The Tigers have come away with a nail-biting loss to the Eels to mark Mitchell Moses’ first game in Parramatta colours. It was a particularly emotional defeat for the Tigers, especially since the blue and gold army won by such a narrow margin, with James Tedesco contributing some of his most spirited playmaking since the disappointment of Origin 3.
The game started somewhat dramatically, with Luke Brooks putting in a late tackle and what appeared to be a shoulder charge on Moses, who rose from the ground clutching his jaw in pain. The Eels responded quickly, however, scoring on only their second set thanks to a miracle pass from Clint Gutherson to Semi Radradra as Esan Marsters and David Nofoaluma were dragging him over the sideline. From there, Semi slammed down the field, and would probably have scored if it weren’t for a terrific trysaving tackle from Tedesco to bring him to ground. Still, even Teddy couldn’t halt the Eels’ momentum at this point, and a sequence of beautifully timed passes from Moses, Corey Norman and Michael Jennings put Bevan French across a couple of seconds later, with Gutherson bookending the sequence by slotting the ball through the posts.
It was the perfect way for the Eels to put down points, combining the freaky dexterity of Gutherson and Radradra with the calm organisation of the backline to send French across in the corner. Seeing Moses integrated so seamlessly into that string of passes must have been a disorienting and dispiriting sight for the Tigers as well, who needed something special from either Tedesco, Woods or Brooks to insist upon their resilience in the absence of their former halfback.
A couple of minutes later, Woods provided it, dummying to Tedesco to draw in Tepai Moeroa, and then opting for a flick offload to provide Teddy with a bit of room to move. It was only a small amount of space, but the future Rooster made the most of it, displaying some staggering footwork to scoot around Norman and then elude both Gutherson and Radradra to put down the first four points for the Tigers. If the speed and dexterity was impressive, then so was the brute strength of the putdown, with Tedesco reaching out his arm with Radradra around his waist to slam the Steeden over the chalk for a photo finish.
It must have been a cathartic moment for him after last week’s game against the Sea Eagles and the disappointment of Origin 3, while Gutherson’s superb contribution to the Parramatta try made it particularly galvanising to see the Tigers no. 1 respond with his own positional ingenuity. With Tui Lolohea managing the conversion, the score was levelled at 6-6 and the stage was set for the closest and most nail-biting match of Round 20, as well as the perfect venue for all of the Tigers’ unresolved feelings about Moses’ sudden departure.
As the half hour mark loomed, possession changed hands rapidly but the Eels gradually built momentum throughout it all, with Norman grabbing the Steeden at the end of a series of Wests Tigers assaults and running half the length of the field, before getting it across to Semi to add a bit more distance. From there, Parra assaulted the Wests Line on all fronts, with Cameron King eventually burrowing his head and crashing over rapidly from dummy half a metre out from the line, gaining the blue and gold a penalty in the process.
They chose to tap and go instead of taking the two – a contrast to the Tigers’ penalty goal a couple of minutes before and an indication of their confidence – and a couple of tackles in managed to crash over, thanks to a sequence of passes from Moses, Takairangi and Norman, which sent Semi across the chalk in the left corner. Full credit has to go to all three players, but the deftest moment probably came from Takairangi, who collected the ball from Moses at an awkward angle and managed to pivot the direction of play by popping it backwards to Norman, who didn’t quite nail the pass to Semi as much as he might have liked, but relied on the big winger to rein it in and complete the play with elegance and efficiency
The score remained deadlocked for the first ten minutes of the second stanza, with King crashing over the line five minutes in only for a sloppy play-the-ball from Moses a moment before to invalidate the try. While King tried to crash over and replicate his almost-try a couple of sets later, there was nothing doing, and as Parramatta struggled glean points from a period of sustained field position it seemed as if the Tigers had to be the next to score if they wanted to get a competitive edge for the second half.
