Friday night’s game between the Eels and the Warriors at ANZ Stadium was one of the closer matches of Round 13, with Parramatta eventually getting the upper hand, but not without strong bursts from New Zealand in the middle of both stanzas. With Simon Mannering and Ken Maumalo, and then Ryan Hoffman and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, crossing over within ten minutes of each other, this should have been a game that the Warriors won, especially considering that the blue and gold army were without Tim Mannah, Michael Jennings and Corey Norman, and that Kaysa Pritchard and Josh Hoffman were both injured and taken off the field in the midst of the game.
If that wasn’t incentive enough for New Zealand to win, then they surely had something to prove rocking up to ANZ with Kieran Foran in tow, now playing his ninth game for the Warriors much as he had played his ninth game for the Eels exactly twelve months ago. Add to that the fact that New Zealand haven’t won a single away game in 2017, and the team were clearly raring for a victory, although it may have been precisely that enthusiasm that also induced Parramatta to up their game for one of their most rousing displays of the 2017 season.
As with the Melbourne-Newcastle game the same night, the victors scored early, with Kirisome Auva’a putting down the first try a mere three minutes in, off the back of the first New Zealand penalty, and thanks in large part to the dexterity and judgment of Parra’s big men. It started with a damaging run from Suaiai Matagi to get the Eels some valuable field position, although that was the most conventional contribution, with Nathan Brown then opting for a cut-out pass that made him look as good as any fullback, and Moeroa leaping up to catch it and then run up the right side as efficiently as any winger, before sending out a soaring harbour bridge pass to get the ball over to Auvu’a.
With Gutherson converting seamlessly moments after (and continuing to take the two despite the arrival of Mitchell Moses), it was about as confident an opening as could be imagined from the Eels, especially in the absence of Norman. No surprise, then, when Josh Hoffman put down points about five minutes later, after Clinton Gutherson stormed up through the ruck, almost effecting a momentous line break before being brought to ground.
With a rapid play-the-ball, however, Gutherson set up Brad Takairangi for a huge crossfield pass to Moses, who got it across to Bevan French in turn. From there, the Parra fullback played with the Warriors’ expectations, running to the line and then dummying to both Moeroa and Auvua’a, as if to repeat the previous try, before showcasing some impressive footwork to dart over and flick the ball back to Hoffman, showing the Warriors that the Eels had any number of combinations up their sleeve when it came to this right corner.
So classy had Parra been over these opening minutes that it was a bit of a shock when New Zealand replicated their double try in the third ten minutes of the game, in a sequence that flowed even more rapidly out of their first penalty than the Eels’ opening four points. As befits a momentum-changer, the four points stemmed from a remarkably simple movement – a brief run and dummy from Foran followed by a clean hard run from Mannering straight through the Eels’ defensive line, which seemed to glitch so suddenly that for a moment I thought there must have been some obstruction or error on New Zealand’s part.
As it turned out, it was Moses who let Mannering through, which you can perhaps attribute to his relative inexperience with the team and its rhythms, although even then it wasn’t a good look for the Eels after such a strong opening, with Moses drifting out to the wing on the subsequent set as if feeling momentarily displaced from the no. 7 jersey by the previous play, while Foran’s shift in allegiance felt front and centre for the first time of the night.
Six minutes later, Mamualo crossed over after Kenny Edwards lost the ball on the first tackle out of the scrum and a subsequent penalty granted New Zealand some additional field position. After seeing Moeroa’s harbour bridge pass soar over his head in the first five minutes it must have been satisfying for the New Zealand winger to put down one of the deftest tries this round, especially as it came off a mirror move from Shaun Johnson.
Taking the pass at high speed, Maumalo landed ball first in the corner, angling his whole body to prevent French’s tackle throwing him into touch before the Steeden hit the turf, pivoting off his left foot and using the flimsiest of corner posts for support to bring the Warriors equal with the Eels once Johnson had added the extras.
If they’d scored once more New Zealand would probably have owned the game, but Semi Radradra put down points at the thirty-third minute – a rousing moment for the Eels after Hoffman was taken off with an injury, forcing the team to rearrange their line for the second time of the evening after Kaysa Pritchard had also joined Mannah, Norman and Michael Jennings on the sidelines. Once again, the play started with a New Zealand error, although this time it wasn’t a penalty but a fifth-tackle brainsnap from Johnson, who elected to kick despite an impending tackle from Clinton Gutherson and didn’t even get a boot to the ball.
With the Steeden up for grabs, David Gower scooped it up and managed a deft right-hand offload to Gutherson, who compounded his tackle on Johnson by sending the Steeden across to Radradra, who ran the length of the field to slam the ball over the line. While David Fusitua and Isaac Luke made a sterling effort, only RTS came close to taking Radradra down, but couldn’t compete with a brutal fend from the Parramatta winger at such high speed.
