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History shows circuit-breaker needed to spark Eels from finals doom

Punters, pundits, bookies, the butcher, baker and candlestick maker all say Parramatta are done for yet another year.

History offers the slightest hope of otherwise for the tragically optimistic, and something more realistic for the rest of us.

Anyone who has witnessed Parramatta's four-game freefall over the past month can see it as plain as day - in their current state, they are in no shape to make history.

That will be the requisite given no team has claimed a title from outside the top four in the NRL era, or done so after leaking 50 points in a game throughout the season.

But three times in the past 20-odd years, a premiership side has emerged from similar late-season mire to claim the title.

Not for nothing does Wayne Bennett rank Brisbane's 2006 grand final triumph as the most rewarding of the six he brought home to Red Hill.

Match Highlights: Sea Eagles v Eels

That Broncos outfit, the 2012 Storm side and the Knights of 2001 each overcame late-season four or five-game losing streaks in stunning fashion by grand final night.

Each of those teams had out-and-out, rolled gold champion players that, unfortunately for Parramatta, they do not.

The Storm had three of them in Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, Brisbane had Darren Lockyer while Andrew Johns called the shots and did so much more for the Knights.

Brad Arthur doesn't have an Immortal - already crowned like Johns or an eventual one like the other four - in his midst.

Matterson sent off for high contact

With games against North Queensland, Melbourne and Penrith, he will be working minor miracles to emerge with more than one win leading into the finals. 

And as it stands, the Eels will be lucky to last longer than a week when they get to the playoffs.

But where those champion campaigns can be emulated, is the out-and-out circuit breakers that first broke seemingly season-ending slumps.

The Storm's woes in 2012 by and large centred around their annual Origin drain.

It took Craig Bellamy another four years, and one miserably failed late May team camp, to conquer that mid-season mountain.

Melbourne didn't win a game from mid-June to August in 2012, but once the rep period hangover was quashed they didn't lose another en route to the title.

Few comparisons to Parramatta's current plight prove useful given the distinctly different class of cattle at each club.

The Knights' mid-year malaise in 2001 ranks similarly, largely because Johns' influence is similarly without peer.

A six-week knee injury to Newcastle's favourite son coincided with an ugly four-game losing streak, upon his return they touched up premiers Brisbane by what was then a record 44-0 scoreline.

Frustrations surfaced again a month later and Johns belted Adam Dykes late in a well-remembered 49-30 shoot-out they lost to the Sharks.

In a miserable loss to the Wests Tigers the next week, Newcastle coughed up two seperate 20-point leads as rookie coach Michael Hagan alternated between tearing strips off young prop Josh Perry and paint from the Campbelltown dressing rooms.

But when Johns returned from his two-week suspension, Newcastle found their mettle and went unbeaten to a storied upset of Brian Smith's seemingly invincible Eels outfit.

Brisbane's plight under Bennett offers the best instruction for the Eels, though the '06 Broncos had not fallen as far as Arthur's current lot.

Former Broncos utility Shaun Berrigan.
Former Broncos utility Shaun Berrigan.

Still, amid a voracious media spotlight that called for Lockyer's head as captain, behind the scenes the famous clandestine talks for Bennett to join the Roosters started up midway through a five-game losing streak.

Nick Politis's bid to bring Bennett to Bondi Junction didn't surface until the Broncos had turned a corner, but all hell still broke loose leading into a week-one finals clash with St George Illawarra that was duly lost.

Under pressure not dissimilar to that faced at Parramatta in the here and now, Bennett shook up Brisbane's backline like never before – moving Justin Hodges to fullback, Shaun Berrigan from centre to hooker and installing little-known halfback Shane Perry at the scrumbase.

Get Caught Up: Round 22 must-see moments

Easy as hell to say, just as hard to do: Bennett simply backed himself and coached.

Brisbane proved an entirely different side with Hodges at the back and just as importantly, livewire Berrigan creating havoc out of dummy-half.

A significant revamp to play right up the middle, with Berrigan as an offensive focal point, was apparently a move Bennett purposely kept "up my sleeve until late in the year," as he told NRL.com a few years ago.

"I realised that the opposition would have worked him out if they'd seen too much of him so that was a plan I'd hatched in advance."

Arthur's calling card as a coach through eight years at Parramatta has been centred around hard work - his own video analysis will often end in the wee hours and start again just as the sun comes up.

"We probably need to change things up a bit at training – that’s a start, maybe not focus on footy … I don’t know," he said after being annihilated by Manly on Saturday night.

Match Highlights: Eels v Cowboys - Round 14; 2018

"But sometimes the harder you work, the more of a hole you dig yourselves into."

The Eels have given their players a few days off until returning to training on Wednesday leading into Saturday's clash with the Cowboys, one of the few rivals whose recent form is worse than theirs.

Coincidentally, they played the Cowboys when they were in an even more dire situation midway through Parramatta's 2018 wooden spoon season, in a relocated Eels home game at Darwin.

Sitting last and four points adrift of 15th place, Arthur put his senior players in charge of the week's video and analysis sessions, and didn't set foot on the field at all for captain's run.

Eels: Round 22

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With nothing much else to as the players ran their pre-game run through, Arthur pointed this out to me as we stood in the shade.

Parramatta duly won the next day. A five-game losing streak had been snapped, with improved results and a couple more wins coming in the next month.

Soon enough though, the mediocrity returned and so did the thrashings, threatening Arthur's future and ending the tenure of several underperforming players.

Three years on, the Eels stocks and expectations have risen markedly, but Parramatta's same old issues remain.

Options for a Bennett-esque selection shake-up appear slim at first glance, but history shows its about all that Arthur has left.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.

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