Thursday night’s game was the best the Eels have done all season, not only because they demolished Brisbane 54-32 or because Semi Radradra put down four tries, but because for the first twenty minutes they demonstrated a state of flow and a runner’s high that we haven’t seen since Origin 1 – not even from the Broncos themselves in their 54-0 win over the Titans. Brisbane had the second best defensive record for 2017 heading into this match, only conceding about 17 points per game, and yet they were blown out of the water by a team that barely felt like a contender earlier in the season.
Among other things, that made for a mouth-watering reminder of how a Parramatta-Melbourne grand final reprise might play out, while there’s going to be no love lost next time the Eels take on the Broncos during the finals season, as they almost certainly must. The loss would have been painful enough given that this was a Suncorp game, but to make matters worse the visitors also put down the quickest try in NRL history, with Kirisome Auva’a scoring a mere twelve seconds after the opening whistle.
It came off the first tackle, as Adam Blair was confronted with a massive hit-up from Kenny Edwards, popping the ball backwards in the hope that it would find one of his team mates, only for Auva’a to scoop it up instead. You couldn’t imagine a better way to put a dent in Fortress Suncorp, and there’s no doubt that this opening display of dexterity – and disorientation for Brisbane – provided the Eels with the momentum needed to score a mere five minutes later.
This time Semi Radradra provided the goods, glimpsing a bit of open space down the Brisbane end of the field, and then outrunning David Mead, James Roberts and, finally, Darius Boyd, as he curved around the Brisbane defence and planted the ball in optimal position for Mitchell Moses to convert. It was a near mirror image of Matt Gillett and James Roberts’ opening tries against Parramatta four weeks ago at ANZ, and a definitive statement that the Eels were out to rewrite history.
Yet it was only to be the first of three unanswered tries from Radradra, the next of which came nine minutes later following a well-placed high ball from Corey Norman. Outjumping Mead, Radradra came up with possession and slammed the Steeden to ground right on the line. The try was all the more spectacular in that it came at the end of an absolutely scintillating set from the Eels after a knock on from Sam Thaiday handed possession to the visitors.
Over the course of the next five tackles, every hit-up was hard, every run was epic and all the ball handling was superb, in what looked more like a sped up, digitally enhanced highlights reel than a single set only fourteen minutes into the game. I’d go so far as to say that Parramatta haven’t look as good all year as they did during that set, so it felt only right when Semi went over for his first double since round 4 and Moses managed a difficult sideline conversion moments after, bringing the Eels to 18 points in 14 minutes and the Broncos to their biggest Suncorp concession this early in the game in over a decade.
Still, Semi wasn’t done, crashing over again six minutes later, when he culminated an even more sublime sequence for Parramatta. At the heart of it was a pitch-perfect kick from Norman that defied Boyd much as his previous kick had defied Oates, with the Queensland fullback fumbling it on the sideline and eventually knocking it into touch. Despite a fracas breaking out on the edge of the field, you’d barely know that the play had been halted, as the blue and gold army immediately continued their momentum with a damaging run from Moses around the defence and over the try line, only for Tautau Moga to slam in with a desperate tackle as Oates joined him to keep the Steeden from the turf.
Yet the Eels immediately regrouped, with Radradra going over for a third try after juggling the ball – almost throwing it over Josh Hoffman’s head – and slamming it down right beneath the posts for Moses to make it 24-0 with twenty minutes on the clock. Not even the Broncos’ memory of their win over Gold Coast could rouse them to the same insatiable and effortless flow state of the visitors, and there can’t have been a better point to be a Parra supporter in 2017 than these few sublime moments.
Even if the Broncos couldn’t match the fireworks, however, they had to come up with something, and you could almost hear Suncorp breathe a sight of relief as David Mead crossed over five minutes later. Full credit has to go to the looping harbour bridge pass from Boyd, which soared over Semi’s head for a bit of poetic justice, allowing Mead to make some peace with having lost the Steeden to the Parramatta winger earlier in the game. Yet there was inevitably something a bit muted about these first four points after such a strong opening from the Eels, even if it made it all the more crucial that the visitors retain their runner’s high.
With Josh McGuire going over seven minutes later it initially looked as if Brisbane might be about to stage a comeback, not least because it was a pretty freakish piece of play. Just as the Broncos were starting to gain some attacking momentum, a fifth-tackle grubber from Anthony Milford ricocheted off the posts and eluded Will Smith’s grasp, with the young Parra fullback spinning around the padding to try and approach it from another angle only to find that McGuire had got there first and managed to ground the Steeden right as it was sitting up for him.
