The Eels may have been unlucky to not be able to make the most of Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman, but there can still be no doubt that the Panthers deserved every inch of their comeback against the blue and gold army at Pepper Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Only the Wests Tigers’ comeback against the Roosters has been a more epic game-changer in this first round of 2018 footy, with the mountain men almost appearing to be a different team when they returned from the sheds for the second forty.
From the very beginning of the game this felt like a new-look Parramatta outfit, with not even their strongest moments of 2017 coming close to the focus and discipline they showed when they burst out of the sheds into Pepper Stadium. After so many underwhelming Jarryd Hayne ventures – the 49ers, Fijian Rugby, the Titans – it was surreal to see how quickly he added his heft to the team, making more of an effort in the first ten minutes of the game than he did during any of his fixtures for Gold Coast.
At a venue so associated with Nathan Cleary’s brilliance in the halves, it was also a bit surprising to see just how emphatically Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman dominated the no. 7 and no. 6 jerseys, using this game as the first of what will surely be many stunning arguments for their entitlement to New South Wales and Queensland Origin berths respectively.
To make things worse, Penrith felt noticeably less disciplined than at nearly any other point in the last twelve months – or twenty-four months – only managing to glimpse 10% of possession in the first seven minutes and coming up with four handling errors – two from Dylan Edwards, two from James Maloney – as well as only completing one out of their first set of five. It was almost inevitable, then, that the Eels would put down the first points, and for a moment there it looked as if they’d done a couple of minutes in, when Josh Hoffman crashed over after Penrith failed to clear up the Parramatta high ball.
While the replay showed that Tyrone Peachey had got a hand to the Steeden first, Hoffman didn’t have to wait long for another chance on his birthday weekend, after Parra got a hold of the Steeden shortly after and held onto it over a series of repeat sets and penalties conceded by the Panthers. It started with a brilliant line break from Moses and ended with a looping pair of passes from Moses to Norman, and then from Norman to Hoffman, who flung himself sideways over the wing at an odd angle to make sure that the Steeden hit the turf just before his legs did.
It’s ironic that Hoffman was the first to score, given that he was forced out of the Titans in the first place following Hayne’s return from NFL, but the fact of him scoring also seemed to symbolise Hayne – and the NRL – making peace with his past, and the prospect of a new era at Parramatta.
The Eels got a bit of a blow shortly after, with Moses taken off for an HIA following a collision with Michael Jennings in the in-goal area, but that just gave Norman an opportunity to shine by putting down the second try for the blue and gold army. If the first four points had been worrying for the Panthers, then this was downright embarrassing, with Norman dummying and then running through an enormous gap next to James Fisher-Harris for the second four points of the afternoon.
As if Norman and Moses hadn’t done enough between them, Brad Takairangi showed that even the Eels’ stand-in halves have what it takes, running right up to the line a couple of sets later to get the ball across to Hoffman for his second try of the afternoon. In a fairy-tale moment, Moses returned to the field, and from his HIA, just in time to tee up the conversion, and while he may not have added the extras there was still something about the talent and depth of the Parra halves – Norman, Moses and then Takairangi – that spoke to the solidity and flexibility of the Eels’ spine, and their renewed confidence after the tail end of last season.
To come back into the second half with some dignity Penrith had to score before they break – and they did, putting down a spectacular four points to boot. Oddly, it started with some fairly messing passing right at the line that saw the Steeden skid and skitter right back to the forty line, where Waqa Blake scooped it up and then put in the best single run of the afternoon so far, skipping out of a tackle from Manu Ma’u, slipping away from Beau Scott and zigzagging his way through the entire Parramatta defence before Bevan French got him around the legs about three metres out from the try line.
Too amped upon from his run to let the Parramatta fullback spoil his day, however, Blake did a beautiful job of balancing himself with one hand and avoiding grounding the Steeden in the other, hovering in the balance for a moment in what looked like it might turn into either a double movement or a dropped ball, only to reach out a hand and slam the Steeden right on the try line, and right beside the posts. Combining the dexterity of a short-range try and a long-range try, it was the perfect way for the hosts to get themselves back in the game, and a brilliant spectacle to see Blake slice his way through a blue and gold wall that had proven so impregnable over the previous thirty-eight minutes.
