It’s hard to think that the Bulldogs will put in a more dispiriting game in 2017 than their 18-6 loss to the Eels at ANZ Stadium on Thursday night – and to kick off retro round to boot. Without Michael Lichaa for the first time in thirty-eight games, Canterbury-Bankstown struggled to come up with even competent playmaking options at times, as the rain belted down for the most inhospitable on-field conditions since the already-legendary Titans match a couple of weeks before.
Often these kind of torrential conditions demand a show of strength as much as strategy to take control of the game – an indication that the top team can weather the elements – and so it was with Parramatta, who put in some tough moves in the opening minutes against one of the weakest Bulldogs efforts in some weeks. A couple of minutes in, Cameron King nearly crashed over the line, only for the Canterbury defence to prevent him getting the ball to ground. Shortly after, however, King became the try assister, sending the Steeden across to Daniel Alvaro, who slammed at the line from about ten metres out, and somehow managed to carry Moses Mbye, Aiden Tolman and James Graham with him over the turf as he tucked the footy beneath his arm and then got it to ground.
So remarkable was this show of strength that it almost felt as if there had to have been some kind of obstruction or error from Parra, but the replay showed that it had simply been a matter of brute strength on Alvaro’s part, along with his ability to read the Canterbury line, who clearly weren’t expecting him to put in this kind of run. In slow motion, it looked as if Mbye, Tolman and Graham were all expecting one of the others to take the brunt of the tackle, but with none of them able to take that role at the right moment, Alvaro cruised through, with Parramatta adding the extras to make it 6-0 a minute later.
From there, the Eels consolidated and the Dogs struggled, with Josh Morris, in particular, taking much of the brunt of the slipperiness of the Steeden as the rain set in, from coughing it up when tapping it to his boot on the back of a restart, to letting it slide early in the set following a chase from Josh Reynolds that had finally got the Dogs some decent field position. Meanwhile, Parra seemed to thrive on the torrential conditions, with Mitchell Moses building on his outstanding performance against the Broncos the week before with a line break, a huge right step around Chase Stanley and an evasion of an ankle tap from Adam Elliott, setting him to send the Steeden across to Bevan French about fifteen metres out from the posts.
While Moses’ conversion might have added the extras, it was Semi Radradra’s catch on the restart that really sealed the deal, with the future Toulon player putting in one of the handling spectacles of the season by latching onto a high ball he had no right to even get a firm hold on, let alone manage to safely clean up. Even once he had got a hand to the ball, it felt as if a goal line dropout might still be in the offing, but Radradra managed to use the slipperiness of the ball and turf to his advantage more creatively than any other player over the course of the game so far, skidding and sliding before offloading the Steeden to Suia Matagi all in one perfectly orchestrated movement.
While the Eels’ supremacy wasn’t suprising given their form over the course of the evening, it was perhaps a bit surprising that they hadn’t scored more emphatically off the back of goal line dropouts, since this had been a strength of their game so far – both in terms of quantity (they’d racked up four by the twenty minute mark) but also in terms of the quality of kicks that had set up the dropouts in the first place, with Corey Norman setting the stage with a terrific banana kick that slid in front of Radradra and forced Will Hopoate to boot it into touch to provide the Eels with their first repeat set in the opening minutes of the game.
That changed a couple of minutes later, however, when the Eels put down four more points on the back of their fifth goal line dropout, thanks to another terrific try assist from Moses, who drifted across to the left side of the field as if to kick, drawing in the Canterbury defence and clearing up so much space on the wing that you had to wonder what the Bulldogs’ backline were thinking. It was a play that looked even more assured in slow motion, as Moses almost decelerated to a walking pace, switching the footy from one hand to the other as if he were toying with the opposition, scrutinising the gaps in their defence and appearing to make the most of their disorganisation to experiment with a few new moves and plays of his own.
By the time he sent the ball back to Brad Takairangi, and the big centre had popped it over to Radradra, it was much too late for any blue and white jerseys to make it over to the left wing, with big Semi crashing over as effortlessly as Moses had set him up in the first place. While French had finished off the previous try superbly, the four points had been bookended by two even more magnificent moves on Moses’ and Radradra’s parts, so it felt right to see them come together as try assister and tryscorer respectively for these four points, with Moses’ leisurely drift across the side of the field eclipsing the fact that he didn’t manage to slot the Steeden through the posts from this particular angle.
The Eels came back after the break with a reconfigured team, since an issue with Bevan French’s foot had taken him off the field. As a result, the blue and gold army opted to take things a bit safer, getting a penalty right on the line at the fiftieth minute but choosing to take the two to boost their lead from 16-0 to 18-0. Still, the Dogs didn’t put in much in the way of resistance, with Chase Stanley kicking on the third tackle following a promising goal line dropout only for Michael Jennings to read the play perfectly, sticking out his boot to stop the Steeden before bending down to scoop it as casually as you could imagine.
So far, Will Hopoate’s kick returns had been one of the few highlights in the Canterbury playbook, but even he choked at the beginning of the next Bulldogs set, coughing up the ball just when it looked as if the visitors might be set to recapitulate some of the momentum they’d lost with Stanley’s error of judgement. Shortly after, the Dogs seemed to have yet another shot at some points, with Radradra unable to replicate his earlier brilliance under the slippery high ball and the Steeden bouncing back to Suia Matagi right on the goal line.
As it was, the big prop only just managed to get back into the field of play, but on the next tackle the Bulldogs pack defence – their best defensive effort of the night – converged to drag Radradra into touch, resulting in yet another goal line dropout that felt as it it had to result in points. Once again, though, they opted for a third-tackle howler, with Reynolds slipping over before sending through a wayward grubber that Jennings cleaned up just as efficiently as he had Stanley’s.
Between Reynolds’ and Stanley’s third-tackle options, it was hard to feel that Canterbury-Bankstown had much in the way of attacking strategy or cohesion, and as the rain grew truly torrential at the fifty-fifth minute it looked as if they might be kept out for the entire game. After all, the Eels had adapted best to the wet weather so far, and they continued to do so now, with Moses sending through a beautiful kick that threaded the Bulldogs defence in fairly low visibility conditions and almost eluded Josh Morris, who had to slide across the in goal area and tap it in touch with Kenny Edwards collapsing over the top of him.
Things rapidly changed, however, when Takairangi put his hands out for the ball on the dropout and found it sliding down his palms, and while you couldn’t blame him in such terrible conditions, it was the sudden shift in momentum that the Dogs needed to put down points. They capitalised on it too, with Reynolds sending across a short ball to Brenko Lee, who broke through the line, slipped out of a tackle from Radradra, and drew in the defence, running head to head with Norman and eventually forcing him to commit before flipping the Steeden across to Marcelo Montoya to score in the corner.
While it was never going to win the Bulldogs the game, it was an important moment for team pride if nothing else, since at no point this season have Canterbury-Bankstown looked as desolate, depressed and bereft of leadership and vision as across the first sixty scoreless minutes of this match. Even Reynolds didn’t seem to be enjoying his footy like usual, with the wet weather contributing to make this one of their drabbest and dourest efforts in memory, Montoya’s try nothwithstanding.
With Moses setting up a goal line dropout with a seventy-metre kick in the final minute, the Eels didn’t need to score a try in the second half to assert their supremacy, and with Reynolds getting an unlucky penalty for kicking the dropout on the line – despite most players never being penalised for this infraction – Moses was able to add the extras to his magnificent kick with a penalty goal right on the siren. If last week felt like Moses’ real arrival at Parramatta, then this game made it clear that was no fluke, in a win that was in every way worthy of the blue and gold army’s victory over the Broncos the round before.