Improved Eels still have a long way to go for an NRL premiership

Improved Eels still have a long way to go for an NRL premiership

Thursday night had to be a statement game for the Parramatta Eels if they wanted to be anywhere near the top of the tree come the end of the NRL season.

After an indifferent run of form, including a loss at Bankwest Stadium last weekend, they found themselves tasked with a Melbourne Storm side so understrength you could have sworn State of Origin is on the calendar next Wednesday.

Of course, the postponed Origin series is still months away, and the Eels, at full strength, had to put their doubters in the corner.

A win might have been the result, but it was hardly pretty. The names out for Melbourne bordered on the ridiculous – Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Dale Finucane, just to name a few.

It was never about the Storm at Bankwest, whose premiership aspirations weren’t going to go up with a win and weren’t going to go down with a loss. Craig Bellamy’s slightly relaxed demeanour in the coaches box told you all you needed to know about the plight of the travelling team.

No, Thursday night’s game was all about the Eels turning their run of topsy-turvy, inconsistent form around.

The fact they held the Storm to nil was one thing. They are the first team to do so since Round 12, 2014 when the North Queensland Cowboys did it in Townsville. That, for those not interested in counting, is 147 regular season matches. If you want to add in finals, that tally goes to 162.

The Storm haven’t faced an injury crisis like this in that time period though, so it didn’t matter for them.

Given the way the Eels have drifted in and out of games over the last six weeks, it was a positive for Brad Arthur’s men to at least play the entire 80 minutes at one end of the park, and they had to.

It’s not as if the Storm didn’t throw anything at them, but the blue and gold just kept turning up, making big tackles and big plays and managed to hold the Storm to a duck egg.

As positive as their defensive display might have been after last week’s loss to the Dragons, it wasn’t that side of the game which most interested neutral onlookers wondering if the Eels are going to be premiership material or not.

If you had been asked in the opening eight weeks, the answer was yes, but since then, their run has been less than pretty.

A scratchy 10-4 win over the Knights, a loss to the Tom Trbojevic-less Sea Eagles, then less than impressive wins over the Tigers, Bulldogs and Sharks before the Dragons pulled their pants down.

That doesn’t scream premiership contender, but they managed to keep winning for the most part, so it didn’t scream hopelessly out of sorts either.

And while their attack was an improved entity against the always watertight defence of a Craig Bellamy-coached side, it wasn’t improved to the level they need.

Sure, there were positives. The forwards led the way for the first time in some weeks, allowing the Eels to play the game at the end of the park they wanted to. That’s reflected in victories across the key stats of completion rates, run metres and territory.

It was the back row who led the way, with Nathan Brown topping the tree at 185 metres, backed up by Shaun Lane (169) and Ryan Matterson (136). While their middle third was still a fraction soft, they did enough to be passed as competent.

It was the small wins on the stats sheet in the forwards which then allowed Parramatta to start to get back to the brand of rugby league they played all those weeks ago when they were at the top of the table. Fast. Free-flowing.

They were good to watch again, but only in patches. Consistency is still a way off, but under a sped-up game, the Eels suddenly looked like a team who may be able to challenge again, even if not for the premiership at this stage.

But, with five games still to run in the regular season, there was no better time than last night to make a statement after squandering a trio of opportunities to do so in the last three weeks which left fans wondering whether they were the real deal. Perfect or not, the Eels had to win and win well, and they did just that. If nothing else, it’ll give the side confidence from which to build on.

What’s more, they won 14 to blot without Mitchell Moses playing well, and without their attack looking crisp permanently as a result.

Mitchell Moses scores a try

The major bright spot, apart from the already mentioned back row, was the performance of fullback Clint Gutherson. The number one was simply everywhere, whether it be the kicking, passing or running game. He forced dropouts, set up a try and ran for more than 200 metres once again.

In fact, you could almost make an argument that Gutherson has been the mainstay when it comes to looking for a blue and gold bright spot over the last six weeks. He ran for 369 metres last week.

What is clear is that if the Eels are going to challenge to break a long hoodoo on grand final day, they need consistency. They need Moses to stand up and Gutherson to continue his form. They need the middle forward to stand up. They need to be close to perfect.

Last night was a start, and a win is a win.

Excitement might build in the heart of Western Sydney if the Eels can go past the Rabbitohs and Panthers in the next three weeks, but until then, expectations must remain tempered. Because when even Bellamy refuses to go macho at an underperforming Storm side, the result must be taken with a grain of salt.