Finals football comes early for Eels, Dogs
There's a month left of regular season NRL, which can only mean two things: the rarefied air of finals football is wafting in, and so are the supremely focused individuals who treat every game like it's their own personal grand final.
In fact, some are even calling this Friday night's Eels-Bulldogs fixture Parramatta's biggest game since their Big Ball against the Storm half a decade ago.
And in this case, they'd be right.
One look at the competition ladder says it all: win and you're still a chance of joining the September elite; lose and, well, you're no different to the Raiders or Sharks.
Equal with the fifth-placed Cowboys, the Bulldogs currently occupy eighth spot while the Eels sit just one rung lower on percentages.
"We haven't had to really talk about it too much. We know it's a crucial game," says Eels forward Darcy Lussick.
"With the Bulldogs coming off a couple of losses, we know they're going to be desperate this week. They're always the teams you fear the most. We'll have to be at our best this week."
These are the games that motivate the players enough to chunder when the sun and lungs are burning in November, and keep them up at night in August.
These are the matches that fans flock to once they've thawed themselves from the arctic period between June and July.
And these are the blockbusters in spring that big-game names like Josh Reynolds should be running out for.
But he probably won't be, with the star Bulldogs five-eighth facing a suspension over two incidents from his side's loss to the Broncos on Friday night. And Lussick, who knows himself what it's like to overstep the mark on the footy field, has learnt those lessons before.
"I've been injured, so I've missed a couple of games and just coming back. I definitely don't deserve to be on the back page [with Reynolds]," he said.
"He probably just had a bit of frustration in his game. He's a competitive person. He's someone that everyone hates on the field but off the field he's a great bloke. But yeah, he's just a bit frustrated. He'll learn from it and move on."
The Eels, thanks largely to some fella named Jarryd Hayne, have enough form under the belt to rock up to ANZ Stadium on Friday night with a bit of confidence, and just a hint of swag.
The Bulldogs, Lussick says, will come out swinging after dropping four straight games and presumably copping an earful from coach Des Hasler all week.
"It would've been a long week for the boys at the Bulldogs," Lussick says. "I think this week Dessie would be fired up. There's no doubt he'll have them fired up for Friday night.
"They won't want to lose another game. Like I said before, we're going to have to be at our best this week if we want to win."
Problem is the Bulldogs know that too. And while both teams obligingly say that in March, it becomes a bit more of a necessity in August – no matter where the game is played.
"We always get a pretty good crowd here [at Parramatta], a good atmosphere. Hopefully all the Parra supporters get out to Homebush. It's only 10 minutes down the road," Lussick said.
"If you want to play finals footy, that's where all the finals are played. So if you can't win there, you're going to struggle."