When the disappointment of Parramatta's straight-sets exit from the 2017 Telstra Premiership Finals Series eventually fades, it is likely players and fans will be able to look back with some pride on what the club was able to achieve in what was without question its brightest season in eight years.
We all remember the magical run to the 2009 grand final as Jarryd Hayne sparked into the most intensely brilliant run of form by a single player in the NRL era. If you'd said after that '09 grand final loss to the Storm that Hayne had played his last ever finals game for the club and the Eels wouldn't get another taste of September until 2017 you'd have been laughed out the door.
Since then: two wooden spoons, a crushing salary cap scandal and subsequent sacking of the board, four coaches (five if you count Brad Arthur's caretaker stint after Steve Kearney's sacking), Ricky Stuart's 2013 overhead projector player cleanout and a 2014 season in which two losses to end the regular season saw the Eels – and that year's Dally M medallist Hayne in his final game in blue and gold – miss the finals on for-and-against.
This year saw a group of players galvanised by the trauma of 2016 all pulling in the same direction and united by a desperation to play for a coach in Brad Arthur who was universally adored by the playing group. They finished fourth (their first top-four finish in 12 seasons), won twice as many games as they lost, unearthed a couple of future stars and brought hope back for long-suffering fans.
Where they excelled: The Eels were barely in the top eight for plenty of key statistical metrics (see below), so how did they finish fourth? Well, a couple of blowout losses earlier in the season certainly dented their numbers but once they started to hit their stride they got better and better as the season went on. They won nine of their final 10 regular season games. They won on the road (their 8-4 run was the third best of any team, though admittedly included a handful of 'away' games at ANZ Stadium). Their forward pack, smaller than most rival packs, played with an intensity and aggression that exceeded most rivals and, led by buy-of-the-year Nathan Brown, managed to sustain that consistently across 80 minutes. Their halves (once Mitch Moses joined) played an unpredictable style and combined for one of the most relentless kicking partnerships of any team, with long kicks frequently finding the turf and attacking kicks landing on a dime.
Where they struggled: The Eels were only the eighth-best team in terms of both attack and also defence through the regular season and were mid-table for most other metrics such as metres gained, line breaks, tackle busts, missed tackles, errors and total possession. Aside from the above-mentioned blowouts (48-10 to the Roosters in Round 10 and 32-6 to the Cowboys in Round 14 were the worst two), they were in most games and showed few major weaknesses. In hindsight perhaps a lack of big-game experience may have been one of their biggest weaknesses – their frazzled, error-strewn second half in their semi-final loss to North Queensland was their worst 40 minutes in three months.
Missing in action: Parramatta's campaign becomes more remarkable when you consider their finish to the season came with their third-choice hooker and third-choice fullback on the park. First-pick hooker Isaac De Gois (concussion, retired) never made it onto the field in 2017. Kaysa Pritchard stepped up admirably until his long-term knee injury in Round 15. Clint Gutherson was in Dally M calculations up until his unfortunate ACL injury in Round 20. Even then there was a ready-made replacement in Bevan French but he played just 40 minutes in Parramatta's final six games thanks to an untimely hamstring strain. Club co-captain Beau Scott missed nine games, eight of those due to a biceps injury suffered in Round 15.
Turning point: We don't want to heap all the credit on one player, because Parramatta's 2017 successes were borne from a team lacking in superstars all pulling in the same direction. Nevertheless, the mid-season recruitment of Eels junior Mitch Moses from the Wests Tigers proved a masterstroke. An unhappy Moses could have seen out 2016 in black and gold but as it happens he was swept into the Eels and the speed at which he settled into the team's systems and formed a combination with Corey Norman was astonishing. Parramatta won 11 of 14 regular season games following his recruitment so one can only imagine the progression they will show once Arthur is able to get a full pre-season into him.
Hold your head high: Other than Moses – who finished up leading the club for line break assists (14, next best six) and co-leading for try assists (10, equal with Norman), the standout was Ken Thornett medallist Nathan Brown. Allowed to leave South Sydney after 2016, Brown proved the buy of the season. His shift to the starting side in Round 6 was pivotal. He averaged near to 80 minutes from that point and led the club virtually every week in both run metres and tackles. He ran a full kilometre more than the Eels' next best forward (Brown made 3,832 metres in 25 games, Manu Ma'u made 2,883 in 24 games). He topped the tackles with 881 (Dan Alvaro's 710 was second) and offloads with 43 (Ma'u 29). Pre-injury, Gutherson was also immense, plugging gaps at centre, five-eighth and fullback and proving one of the Eels' best almost every game he played. Rugby-bound winger Semi Radradra topped the tries (22) and line breaks (24) and will leave a huge gap next year.
2018 crystal ball: Given their performances towards the end of this year without Gutherson, French, Pritchard and Scott there is every reason to expect the Eels to improve with those stars back next year. Throw an actual pre-season into Mitch Moses and add former Roosters giant Kane Evans into a physical pack that probably looked one big man short and there is no reason not to expect the Eels to press for top four again next season and potentially make a run deeper into the finals series.
Conclusion: Even though it ended with a below-par performance the 2017 positives far outweigh the negatives for the Eels. A long-awaited finals return was most welcome to fans, Brad Arthur truly emerged as one of the game's best coaches and encouragingly, there is every reason to expect this to be a more regular occurrence in the future.
Home Record: 8-5
Away Record: 8-5
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (rounds 15-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (rounds 3-6)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored: 91
Tries Conceded: 85