Parramatta Eels five-eighth Corey Norman has found the consistency he was lacking since moving south from the Broncos this year. Credit: Grant Trouville. Copyright: NRL Photos.
When you consider the pain they've suffered over the past two seasons, eighth-placed Parramatta and their parochial fans are in rugby league utopia right now.
Overview: No team has improved more in the first half of 2014 than the current wooden spoon holders, to the point where an unlikely finals date in September is now theirs to lose.
But to do so, they're probably going to need an entire season's worth of Immortal-level play from their lead man in Jarryd Hayne
, who has put together a three-month package not unlike that of his 2009 gauntlet to the grand final.
Rookie coach Brad Arthur has also lived up his standing as one of the game's ardent defensive preachers, breathing life into what has been a stinking corpse the past two years to be the only team in the NRL unbeaten at home (they lost a home game at Homebush).
Their next fortnight against the Bulldogs and Storm on the road will be their toughest test so far this year and if they get through that, a difficult two-game home stretch against the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles awaits them in late August.
Positives: Hayne hasn't been friendless in upping his play this season.
Hooker Nathan Peats was unquestionably the best summer acquisition until his season was ended by an ACL injury; new faces Corey Norman and Will Hopoate have added star factor; while former fringe first-graders like Semi Radradra
, Manu Ma'u and Kenny Edwards are now bona fide NRL players.
Halfback Chris Sandow (six try assists, six line break assists) gets a special mention after recovering, not just from last year's off-field issues, but Arthur's decision to start the year with Luke Kelly in the No. 7, rediscovering his trademark energy and flamboyance. This is probably the best we've seen him since moving from Redfern
Statistically, the Eels rank first in points per game, third in line breaks (Radradra 10, Hayne 9), and are an improved fifth best in errors.
Negatives: The loss of Peats for the year is a cruel blow described by club legend Peter Sterling as similar to that of an idle Hayne on the sideline. His work rate, aggression and service out of dummy-half will be sorely missed by a squad that has been forced to second Isaac De Gois from the Shire to fill the void for the rest of the season.
The loss of one of their best defenders compounds a defence that leaks a fourth-worst 24 points and competition-high 12.2 offloads a game. And when you add in the fact that just one other team has been awarded fewer penalties this year, it's no wonder Arthur is a stickler for what the Eels are doing without the ball right now instead of how they go with it.
The end result says they lost, but their 76-minute stonewall at Brookvale Oval in Round 3
was the catalyst for a three-game run winning run that culminated in a 14-12 stunner over the defending premiers that showed this year's Eels are not the pushovers of yesteryear.
Punching likely results into the Ladder Predictor
reveals the Eels should finish Round 26 with around 30 points, which should see them finish either 7th or 8th.