With Radradra running right between the posts, it was a foregone conclusion that Gutherson would convert, putting the Eels six points ahead once again and providing them with some much needed momentum heading into the break. That said, the second half opened with some messy play from both sides, with Johnson kicking out on the full and then Sam Lisone intercepting the ball just before the Eels could make a fifth tackle option on the subsequent set.
A minute later, RTS was penalised for a strip on Radradra, building Parramatta some sustained field position that culminated with Johnson intercepting a pass only to be called offside, giving up a penalty late in the Eels’ tackle count and providing the hosts with a bit of stability once they decided to take the two. All in all, it was probably one of the most disappointing ten minutes in the 2017 season for the New Zealand halfback, who can be so astonishing with his footwork and precision but seemed off balance for much of this second half, with even his amazing run at the sixty-third minute brought short with a slip just shy of the line.
Seeing Johnson playing below his ability seemed to rouse the Eels to consolidate their gameplay, and fifteen minutes into the second half Tepai Moerea put down their fourth try after two successive penalties – the first for a high tackle on Kenny Edwards, the second for a strip on Beau Scott as he was buried under a mass of Warriors defenders right on the line, although a case could also have been made that he was actually trying to offload rather than grounding the ball.
Whatever the situation, Scott made up for not crossing over several tackles into the next set, where he stood in the midst of a tackle from Johnson and managed a one-hand offload to Will Smith as the New Zealand halfback swung one hundred and eighty degrees around his waist. From there, Smith got the ball over to Moeroa, who strode through a sloppy Warriors line to outplay both Fusitua and Bodene Thompson and slam the ball over the line.
With Gutherson making four from four, it was an important momentum-builder for the Eels after the messy opening to this second stanza, especially with Gower being taken off with a dislocated middle finger to leave only Alvaro fresh off the bench, as the Eels steeled themselves for one of their most courageous wins of the 2017 season so far, and Brad Arthur grew quite animated and frenetic on the sideline.
Yet that spectacle of Parramatta’s impending win roused New Zealand to their best stretch over the entire game, with the visitors putting down two successive tries to wrench themselves back into the game as the final siren drew near. The first came from Ryan Hoffman, following a terrific run up the field by Johnson, who might just have crashed over himself if he hadn’t slipped to ground in the face of the Parra defensive line.
The Warriors made up for his slip, though, showcasing some of their best passing of the night to send Hoffman over, with both Edwards and French unable to bring him down before he clocked up another try. For the first time in the game, it felt as if New Zealand had really managed to capitalise upon the Eels’ positional shifts, with Manu Ma’u taken aback at right centre, and the entire right side of the Eels’ defence somewhat unsettled by the absence of their own Hoffman.
Six minutes later, RTS brought home the fourth and final New Zealand try, off the back of a deft offload from Ben Matulino and some terrific second phase play from Luke, who stormed up through the ruck and would have effected a line break to make it over the chalk were it not for some of the most scrambling Parramatta defence of the night. A couple of tackles later Johnson went to kick only to realise a one-handed offload to Matulino was going to be the better option, returning to the cool-headed judgement that typically makes him so valuable in these kinds of clutch situations.
Building on his halfback’s speed and vision, Matulino got the ball across to RTS, who finally got a chance to capitalise upon his trademark footwork by skidding and swerving amongst the Eels’ big men, taking advantage of their enhanced minutes and clear exhaustion to slam the ball over the line and make up for what had been a bit of a spotty night for him as well. With Johnson slotting the ball cleanly through the posts we were left with a two-point game, forcing the Eels to bunker down and make the most of their depleted lineup more courageously than at any point over the game thus far.
It was a testament to Gutherson’s dexterity at five-eighth, then, when he managed to put down the final try one minute out from the siren, after Scott intercepted a messy pass from Mannering to Johnson and the Eels were awarded a subsequent penalty, and decided to opt for another six rather than simply add two more points to their two point lead. It paid off, too, a couple of tackles later, when a quick play-the-ball from Edwards saw Gutherson scooting over the line out of dummy half, dodging between RTS, Matulino and Hoffman for a dexterous compression of Roger the Dodger’s own damaging run eight minutes before.
With Gutherson converting his own try right on the siren, it made for one of the bravest Eels games all year, with the blue and gold army somehow managing to come away with a substantial win despite a full quarter of their players being unavailable or inconsistently available. The victory was all the more impressive, too, in that the Warriors had enjoyed two surges, one in each half, in what must be one of their most heartbreaking losses of the year, and a massive motivation to bring their all against the Titans at Cbus in Round 14.