Thursday night’s match between Parramatta and Canterbury-Bankstown came at a critical juncture in both team’s seasons. On the one hand, the Eels were sitting at eighth on the ladder; on the other hand, the Bulldogs had lost the last nine games, after winning their first six games, the most lopsided record of any NRL team this year. Ranked 13th, only the Knights, Titans and Dragons were below them, while they were actually ranked last in terms of points scored. With Kerrod Holland out, there was going to be even more pressure on Moses Mbye for the goalkicking, meaning the Dogs had to try and put down four points wherever they could.
Things didn’t start out well for the visitors, thanks in part to a brainsnap from Will Hopoate, who passed into empty space right on the Eels’ line moments after cleaning up the high ball, sending the Steeden skidding into the in-goal area for any number of Parramatta players to leap forward and ground. Only some quick thinking from Marcelo Montoya saw him edge out Mitchell Moses to place a hand on the ball, but even then it was a close thing.
While Montoya was binned for a professional foul, it was a good cost-benefit decision, since it was absolutely certain that Moses would have scored if he hadn’t managed to clean up, and that it would have been an unbearably humiliating four points for the Bulldogs to let through, let alone two minutes into the game. Luckily for Canterbury, though, the Eels didn’t manage to capitalise on their twelve-man defence, with the Dogs actually gaining a penalty goal themselves at the fourteenth minute to level the score.
Still, it was a lacklustre start, and seemed to sap all conviction from the Bulldogs’ defence, allowing the Eels to wrest control of the game after a fairly spotty, erratic start from both sides. Twenty minutes in, Moses read the numbers well on the right side and got the ball across to Bevan French with a harbour bridge pass. From there, the winger surged ahead, chipping the Steeden forward to elude a tackle with Brett Morris and then beating Morris once again, along with Hopoate, to slam it over the line.
Ten minutes later, a punishing low tackle from Moses forced Hopoate to cough up the ball after having apparently just cleaned it up, returning possession to Parramatta right on the Bulldogs’ goal line. On the following set, the Eels scored out on the other wing, as the ball moved through Moses, Norman and Gutherson, who drew the line in closer and closer until it was easy enough to fling it out to Semi Radadra to crash over. More like a training exercise than a genuinely contested try, there was no great flamboyance to it – just good, focused, professional football, with each player perfectly timing the pass.
From here, it looked as if Parramatta might have enough momentum to leave the Dogs scoreless. As it turned out, however, that was their last try of the night, with Canterbury-Bankstown coming back after the break with a renewed sense of purpose and conviction. So desperate had the situation become that they needed to fight back to retain any sense of dignity or teamship, and for a moment there it looked as if the humiliation of the first act might be just what they needed to bring home their first win in ten weeks.
Appropriately, it was Brett Morris who put down their first four points, in a nice riposte to having let through French – twice – for the first try of the night. It didn’t hurt either, that it came after Canterbury had resumed possession on the back of a particularly embarrassing move from Kenny Edwards, who had stuck out a hand to intercept the Steeden on the fifth tackle, despite being in a position from which he could never have caught it. It was a brainsnap that rivalled – even outdid – Hopoate’s opening fumble, and disheveled the Eels enough for the Dogs to regain the momentum, and for Morris to get a bit of closure.
As fate would have it, this wouldn’t turn out to be a great night for Edwards, who came up with an error on the subsequent Canterbury set as well, and once again contributed to the growing confidence of the Dogs, who dominated field position and possession in the second half. From the 12-2 scoreline at halftime, you could have been forgiven for thinking that they wouldn’t score a try, so it felt especially momentous to see Matt Frawley put down four more points with twelve minutes to go, as he ran through a disorganised Parramatta line and dodged Alvaro and Moeroa to score right under the posts, setting up Mbye for a fairly straightforward conversion to bring the scoreline to 12-all.
If things were urgent for each side at the beginning of the game, they became even more so during golden point, with the Eels finally handing the Dogs the most agonising – and tenth successive – loss of their 2017. It was even worse in that the Parra win came off the back of a penalty that could have gone either way – either a strip from Sam Kasiano or a knock-on from Tepai Moeroa – with the refs deciding to give Moeroa the benefit of the doubt.
From there, Parra finally had the field position they needed for Moses to score the winning penalty goal, in a resounding indication – along with his role in setting up French and Radradra – that he has finally arrived at the Eels. At the same time, it was yet another argument for changing golden point so that victory is dependent on a try, since it seems wrong that interpretation of an ambiguous penalty can effectively decide the fate of a game – of a season – under such intensive and high-stake conditions.
It’s going to be interesting, then, to see how the Eels and Dogs front up when they meet again in five rounds time. While Parra may still be fighting for finals contention, it will probably be a matter of pride, more than anything else, that drives Canterbury-Bankstown to put the unfinished business of Thursday night’s golden point loss to bed. Still, those are often the most visceral matches, and there’s no doubt that the sequel will be in the back of both team’s minds as they take on other adversaries over the intervening weeks.