Both Paramatta and Canterbury-Bankstown lost by only two points, last round, to teams that might have been expected to smash them, so they were raring to make good on that momentum when they met at ANZ Stadium for Friday night’s Battle of the West. Not surprisingly, the point scoring started quickly, with the Dogs the first to get up on the board, opting to take the two after a late tackle from Beau Scott.
Canterbury also notched up the first try, after Mitchell Moses was forced to hurry an early fifth-tackle kick after some sustained pressure from the home side. On the next set the Dogs got a piggy-back up the field with a penalty on the second tackle, and from there sent the Steeden across to the right wing, only to realise there was nothing doing and so centre the play again, bringing the footy back to the middle where Kieran Foran quickly moved it over to Mbye to set up things on the left side.
From there, the Bulldogs fullback was the man of the moment, dancing inside to swerve out of an oncoming tackle from Michael Jennings while pairing it with a soaring harbour bridge pass to Josh Morris, who popped it over to his brother to score the first four points of the nights. In the replay it looked a bit like a forward pass, even if the ref had been standing right beside the putdown, but it didn’t cause Mbye any self-doubt as he booted his first left hand touchline conversion of 2018.
It didn’t take the Eels long to respond, however, as Brad Takairangi managed the offload of their season – perhaps their best play of the season – midway through what started as a fairly unadventurous set. Faced with a pair of Canterbury enforcers halfway up the field, Takairangi flung the ball out just as he was hitting the ground, but still managed to get the height of a harbour bridge pass, allowing French to catch it on the full and keep accelerating up the left edge of the field, before flicking it back across to Clint Gutherson to answer the Dogs with the first four points for Parra.
After an eighteen months in which the status of both backs has been precarious at times, this linkup between French and Gutherson was glorious to see, with Moses pulling off a challenging sideline conversion just to make the Parramatta resurgence feel that little bit more emphatic. They were still two points behind following the Dogs’ opening penalty goal, but they made it a four point lead when Daniel Alvaro replicated Takairangi’s move with another one-armed offload at a critical juncture.
While it may not have soared quite as high as the big Parramatta centre’s efforts, it came much closer to the Canterbury line, providing the platform for Gutherson to send a cut-out pass for French to now rack up a try of his own. If the synergy between Gutherson and French had felt rousing for the opening try, then seeing the formula inverted just testified even further to their renewed communication on the field, with Moses’ subsequent conversion just making it all feel even more effortless.
As dramatic as these moments had been, however, the rest of the game played out with each team trying and trying to put down four more points. Shortly after French’s try, a linebreak from Matt Frawley came to nothing, paving the way for an offload from Moses right on the ground and a linebreak from Michael Jennings, only for a forward pass from Kenny Edwards to undercut it all. As the siren drew near, a brilliant grubber from Moses trapped Montoya in the in-goal area to get the Eels a dropout, but it turned out to be the last really good fifth-tackle option of the first stanza, with both sides trying and failing to complete these last sets with real focus.
The first half ended, as it had begun, with a penalty goal for the Dogs, but the Eels still felt dominant, and continued that way when they returned to the break, giving Canterbury everything in their arsenal for a sustained period of field position and possession in which it felt as if the hosts were cleaning up fifth tackle after fifth tackle, getting more disheveled, exhausted and desperate as Parra ground them in.
It was the kind of sequence that seemed destined to result in another try for Parra, and so it felt inevitable when they finally seemed to have scored, in what initially looked to be the most dispiriting sequence of the night for the Dogs, as Josh Morris copped a bad bounce in the in-goal area that allowed Michael Jennings to speed in and ground the footy before the Canterbury centre was able to scoop it into touch.
In one of the most remarkable turning-points this season, however, the replay showed that the bounce had defied Jennings as much as Morris, since he’d made the slightest of contact with his right hand before getting the Steeden to ground with his left. From Nene Macdonald’s four-pointer a few weeks ago, you could be forgiven for asking whether Jenko had in fact managed a right-handed try, but the Bunker clearly wasn’t going down that path again, and overruled the refs with a no try call.
Over the remainder of the second stanza, we were treated to some of the most desperate and volatile footy all season, with one turnover and dropped ball after another promising the kind of down-to-the-line ending that occurs when both teams are as ragged as these two have become over the last two weeks. In one incredible sequence, a pass from Hoppa ricocheted off Mbye’s boot, almost resulting in a try but still gaining the Dogs a goal-line dropout, on the back of which a quick play-the-ball from Jackson got his team the penalty they needed for Moses to add two more.
The score was now levelled at twelve-all, despite the fact that the Eels had scored two tries to the Dogs’ one, resulting in a final ten minutes that already felt like we had entered golden point. As the Steeden moved from one end of the field to the other, both teams tried and failed to get in line for a one-pointer, with the Dogs steadily and surely starting to regain the momentum they’d demonstrated at the beginning of the game, beating the Eels on nearly every set for focus and line speed.
That culminated with an extraordinary inversion of Jennings’ almost-try, after Hoppa caught the last-tackle kick and popped it back to Jackson, who got into halves mode and grubbered the footy through the line himself, where Clint Gutherson tried to kick the ball into touch, only to actually keep it in the field of play by thwarting Mbye’s own lunge at it, leaving it open for Adam Elliott to slam in and finally score.
After an opening in which the Eels had been so dominant off the back of French and Gutherson, this was demoralising to say the least, especially once Mbye had added the extras and booted through a penalty goal following a Kenny Edwards error, putting the Dogs eight points ahead. Try as they might, Parra couldn’t match Canterbury in these final moments, as their opening surge produced a tryless second stanza, rather than the surge of points it had initially promised. Next week’s match against the Warriors, then, will be a make-or-break fixture, while the Dogs are going to be looking to broker this rousing finale when they take on the Sharks at Woolooware for one of their more challenging matches of the last couple of weeks.