For both the Tigers and the Eels, Monday afternoon’s clash at ANZ Stadium represented a tipping point of sorts. On the one hand, the Tigers were on the verge of losing the sublime winning streak that had allowed them to triumph over two of the most touted teams in the 2018 NRL competition in the first weeks of the season. On the other hand, the Eels had lost three straight games – a string of defeats that would officially turn into a losing streak if they came away with the loss this time.
From the outset, then, both teams dug in, although the Eels seemed just a little hungrier for the win, coping splendidly in Hayne’s absence, thanks in part to a particularly galvanising performance from Will Smith in the no. 1 jersey. On the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers took a bit longer to warm up, with Benji booting the ball too hard a couple of minutes in, allowing Smith to effortlessly catch it on the full in the in-goal area and grant his side the first seven tackle set of the afternoon.
The Eels lost no time in making the most of the effort either, marching up the field in a couple of tackles, only to be met with a pack defence from the Tigers, which Mitchell Moses read perfectly with a near vertical kick to find Smith waiting for it right on the goal line. While Lolohea might have anticipated Moses’ boot and leaped for the ball as well, Smith managed to outplay him and slam forward, footy clutched against his chest, to put down the first four points of the afternoon, which became six when Moses slotted the Steeden through the posts a couple of seconds later.
It goes without saying that the spectacle of Moses as try assister was particularly galling for the Tigers, and just as motivating for the Eels, who became more innovative and experimental with their play over the next couple of sets, culminating with a behind-the-back pass from Kenny Edwards followed by an improvisational grubber from Tim Mannah – the first kick of his career – that saw Hayne and Kane Evans applauding enthusiastically from the sidelines as Malakai Watene Zelezniak only just managed to punch it into touch, in a reprise of Ryan James’ playmaking prop abilities during the shock Titans victory over the Broncos the evening before.
In the face of that escalating Parramatta confidence – even cockiness – the Tigers had to score next, which meant that Benji had to draw upon the leadership that has made him such a powerful asset over the 2018 season so far. Midway through one of the next sets, that’s just what he did, collecting the footy from the right and starting to shift the play out to left, only to realise that the numbers were better back on the other side of the field, and so putting in a massive double left foot step to move the play back out in that direction, disheveling the Parramatta defence in the process.
From there, things moved quickly, with Esan Marsters, in particular, holding on to the footy just long enough for the Eels to regroup out on the wing, as he hung, suspended in space, before sending it over to Robbie Rochow, who slammed forward through the ruck as Josh Hoffman prepared for a tackle on the edge that never came. With Lolohea managing a challenging sideline conversion the Tigers were level with the Eels, and the game felt as if it had reset itself for both teams.
It was all the more exciting then, for the home crowd, when Kevin Naiqama crossed over a couple of sets later, especially since the Tigers, like the Eels, had been a bit spotty in the wake of their opening six points. A fumble on the first tackle of a promising set had been especially frustrating, but now the black and gold army made up for it with yet another terrific bit of leadership from Benji, who collected the football from Luke Brooks in the middle of the field before popping it out to Naiqama with one of the biggest and most conical harbour bridge passes of 2018.
If Benji’s set-up was spectacular, however, then Naiqama’s putdown was just as special, as he somehow slammed through and out of a tackle from Moses, hit the turf just in front of the chalk, and then smashed the ball over, without coming up with a second effort or double movement in the process. Put it down to the suddenness with which he bounced away from the ex-Tiger, which gained him enough momentum to ensure that not a single Parra hand got to him after Moses lost him, with Edwards leading the charge, but ultimately arriving too late to stop it.
Once again, the four points were followed by a terrific sideline conversion – a promising sign for the Tigers – with the ball hanging in the swirling win before bouncing off the uprights and then popping through. A penalty goal shortly after gave Lolohea another opportunity to build his confidence with the boot, putting the Tigers eight ahead, while a line break from Jacob Liddle up through an exhausted Parramatta ruck seemed to provide another tryscoring opportunity, only for the Eels to showcase some of their best goal line defence of the afternoon in preventing it.
With five minutes to go until the first siren, Benji put in an amazing bomb – the kind of bomb he’s reputedly been practicing at training all week – and Smith was utterly undone by it, coughing it up in what was a nice bookend for Tigers supporters after Benji booted it too far in the opening minutes of the game. The hosts chose to tap and go, putting in a grinding set that should have ended with Malakai Watene Zelezniak scoring in the corner, only for the ex-Panthers to lose it at the final second.
Still, the Tigers were given a second win after a penalty for Michael Jennings being called offside, and once again they tapped and ran at the line, moving the footy to the right side of the field, where Corey Thompson initially looked to have almost scored in the opposite corner from MWZ before being smashed into touch. It was surprising, then, when the ref called it a try and then referred it upstairs, and yet in slow motion it did seem as if the Steeden had made contact with the turf moments before Thompson had headed into touch, gaining the Tigers another four points, and another six once Lolohea had added the extras with less than a minute on the clock.
