Stealth-like, the Parramatta Eels have wormed their way into the top eight. With nine wins and seven losses they sit just four points from the second-placed Bunnies and just two from a spot in the top four.
After three wooden spoons in the last seven years, just one semi-final appearance and an average ladder position of 12.6 over the last nine seasons, it appears that Brad Arthur has finally found the key to unlocking their unquestionable talent and subsequently found consistency in performance that has long been lacking.
After the Round 9 shellacking they received at the hands of Melbourne and three subsequent losses to the Cowboys, Panthers and Sharks, the blue and gold have righted the ship in an impressive manner.
Comfortable victories over the Broncos and Wests Tigers, a refreshing bye and a closely fought win against the Raiders have the Eels threatening and potentially requiring just four more wins to assure themselves of semi-final football this season.
Personally, I feel they are certainties for late September action and will double down on that prediction by stating that, considering their draw, Parramatta will secure a home final at Bankwest Stadium by finishing in the top four in 2019.
The wonky and comprised NRL draw throws up mysterious cases of good and ill-fortune each season and the Eels appear to have fallen on the happier side of that ledger this year.
Taking a close look at their fixture list unveils the ludicrous nature of the draw and how teams can capitalise on its utterly compromised nature. Parramatta enjoys the luxury of facing the Storm, Roosters and Rabbitohs on just one occasion in 2019.
Contrastingly, they also enjoy matching up against the Bulldogs, Tigers, Dragons and Broncos on two separate occasions. As things stand, the only top-eight sides they meet twice are the Raiders, Sea Eagles, Knights and Panthers; certainly not a scary proposition.
With South Sydney and Sydney Roosters starting to show clear signs of fragility and Newcastle and Cronulla appearing in reverse, the Eels have set themselves up for a compelling run over the final eight rounds.
At the core of that run will be their draw. It is a treat to read for the blue and gold army.
With both Michael and George Jennings looking likely to return in around a fortnight and a relatively short injured list, the series of winnable fixtures ahead should produce a top-four finish for Brad Arthur’s ever-improving squad.
It begins this Sunday with a tricky match-up against the Sea Eagles at Lottoland. The teams are level on points and despite many citing the home side as clear favourites, Parramatta will be confident off the back of three straight wins.
From there it should be downhill all the way for the Eels. Their run home is as cosy and comfortable as could be and 14 points are well and truly possible over the final seven rounds.
Round 19 sees the Eels pitted against the ever inconsistent Warriors and as Bankwest Stadium continues to develop as something of a fortress, should see an easy two points secured.
The following three rounds should also bring competition points, with the ailing Dragons, wavering Knights and the basket-case Titans all lined up for a Parramatta kill.
A Thursday night clash in Round 23 against the dangerous yet manageable Bulldogs is followed by a trip to Suncorp and a date with the bumbling Broncos, before the Eels face the Sea Eagles on home soil to end the home and away season.
It is highly probable that all bar one of their opponents will sit outside the top eight when the Eels face them. That is certainly in the case of the Dragons, Dogs, Broncos, Warriors and Titans. Only the Sea Eagles buck the pattern, with the Knights also likely to have slipped from the eight with tricky matches against the Roosters, Wests Tigers and Sea Eagles leading into their clash with Parramatta.
It all points to a steam-rolling run home from a team looking to take advantage of a stroke of luck in the draw that should seem them lock in a first-ever home final at Bankwest. That is something to savour for Eels fans.
The conjecture around Clint Gutherson’s contract has been put to bed, Blake Ferguson is rejuvenated after his scintillating performance in Origin III and the back-row of Nathan Brown, Manu Ma’u and Shaun Lane is as competitive as any in the competition.
With the combination of Reed Mahoney, Dylan Brown and Mitchell Moses still developing, Parramatta’s upside is considerable.
The kind of team they could be in a few months is a scary proposition for the other top eight contenders.
It is something of a bonus for the Eels that they face just one of those contenders on the run home.