The mountain men didn’t take long to consolidate their momentum, either with Viliame Kikau crashing over for his second try in the NRL – his first since his debut game – a couple of minutes into the second stanza. Collecting the ball right on the line, the Fijian representative initially seemed to be the first stage in a rapid cascade to the left edge, only to collect the ball as it was moving left and then run back inside, dishevlling the Parramatta defence so completely that their entire trysaving hopes landed on a ball-and-all tackle from Hayne, with Scott leaping in at the eleventh hour for a fairly unconvincing low tackle.
Not even Hayne’s biggest efforts could prevent the Penrith frontrower crashing over, however, and with Cleary adding the extras the Panthers were back within two points of the Eels, whose spotty afternoon with conversions started to come back to haunt them now. It didn’t hurt, either, that Hayne had been the main casualty of Kikau’s try, since it was important for Penrith to see that he was only human – that a prop could simply run over him – after his renewed form in the opening half of the game. With Cleary adding a penalty goal eight minutes later, the score had been levelled, in a testament to a comeback effort from the Panthers that had been as rapid as it had been impressive, and which seemed to reset the game from scratch despite the fact that there were less than thirty minutes on the clock.
Finally, the Panthers had seemed to get into the gear, but the turning-point – the point at which everything really synced – came a couple of minutes later. It started with a short ball from Maloney to Kikau, and then a short, hard run from Kikau, culminating with a deft offload to Edwards. From there, Edwards sliced through the line as if his ball handling errors in the opening half had belonged to another game – or another season – before choosing just the right moment to get the ball across to Cleary, who was brought to ground by Moses in a critical trysaving tackle ten minutes out from the line.
Yet in another twist Moses was now sent to the bin for ten minutes for not being square at marker – a decision whose importance couldn’t be underestimated, given the ex-Tigers’ consummate organisation over the course of the game, as well as his sustained absence in the first stanza.
Things were coming together for Penrith and they grew even more serendipitous a couple of sets later when a fifth-tackle option from Parra bounced off the ref’s chest and sat up in just the right position for the mountain men, allowing Josh Mansour to put in a damaging run before sending the Steeden across to the other side of the field, where Cleary dummied and momentarily seemed to consider getting the ball back inside, only to storm up the field himself before popping it over to Blake who was burning up behind him.
Meanwhile, Norman was down in an injury in the backplay, meaning that the Panthers were now up against an eleven-man team – a team that had been defined by its halves in the first half but was now momentarily devoid of both of them. Back at the other end of the field, Blake showcased some terrific footwork to dance around Auva’a before defying French once again right on the goal line to slam down the third Penrith try of the night, making it clear that his opening four-pointer was no lucky break.
If Parra’s difficulty with the boot had become more critical as the Panthers fought back, it was glaring now, as Cleary slotted through the most difficult conversion of the afternoon as if he was kicking it from right in front of the posts. All of a sudden, he’d become the dominant half on the field again, and if Penrith could manage to rally around him they might just be able to make the most of their eight-point lead and hold off a Parramatta outfit that had looked destined to win in the opening thirty minutes of the afternoon.
Over the last quarter the Eels tried to get through, but by this stage they were starting to look like the Panthers had looked at the beginning of the game, with a whole lot of extra exhaustion to boot. Two handling errors were especially egregious – the first from Nathan Brown while aiming for a hasty offload, and the second from Michael Jennings after Hayne had put in a damaging run to bring the ball back from the in-goal area – and together they ruffled the Eels’ confidence as the game ran down.
With Cleary slotting through a penalty goal at the thirty-eighth minute – the perfect conclusion to the game – the Panthers were sitting at a comfortable ten point lead, in what has to have been one of the best weekends for some time for the Cleary rugby league family. Here’s hoping, then, that the Panthers will be able to retain this form next week, and that the Eels were manage to put in a more consistent eighty minutes when they take on the Bunnies at home.