level over the off season with crisp service and darting runs out of dummy half to match his already epic defensive efforts.
Mitch Moses’s kicking game was accurate and he showed a willingness to control the game throughout. This was in spite of his reputation as a ‘flat track bully’ with fans accusing him of only taking control when the Eels had a significant lead.
I lost track of how many tries Clint Gutherson saved at the back and has Marata Niukore found himself a new position after switching to the centres to fill in for an injured Waqa Blake.
While there was plenty of jubilation for Eels fans after the win, it was also my first live rugby league experience since round one, 2020. It felt so good to be amongst a community again and to feel the roar of the crowd throughout the match. When the chant when up for Sivo after his first try and I joined in, I reflected on how good it felt to be alive again.
For so many of us, sport is such an essential part of our lives and our teams are more than just sporting clubs, they are part of our family. That piece of community has been missing for well over a year now and it felt really special to be able to come together again. It felt good to be home.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Parramatta fan who gets too ahead of herself. I know very few Parramatta fans who do. We have been too scarred from past instances where we have been given hope and that hope has been dashed.
I understand that it is only round two. I know that premierships are won in October, not in March. But that win certainly gave me confidence about the Eels’ ability to compete with the front-runners in the competition.
The 2021 season is a make-or-break year for this team and in particular, Brad Arthur.
I have the utmost respect for Arthur. He has led this club through an extremely dramatic period; through the turbulent period following the salary cap breaches to a place where this team consistently makes the finals. Parramatta players are being considered for representative duties again and players from other clubs want to come and play for him. That is significant progress.
But, as many have pointed out, for the last couple of years the Eels have been consistently amongst the best six teams in the competition but haven’t been quite good enough to challenge the real title contenders.
There was a marked difference between Parramatta’s performances in the finals last year compared to 2019. In 2019 they did not even look competitive when they played the Storm in week two of the finals. Last year, despite losing both finals games, the Eels looked competitive in both.
The club has turned a corner.
This year it’s important that the team turns another corner and progresses past week two in the finals.
With the quality of premiership rivals like the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Storm and Raiders, that is a big ask.
But if Parramatta can continue to play like they did against the Storm, then I’m confident this is a team that can challenge for a top four spot and progress through the finals.
The first step is backing it up this week with a win over the Cronulla Sharks.