Good start not enough for Parramatta
It's no secret the Parramatta Eels have collected the past two wooden spoons, so fans could be forgiven for some premature excitement given some of the side's early achievements in 2014:
• Three straight wins for the first time since rounds 18-20, 2010.
• Five straight wins at home for the first time since rounds 16-25, 2009 (starting with two home wins to finish a disappointing 2013 season).
• A win over the reigning premiers, the Roosters, who had trounced the Eels by the sum total of 144-28 over the previous three meetings between the two sides.
• Four wins in the first six rounds of 2014; it took them until Round 22 to reach that tally last year and until Round 20 in 2012.
So while the players were happy to have 15,312 passionate fans screaming in celebration of a fine 14-12 win on Saturday night, all they could talk about after the game was the need for further improvement.
It started with coach Brad Arthur, who said in the post-match press conference that his charges "weren't great" but did credit the team's 34 from 36 completions.
Arthur oozes the type of understated, no-nonsense professionalism you'd expect from a coach who served his apprenticeship at Melbourne and Manly, two of the most successful and professional NRL clubs of recent years.
Arthur also said there was still "a lot of improvement" in the current halves combination of Chris Sandow and Corey Norman.
For his part, skipper Tim Mannah was also playing down the early season successes.
"We just want to make sure we don't get too far ahead of ourselves – it's round 6, even though it feels great and we do have a great environment at the moment in the club we just want to keep getting better and performing every week and if we do that you never know what can happen," Mannah said.
Centre Will Hopoate, who is now six games back from a two-year hiatus from the game, was similarly circumspect after the game.
"It definitely feels good, it's built a lot of belief and confidence within the boys, but there's still things we can do to improve – we're just looking to improve from here," Hopoate told NRL.com in the Eels sheds after full-time.
"There's things we can improve on individually; we've set goals for ourselves and that the coaches have given us and as a team – offensively and defensively there's little things we can do to be better."
Hopoate had arguably his best game in blue and gold in Roosters game, running a team-high 119 metres and making 17 tackles, and said he is increasing in confidence week by week.
"It's thanks to the staff, the physio, they're looking after me really well and getting my body right to back up each week since I've been back," he said. However despite creeping back into Origin calculations Hopoate insisted higher honours currently aren't on his mind, instead he was just focusing on building his form and playing good footy for the Eels.
"There's personal goals that I have, sometimes I achieve them, sometimes I don't for each game. There's always room for improvement and hopefully I can keep improving," he said.
Another standout in the Round 6 win was winger Ken Sio, who found himself playing for Wentworthville in the NSW Cup to start the season as Semi Radradra and Vai Toutai were preferred, before forcing his way back into first grade with several strong performances for the Magpies.
He scored two of his side's three tries against the Roosters, both of them classic winger's finishes as he found himself on the end of a brilliant Jarryd Hayne cut-out pass and a Sandow chip that showed great vision.
But it was his work at the other end of the field that was most impressive, with two high-pressure takes to defuse towering Roosters bombs and some sharp work to clean up a dangerous grubber.
"Everyone's going good – it was good to have the support of my centre Will [Hopoate] and Chrissy [Sandow] as well," Sio told NRL.com.
"The vibe around the club is good, we're starting to find our way how to win. We'll come back on Tuesday and get stuck into it and keep working on what we have to work on.
"We've got great depth at the back and even in the forwards, it's good that we've got that, it makes us bring our best to the table and on the field."
Hayne's starring role, particularly in defence, drew strong praise from co-captain Tim Mannah as well as Arthur, but as someone who has experienced plenty of highs and lows at the club he knows there is plenty of hard work ahead.
"Yeah, it's strange – we haven't been here before!" Hayne laughed of the three-game winning streak.
"I think it's just confidence; we just have to realise how good we are, we're a young team.
"As an inexperienced team you lack a bit of confidence at times, I'm just trying to instil as much confidence as I can to the boys, make them realise we need to work as one and that's what we've been doing, just turning up for each other."
He said as an inexperienced and developing side it was important for the Eels to be able to grind out wins while the combinations are still developing.
"We're more than happy just grinding games out than trying to do the big play, I think we just need to learn to go toe to toe with teams and go through them at times – that's something that will just come.
"The most important thing is just grinding and not giving up, that's what's winning us games and that's what we need to keep doing."
It is an important sentiment from a man who is capable of bringing out the razzle-dazzle with the best of them, as he showed in that stunning surge to the Dally M Medal in 2009, carrying his team to an unlikely grand final appearance on the way.
"We don't have a lot of superstars here but they're hard workers, hard grinders," Hayne said, saving special praise for breakout second rower Manu Ma'u, who he said is already one of the leaders among the team, and hooker Nathan Peats, whose aggression – particularly in defence – has added some real mongrel to this Eels outfit.
"He's aggressive, I don't think I've seen a more aggressive hooker. Peatsy just wants to play hooker, he's always angry, he shows that on the field and that's how he plays," Hayne said.
"He puts his body on the line – I think he does it a bit too much, I think he's got to ease it up a bit, his shoulders are getting a bit weary, he's a huge part of us and we need him out there for the 80."
Hayne also said the club's back-rowers have really set the benchmark so far in 2014.
"Manu Ma'u, he's just been phenomenal. I don't think I've someone debut and keep his form, his attitude – he's a leader in this team now," Hayne said.
"He's just blown me away, how great he's been going."