It was a genuinely suspenseful way to end the first stanza, since from the video footage the try could have gone either way – an even more agonising wait for Tigers supporters in that Marsters could quite possibly have made his way around Kirisome Auva’a and crossed over himself instead of passing it out to Thompson. Still, that made the result all the more galvanising, as well as a testament to how much consistent goal-kicking can lift the Tigers game when they get on this kind of a run.
The Eels came out of the sheds determined to make more of a dent on the game and for the first few minutes defended well. Still, the Tigers responded in kind, with Benji showing why 2018 has already been labelled as some of the best defence in his career, as Smith slipped out of a tackle from Marsters but Benji sped up and added a tackle of his own. With Smith giving away a penalty the Tigers had yet another opportunity to take the two, but once again chose to tap and go, and with Matt Eisenhuth crossing over on the second tackle it was a triumphant decision to make.
It was a terrific example of how to spook the opposition with a sheer show of strength and determination, as Moses came out of his line to try and pre-empt the next play, leaving nobody but Smith to deal with Eisenhuth, and leading Michael Jennings to have a few words with his halfback immediately after. Meanwhile, Lolohea was lining up the tee for what would be yet another successful conversion, bringing the Tigers to a stunning 26-6 lead as the sun started to set over the ground.
Things were starting to get desperate for the Eels, who really needed to score – and score quickly – but it was the hosts who went over next, thanks to a deft pick-up from Lolohea and a strong run up the right side of the field from Marsters, both of which set the foundation for Thompson to crash over for a double, with Hoffman powerless to bring him to ground before planting the footy to the turf. For the first time, Lolohea didn’t pull off the sideline kick, but this still felt like another consolidation moment for the Tigers, now breaking thirty points for the first time in an NRL season in which they had initially struggled hard to put down points at all.
At first, a brilliant 40/20 from Brooks seemed set to lead to more points for the Tigers. However, in one of those sudden reversals that can so often determine the momentum in the wake of a try – or a succession of tries – Pita Godinet booted the ball too far at the end of the subsequent set, returning possession to the Eels more abruptly than anyone on the Wests Tigers side might have expected. With the Tigers coming up with an error shortly afterwards, the balance had momentarily swung back in the direction of the Eels, who consolidated brilliantly on the following set.
The result was their second try of the night, thanks in part to some quick thinking from Tony Williams in the ruck to get the footy over to the side of the field in the midst of a punishing hit-up from the Tigers’ attack. From there, Michael and George Jennings combined as slickly as Josh and Brett Morris against the Bunnies on Friday afternoon, with George crossing over seamlessly a couple of seconds later, and Moses adding the extras to put Parra – tentatively – back in the game once again.
From there, the Eels put down a sequence of tries that saw the Tigers lead become more and more precarious as the game wound down towards its conclusion. For the first time in 2018, this felt – briefly – like the second stanza shutdown that characterised so much of the Tigers’ season in the early parts of 2017, with Parra offering them a bit of a heart-in-mouth moment shortly after, as Hoffman tapped back the high ball, several Eels’ attackers kicked it on, and Edwards then slammed it to ground, with only a massive defensive run from Thompson allowing him to get to the footy first, after Lolohea had reached out a hand but only grazed the surface.
Shortly after, Loloea lost a big ball from Moses, but lost it backwards, only for MWZ to lose it on the next pass – but, once again, backwards. Still, it became clear that the Tigers were tiring, and a forward pass out of dummy half from Benji on the next tackle cemented it, returning possession to the Eels right on their line. All it took was a crossfield kick from Moses for Hoffman to get the ball to ground, with not even another noble defensive effort from Thompson – wrapping his hands around the winger’s legs and hanging all for all he was worth – able to keep out the four points.
In many ways, it was probably Moses’ comparative inconsistency with conversions that saved the day for the Tigers, since Auva’a was the next to crash over, getting the ball to ground despite a massive effort from both Marsters and Thompson to hold him. With an onfield ruling of try, however, there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the footy hadn’t hit the turf, and in fact that footage – as ambiguous as it was – seemed to favour the Eels, with the big Parramatta centre appearing to have got the footy to ground between his legs in the midst of the sliding defence from the Tigers wing.
With ten points between them on the clock, the last few minutes of the game were tense for the Tigers, but once Michael Jennings had out down the ball at the seventy-sixth minute the game was virtually over, and the scoreline remained at 20-30 when the final siren blew. In some ways, it was a disappointing conclusion from the Tigers, but it was still an impressive effort. Sometimes it’s as important to win the expected wins – if only by a margin of only two points – as it is to win the less expected ones, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how both teams manage to hold up when they take on the Storm and the Panthers respectively in Round 5.