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Kings of swing: Eels and Manly set to achieve rare feat

It's not all that uncommon for a team coming off a bad year to make a drastic single-season improvement but for two clubs to each jump 10 or more ladder spots in the same season - like the Eels and Sea Eagles are set to do - is far rarer.

Last year's wooden spooners have booked a top-six finish, meaning the Eels will finish 2019 either 10 or 11 ladder spots higher than their 16th place finish to 2018.

For last year's second-worst side, a 10-spot jump also beckons.

Only if they lose this Friday's blockbuster clash against Parramatta by 12 or more points can Manly fall as low as sixth on the ladder. A big win could move them as high as third, pending other results.

This means Des Hasler's first season back on the beaches will result in a ladder jump of at least nine and as many as 12 spots compared to the torrid 2018 season.

If Manly hold on to fifth or better, it will be just the third time in NRL history and first since 2008-09 that two separate clubs have soared 10 spots or better in the same season.

It last happened a decade ago, when Canterbury shook off a horror 2008 marred by the mid-season walk-out of Sonny Bill Williams and 38 total players used to move from wooden spooners to second in 2009.

They actually won enough games in 2009 to finish top but were docked two points over an interchange mistake. New recruits including Brett Kimmorley, Greg Eastwood, Michael Ennis, Ben Hannant, Josh Morris and Bryson Goodwin (the latter two topping the club try-scoring with 42 combined tries) revitalised the club's performances under new coach Kevin Moore.

The Titans were the other big improvers that year, going from 13th in 2008 to third, and like the Bulldogs they only bowed out of the finals when they ran into 2009's Jarryd Hayne-inspired Eels.

Unlike a totally revamped Dogs squad there are no obvious changes behind the improvement – Will Zillman was the major signing while debutants Kevin Gordon and David Mead enjoyed bright seasons under long-serving coach John Cartwright.

However it was just their third season in the NRL so the group was really starting to hit its straps, particularly with Scott Prince available for a full year after his mid-season injury in 2008 derailed what had been a promising year.

The only other instance of the modern era also involved Canterbury, who are the biggest yo-yo team of the past two decades alongside the Eels.

It was only three years previous to the first instance, when they went from 12th in 2005 to second in 2006, alongside Newcastle, who went from last to fourth.

The Knights had a horrible 2005, losing their first 13 games. Future Immortal Andrew Johns' 2005 Origin heroics are well-remembered but it was otherwise a tough season for Joey, who spent most of the year in and out with injury.

Andrew Johns was plagued by injuries in 2005.
Andrew Johns was plagued by injuries in 2005. ©NRL Photos

The club also saw a fair bit more of another Origin legend in Danny Buderus in 2006 than in '05 and used 11 fewer players all up.

The Dogs had serious forward and fullback crises in 2005; they went on a six-game losing run after Luke Patten and Hazem El-Masri were each ruled out mid-late season and were also without Sonny Bill Williams and Willie Mason most of the year and Mark O'Meley for much of it, while 2006 marked Williams' real emergence as an NRL force.

There are two other instances in the NRL era of two teams in the same year improving by 10 or more spots but, in both those cases, one of the teams suffered a serious salary cap penalty in the bad year.

Panthers celebrate a try in the 2003 grand final.
Panthers celebrate a try in the 2003 grand final. ©NRL Photos

In 2003 the Panthers caught fire, surging from 12th to premiers as a few wily old heads like Ryan Girdler, Luke Priddis and Craig Gower and a powerful forward pack plus some exciting young talent like Luke Rooney and Luke Lewis led the turnaround.

The other big improvers were once again Canterbury but they would have been runaway minor premiers in 2002 had they not been docked all their points.

The same principle was in play in 2017. The Roosters had plunged from three straight minor premierships to 15th having parted ways with James Maloney then lost Mitch Pearce to a long suspension for a pre-season incident, leaving rookie halves Jayden Nikorima and Jackson Hastings to do their best in 2016 before returning to dominance a year later.

The other improvers that year, Parramatta, picked up their act but not as dramatically as their 14th to fourth ladder surge suggests – they won enough games in 2016 to make the finals but for a salary cap penalty.

With the Eels and Sea Eagles on track for a rare double feat, players from both clubs praised their respective coaches.

"Last year's one to forget. You'd rather be where we are now than where we were last year but you don't really reflect on it or say what went wrong," said Eels skipper Clint Gutherson.

"You've just got to live with it and that's what we've done this year. We've gone out and played some really good footy.

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"You go out every single game and put your body on the line to try and be in that game on the first weekend of October. And I think that's the belief we've got at the moment.

"Our leadership group and older boys are really driving it. We've got Fergo, we've got Jenko, they've been there before and they're really driving it, that belief in yourself. Hopefully it rubs off and we can be there or thereabouts.

"It'd be better to finish with a ring than a spoon!"

Manly back-rower Jack Gosiewski will sit out this weekend but has been a key cog filling in for Manly this year.

"The coach is obviously one thing, so you can see that Des is very good at his job," Gosiewski said.

"He's just brought in a good structure and everyone across the whole team knows exactly what they're doing.

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"You can tell that when different players have gone to different positions this year, due to our injuries to key players, and yet we still know what we're doing and find a way to win.

"That's a good sign leading into finals, because you'd have to be lucky to go into finals with your perfect, preferred starting 13.

"So it's a good step forward for us this year that in games where we've had to mix positions, we've still been a force when it comes to winning games."

Sydney Roosters celebrate a win over the Storm in 2017.
Sydney Roosters celebrate a win over the Storm in 2017. ©Brett Crockford/NRL Photos

With the 2019 top eight to include either three or four different teams compared to the previous season (pending the result of the Wests Tigers v Cronulla clash on Sunday) combined with the huge improvement for the Eels, Sea Eagles and Raiders, it should at least give some hope to fans of teams like the Dragons, Warriors, Bulldogs and Cowboys that brighter days aren't too far away.

NRL Ladder Predictor: Who makes the top eight?

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