This article was first written and published for NRL.com.
As a Parramatta Eels fan, this is starting to feel all too familiar.
For the previous two years, this was the week of the finals where the Eels season finally came to a painful end.
In 2019 it was at the hands of the Storm. The game is not one I remember fondly. I was at a wedding, streaming the game under the table on my phone and knew 10 minutes in that it was over.
In 2020 it was South Sydney’s turn to end the Eels season, winning 38-24.
If I shut my eyes, I can still see the Mitchell Moses conversion attempt which missed by the slimmest of margins. I wonder whether that kick had gone through whether the result would have been different?
The task does not get any easier for Parramatta in 2021’s finals.
To progress to week three, the Eels will need to beat the Panthers following their shock loss to the Bunnies last weekend.
The Eels need to follow the lead of South Sydney and give the Panthers few opportunities to play their natural game. That means plenty of pressure on Nathan Cleary and Jarome Laui.
Parramatta’s success this year has been built off the back of strong performances from forwards such as likes of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Junior Paulo, Ryan Matterson and Marata Niukore.
This is a forward pack that has the ability to match it with Penrith heavy hitters Isaah Yeo, Viliame Kikau and James Fisher-Harris.
I also fully expect the Panthers to take advantage of Parramatta’s edge defence, which has been a weakness for several years now. If that edge defence struggles, we could see Brian To’o with a hat trick.
But irrespective of the result this weekend, I want to acknowledge the tremendous effort of the team this year.
This might seem like a bit of a cop-out, particularly for fans as desperate as I am for a premiership.
But the reality is that for Parramatta, 2021 has been a season like no other.
We saw the impact this has had on some players with Makahesi Makatoa, Isaiah Papali’i and Dylan Brown getting emotional after receiving videos of support from family members in New Zealand.
I recognise that our players are lucky because they still get the chance to play the game they love with their mates, but it still must have been hard.
For years, the importance of study and hobbies has been emphasised to footy players, so they don’t exist in a “footy bubble”. So many of those extra opportunities have been taken away this year.
To be honest, if you told me six weeks ago that Parramatta would be playing Penrith in week two of the finals and that they would have some hope, I would have laughed.
The Eels had a tough draw to finish the season and in four weeks lost big to the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles.
I was so scarred by these performances that I almost didn’t watch Parramatta’s game against the Storm.
I’m so glad I did. I still don’t quite understand what caused such a turnaround in the space of just a few weeks, but that is one of the things I love the most about sport; feeling connected to something you have absolutely no control over.
For the team that wins this weekend, they have a fitting reward. The opportunity to play the Storm for a place in the grand final.
As an Eels fan, I can complain bitterly about the tough road to that final date in October, but the reality is to win the grand final you have to beat the top teams along the way.
Is Parramatta finally good enough to take an important step and beat Penrith this weekend?
I have a feeling that Cleary, Laui and To’o might have something to say about that.
But come Saturday night, I’ll be cheering my team on from the coach like the rest of Western Sydney.