I can already feel your rage and angst in me declaring Cooper Cronk as a better halfback than Johnathan Thurston. I also know everything you’re going to say in argument.
It is said that by confronting your demons, you may free yourself from the pain of the past. In this sense, the Parramatta Eels couldn’t have asked for a better opponent in Week 1 of the finals.
That pain stems back to the night of September 21, 2019. The Eels, buoyed after flogging Brisbane 58-0 in Week 1 of the finals, faced the much sterner prospect of the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park in Week 2. They were duly trounced 32-0.
This year, things were supposed to be different. The roster was boosted by high profile signings Ryan Matterson from the Tigers, and a rejuvenated Reagan Campbell-Gillard from Penrith.
Early signs were positive. By the time Parramatta crushed North Queensland 42-4 at Bankwest Stadium in Round 8, they had compiled a 7-1 record – including the scalp of ladder-leaders Penrith – and were looking ominous.
From there though, the blue and golds began to splutter. And they’ve kept spluttering ever since.
There were bad losses to the lowly Manly Sea Eagles and St George Illawarra Dragons. There was the 38-0 embarrassment at Bankwest at the hands of South Sydney, handing the club their biggest ever loss at their new stadium.
Then was the much-hyped return-bout with Penrith, during which Parra only troubled the scorers once with an early penalty goal. In 80 fruitless minutes, they never looked vaguely close to breaching the minor-premiers’ try-line.
Even in the 28-24 win over the Wests Tigers in the final round of the regular season, some of Parramatta’s defensive efforts were more indicative of a team in regression than one with serious premiership aspirations.
And then there’s the Melbourne Storm.
It seems natural that Craig Bellamy’s team is one of the fancied runners at the commencement of the finals. After all, they are just about every year. However, at the beginning of the season, many astute judges actually tipped the Storm to struggle.
Cameron Smith was too old. Jarome Hughes wasn’t a good enough halfback. The Melbourne dynasty was all over.
The doubters were given more fuel when COVID travel restrictions prevented the Storm from playing any games at fortress AAMI Park, resulting in a semi-permanent relocation to Queensland.
They responded by putting together an eight-game winning streak, despite having a casualty ward for most of the year that resembled an episode of M*A*S*H.
They transformed Sunshine Coast Stadium into another stronghold. This transformation was aided, of course, by the fact that a large percentage of the Storm’s players (and fans) are Queenslanders. However, the admirable manner in which Melbourne not only responded but thrived on various forms of adversity this year can’t be ignored.
Resilience. It describes Craig Bellamy’s side perfectly, and it’s exactly what the Eels lack.
For the last couple of seasons, Parramatta has been a team capable of blowing their opposition off the park if they’re feeling good and conditions favour. But when conditions aren’t ideal and resilience is called for, Brad Arthur’s side goes missing.
For a perfect example of this, you need look no further than the Eels’ 2019 finals campaign.
In Week 1, at Bankwest, the Eels created a carnival-atmosphere in racking up a half-century on the youthful rabbit-in-headlights Broncos.
In Week 2, away at one of the toughest places to play in the NRL, the Storm ruthlessly exposed Parramatta’s weaknesses in a rout. If anything, the 32-0 scoreline flattered the Eels.
This time, the venue will be neutral in the sense that Suncorp Stadium isn’t the official home of either team. However, it does just happen to be yet another of the Storm’s growing list of bastions away from AAMI Park.
It will not be a comfortable game for Parramatta. They will have to grind and hurt. They will be forced to prove they can handle adversity.
Judging solely on history, they can not.