Parramatta are on track for their best start to a season since the club's last premiership in 1986 and Brad Arthur is confident they can finally go on with the job this year.
After holding out Wests Tigers 36-22 before the biggest regular-season Sydney crowd since Anzac Day of 2019, the Eels join Penrith as the NRL's only unbeaten teams and host St George Illawarra at Bankwest Stadium next Sunday night.
If Arthur’s men can triumph against the Dragons in front of another large crowd, they will equal the club’s record of five wins in the opening five matches achieved in 1986 and again last year.
This year's team will need to beat Canberra in round six to claim their best start to a season.
They then play cellar dwellers Brisbane, Canterbury and Manly as well as Sydney Roosters and the Warriors in the following five weeks.
Episode 6 - Eels/Wests Tigers post-game, plus Peter Sterling
With Parramatta officials set to announce the club has surpassed 30,000 members for the 2021 season and COVID-19 restrictions having been lifted in NSW, the Eels are expected to enjoy massive support as they seek to end the NRL’s longest premiership drought.
While critics will point out Parramatta were in the same position last season and also managed to win their first four matches in 2019 but bowed out both years in the second week of the finals, Arthur believes his squad has matured.
"We’re not playing our best footy yet and we’re not trying to, or we don’t want to yet," Arthur said.
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"There is still plenty of our game that we want to improve but I just think that when we are under a bit of pressure our response is different.
"When a moment goes against us we respond better and it is just about making sure that we worry about what is coming up next - not what has happened or [something] five sets away."
Asked what gave him such confidence, he said: "It’s just our actions, staying right there and making sure that whatever happens next we will be able to handle it and get back to what works for us."
For proof, look no further than the way Parramatta finished the Tigers with two tries in the last three minutes of their KFC Monday Football clash after their opponents had fought back from 24-10 down to trail 24-22 in the final stages in front of 29,056 fans.
The try scorers, Clint Gutherson and Blake Ferguson, had been responsible for spilling kicks that gifted four-pointers to the Tigers, but kept their heads to secure the win.
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Arthur indicated he now has greater faith in halfback Mitchell Moses and other key players.
"I am way more confident this year in those situations with the team that we have got," he said.
"Our halfback is very calm and controlled so I always believed that we would get the result that we got."
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With Moses having an option in his contract for next season and Ferguson and NSW forward Nathan Brown among the stars unsigned beyond this season, Parramatta’s ability to do better than previous seasons is likely to have a significant bearing on their futures.
The Eels have one of the NRL's biggest supporter bases and pressure will also mount on Arthur if they don’t advance beyond the second week of finals for the first time since 2009, when they lost the grand final to Melbourne.
Peter Sterling, who played in all four of the club’s premierships in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986, points out they finished last in 2018 and that they are building.
"With the squad that they have got and the roster that they have they must play finals football and obviously the last two seasons have been disappointing going out in back-to-back sets," Sterling said on Inside the NRL.
"But when you consider where the club were five or six years ago they have come a long way in a relatively short period of time so we are on the up.
“My big question mark coming into this season was could they go that next step. I have seen them get into positions against good quality sides where the game is on the line in the 60th or 65th minute and too often Parramatta haven’t been the team to go on and win that game.
"Against Melbourne they did, and that was a huge confidence builder. They have won in different fashions in the other matches and against the quality sides if they can win more often than not through the course of the season that will put them in good stead when it gets to finals football."
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Defence still a work in progress
Penrith are the only other unbeaten team and before last year’s grand final against Melbourne their previous loss was in round five against the Eels.
The Panthers have the Telstra Premiership's best defence, conceding 16 points in four matches, compared to the Roosters (48), Storm (52), Eels and Rabbitohs (54) and Raiders (60).
Penrith’s opponents in the opening four rounds include the three teams yet to win a game – North Queensland, Canterbury and Manly – as well as the Storm.
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Parramatta have beaten Brisbane, Melbourne, Cronulla and the Tigers and their defensive record only blew out after conceding two tries from Adam Doueihi kicks and a third following a penalty against Gutherson for obstruction after running behind Ferguson when returning another kick.
"It’s a tough competition, isn’t it," Arthur said.
"Two of [the Tigers’ tries] were from dropped kicks and we got out to 16-0 on the back of defending a lot of sets on our try line so I thought defensively we scrambled and we worked really hard on our try line
"We come up against the Dragons next week, they have won three in a row and they are full of confidence so we are going to be up against it again next week."