It didn’t take long for the Parra backline to recover, however, with Michael Jennings putting down points three minutes out from the break with an equally impressive fifth-tackle option. As if taunting the Broncos’ conventionality, Kenny Edwards chose to pass to his centre, instead of Moses, who was also storming up from behind, and who the Broncos understandably expected would be the focus of the play. In its own way, it was their best last tackle option of the evening, if only because of how elegantly it played with the idea of how a last tackle option should look.
Full credit has to go to Jenko, as well, for reading Edwards’ intentions immediately with a strong, quick run, while Moses also managed to have a say with his fifth straight conversion – and probably his most dexterous, bending the ball over from the right edge to put the Eels twenty points in front as the siren sounded and the Broncos headed into the sheds for a drubbing from Wayne Bennett.
Four minutes into the second stanza the Eels bookended the break with their sixth try, as Semi ran a staggering ninety-eight metres from the Brisbane line, sidestepping Mead and Hunt and then outrunning Gillett and Milford to stamp Parra’s ownership on the entire field, in what almost felt like a home game for the blue and gold army. In its dazzling combination of speed and footwork, Semi’s mad dash momentarily made me wonder whether he might be in for as momentous as night as Alex Johnston had enjoyed in his game against the Panthers in Round 17.
By this point, it felt as if Brisbane just weren’t going to be able to rival the dexterity of Parramatta, so it felt right that it was simply a good, hard, straight run that took Herman Ese’ese over the line twelve minutes later, off the back of a deft short inside pass from David Mead. With Frank Pritchard taken off the field for an HIA moments later, and Tepai Moeroa off already, it seemed as if this might be a momentum shift for the Broncos if they could tire out Parra’s forward pack, only for Sam Thaiday to cough up the Steeden within the Eels’ thirty metre line a minute later, in yet another of the many handling errors that had plagued even the most reliable Suncorp stalwarts over the course of the evening.
To their credit, though, the Broncos quickly self-corrected, with Alex Glenn crashing over five minutes later in yet another affirmation of brute strength over dexterous showmanship. With Daniel Alvaro grounded off the back of a tackle and Milford opting for a quick play-the ball, Glenn took his chance and ran straight at Smith and Norman, the two smallest men on the Parra line, as if to rub in just how keenly the visitors were feeling the loss of two of their key forwards.
Yet the Eels made good almost immediately with their seventh try, off the back of a pass from Will Smith that bounced in front of Brad Taikarangi and found Radradra on the verge of careening into touch. From there, Semi could have probably stretched out a hand for his fifth try of the night, but he chose instead to take one for the team, popping the Steeden back to his centre for a try assist that felt as grand as a try – at least until the replay, which showed that Smith’s pass hadn’t bounced off a Brisbane player, as the refs originally assumed, but off his own shoulder, forcing him into a knock-on in the process.
If the Broncos had a grievance before, they were infuriated now, and the Eels managed to take advantage of their disarray, with Michael Jennings putting down points for a second time and crystallising a fairly frustrating night for Corey Oates in the process. It started with a long pass from Roberts that the Brisbane winger could perhaps never have caught, although Broncos fans might have expected that he would clean it up before Jenko circled around to take possession before running thrty metres to slam it over the line.
In the speed with which Jennings inserted himself into the play, it was as dramatic an act of theft as an intercept or a one-on-one strip, and signaled the final devolution of the second best defensive line in the competition in the face of such a relentless onslaught from the team that Jarryd Hayne used to call home. With David Gower crashing over eight minutes out from the end – after yet another brilliant kick from Norman – the Eels reached the fifty point mark, and would have been gratified to see one of their big men put down points with Moeroa and Pritchard off the field.
Yet the win was just a little soured by two subsequent Broncos tries, which brought a 52-22 scoreline to 52-34 in the dying minutes of the game. The first came from Moga, off a kick from Milford, and barely felt like a consolation try, especially given the intense outburst from Korbin Sims on Suaia Matagi that had preceded and overshadowed it. With Oates crashing over one minute out from the end, however, Brisbane managed to prevent a total whitewash, not least because of the way in which it mirrored Jennings’ second try, as Semi was unable to clean up a kick from Boyd, leaving the Steeden wide open for Oates to scoop it up and carry it over the line.
Nevertheless, this was one of the most rousing Parramatta victories of the past couple of years, and certainly the most painful home loss for the Broncos in 2017, especially given their stunning form against the Titans a couple of weeks ago. At the same time, the highs are always higher, and the lows are always lower, in the build up to finals footy, and it is going to be fascinating to see how these two teams deal with the legacy of this momentous match when they hit the park next weekend for the last regular round of the 2017 season.