Eels coach Brad Arthur is disappointed his team bowed out of the 2017 finals race with a performance that was well below their best but has paid credit to the discipline of North Queensland, who showed the inexperienced Eels how a finals game is won.
Despite finishing eighth and being without stars Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, the 2015 premiers have upset the more-fancied Sharks and Eels in successive weeks to book a preliminary final against the Roosters.
They have done it on the back of smart, disciplined, high-percentage finals footy and a seemingly bottomless well of toughness and spirit. The Eels, on the other hand, put in a frazzled second half punctuated by simple errors and a few flare-ups.
Arthur also praised the performance of the club's supporters, admitting he got emotional seeing his players run out to cheers from over 40,000 blue and gold fans. There was a feeling within the team those fans had been let down but Arthur vowed his squad would learn from the lessons and improvements of 2017 to build further in 2018.
"The last 40 minutes we probably played our worst 40 minutes for the season [so it's] very disappointing we don't go out on our terms," Arthur said.
"It would have been nice to have a strong performance in that last 40 and then if we weren't good enough we weren't good enough. They taught us a lesson on semi-final football and dominated field position and possession and made us pay for our lack of composure at times in the second half.
"Maybe it's a case of they've been there done it before and their experience really showed. I'm extremely proud of this playing group, they've done a great job to get here."
The coach said the loss would "hurt them for a long time".
"It's a lost opportunity and we need to make sure we build on it and make sure we're better next year and hopefully this is the start of the club being strong every single year."
Arthur rejected suggestions the Eels played their grand final last week, putting in a huge effort against the Storm only to narrowly fall short 18-16. The Cowboys simply found a way to dominate possession in the second 40.
"To their credit they played a better second half of football," Arthur said.
"All the attention to detail, they got it right, we didn't. Errors really hurt us."
Of the club's long-suffering fans, Arthur said: "Our support was outstanding and I got a bit emotional just before kick off when the boys ran out.
"The noise was excellent. There were plenty of reasons there for us to play well and we probably feel like we're disappointed but we let our fans down a little bit too because they've been fantastic for us this year, but we promised them we're going to work hard throughout the pre-season and make sure we learn from it."
Skipper Tim Mannah echoed his coach's disappointment as to how the season finished but added this year's top-four finish was a result of the four-year journey that had commenced when Arthur first took the reins at the end of 2013.
"For [the players] that had been in the club for a while, we could see the direction we were heading in [from that point]," Mannah said.
"We knew those darker days were kind of behind us. It's taken four years for us to get to this season and have the season we've had which at times was enjoyable but this is going to hurt a lot.
"It definitely wasn't the way we wanted to end our season but it's definitely something we've been building on year on year and I think we'll be stronger and better for it next year."