Strongest when they used Tedesco to run up through the ruck, rather than trying to negotiate the edges of the field, an over-enthusiastic tackle from Norman got them a penalty, and they levelled the score to 10-10 at the fifty-second minute. Yet the Eels got a chance to respond in kind only a couple of minutes later with their own penalty goal, reinstating the two-point differential that had opened the second half, and making it even more urgent for each team to put down a try in order to take control of the game and consolidate their momentum.
Shortly after the Eels looked set to score, thanks in part to two pivotal decisions by Michael Chee Kam. In the first, the second rower popped the ball back as a big tackle from the Parramatta frontrowers was coming to an end, allowing Matagi to scoop it up and head back down the other end of the field. Several tackles later, Chee Kam stuck out a leg to play at Moses’ grubber, only for the Steeden to ricochet off the other leg, leading to a call from the referee that it hadn’t been played it, and allowing Edwards to scoop it up and start another set of six. Luckily, McIlwrick regained possession a couple of seconds later, but only for a period of relatively messy football to ensue for both sides.
Next set, Naiqama was in a perfect position to catch a pretty good bomb from Brooks, only to look away at the last minute and allow Parra to make the most of his distraction. The blue and gold army didn’t have much time to enjoy their possession, however, with a massive hit-up from Nofoaluma forcing Gutherson to cough up the Steeden a couple of tackles into the next set. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ava Seumanufagai ran such a deft decoy line a couple of tackles later that it confounded Naiqama in the process, allowing Moeroa to enact a one-on-one strip and head up the other of the field.
With the disorganisation and disarray mounting, it was clear that neither team could depend on strategy to put down the crucial try, and that a key playmaker needed to make a big gesture to break the mounting deadlock. A couple of minutes, Radradra did just that, thanks to a flick pass from Takairangi, who busted through a tackle from Lolohea and then danced around Marsters to get the ball out to the future Toulon representative.
Doing what he does best, Semi sped down the left side of the field in a reprise of his earlier four-pointer, but this time sent the ball across to Gutherson at the last moment, with the Parramatta fullback soaring over the line just as Lolohea and Tedesco reached him. It was the decision that arguably won the Eels the game, not just because of how decisively it reversed Gutherson’s cough-up a couple of minutes before, but because of its speed, strength and spectacle, which outclassed anything the Tigers had been able to bring to the second half of the game, even or especially as they’d been the dominant team in terms of sets completed.
Unless Tedesco was going to put in another brilliant display of panache like he had in the first half, the Tigers really needed the Eels to make an error for them to capitalise upon, and they provided it a couple of minutes later, with Norman kicking for touch but somehow lobbing the Steeden out on the full. It was the kind of uncharacteristic awkwardness that mobilises and tightens the opposite team more than your conventional penalty, and sure enough the Tigers grew more focused as the tackle count mounted, and Lolohea concluded by kicking a pitch-perfect bomb to catch MWZ on the chest, with the big winger launching backwards under the weight of the Parramatta defence crowding in upon him.
It was a moment of focus and precision that the Tigers needed, and yet with Lolohea’s conversion sailing past the posts we were back to a level scoreline with ten minutes on the clock – a suspenseful prospect for a game in which penalties had played such a prominent role, and in which there had been so much messy play. Five minutes out from the end, Gutherson was placed to score, only for the Tigers pack defence to force him to send the ball across to French right on the line, who fumbled it in turn and made a penalty goal – or a field goal – even more of a likely decider as the final siren loomed.
On the next set, Eisenhuth coughed up an offload from Woods at the forty, and the Eels got set up for a one-pointer, with Norman adding the penalty goal after a perfect pass from Moses. Few Tigers losses this season have been as frustrating as this one, and few Eels wins as tainted, with even the field goal looking somewhat ugly as Norman only just managed to get it above the crossbar, in the first of his career.
The fact that Moses had played a critical role just made it all the more painful for black and orange supporters, and surely played no small part in Brooks’ trip on his ex-halves partner to bookend the game with his opening high shot. Yet this was also an appropriate ending for a game that – with the exception of Tedesco and Radradra’s individual brilliance – had been largely driven by errors more than strategy and skill, and which had been a sharp reminder of how much both teams can do to improve their game in 2018.