While the Eels have had one heartbreak after another in 2018, not even their most devastating losses have matched the dourness and drabness that settled over the first half of their clash with the Knights at ANZ on Saturday evening. With Jarryd Hayne, Tim Mannah, Corey Norman, Beau Scott, Kaysa Pritchard, Tony Williams and Greg Lelesiuao all benched with injuries, the blue and gold could scarcely afford to lose any more men, so seeing Bevan French taken off after a head clash in the first few minutes was pretty confronting, especially once Mitchell Moses was led off fifteen minutes before half time with a suspected ACL injury, or possibly a Grade 3 medial complaint, following an awkward hyperextension of his knee during a tackle.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Knights were particularly determined to come away with this win and get some momentum for the five consecutive home games looking at them over the next month and a half – a brilliant opportunity to get some security and edge their way into the eight before Mitchell Pearce returns to the park. No surprise, then, that they started the game strong, on the back of a contest between Moses and Cory Denniss under a Newcastle high ball that saw the ex-Tiger come off the worse for wear, allowing Jack Cogger to scoop it up and get it to ground just beneath the uprights, with Brad Takairangi arriving there just a fraction too late.
It took a while, from there, for the Knights to really reach a scoreline that reflected their ownership of the field, with the Eels seeming to receive one lucky break after another to avoid falling too far behind, even if they couldn’t quite make good on their luck either. A few sets later, Clint Gutherson threw a blatant (and, it seemed, intentional) forward pass that was somehow missed by the refs, only to hit the ball back into play at the other end of the field and straight into the hands of Mata’utia. Shortly after, Moses set up a beautiful run from George Jennings up the right side of the field, but it came to nothing after Parra failed to deliver over the last tackles.
Only towards the end of the first stanza did the Knights start to get into gear, starting with a penalty goal on the first set after Moses was led from the field. From there, the offload of the night from Jamie Buhrer put Conor Watson over the line, only for the refs to call that Buhrer had been held up – a bitter pill for Newcastle to swallow after the replay showed that Buhrer’s elbow had never left the turf. Still, the Knights got another shot following a professional foul on Lachlan Fitzgibbon that saw Michael Jennings sent to the bin, in yet another depletion for the Parramatta line.
In a dazzling display of strength, Sione Mata’utia scored on the second tackle of the very next set, thanks to a deft set play from Danny Levi who popped the ball back through the ruck right on the line for the big man to slam through a waning blue and gold defence to ground the footy right on the line. With Parra’s no. 3 barely back in the sheds before Newcastle’s no. 3 had scored, it was a decisive way for the Knights to close out the second half, and the prologue for a brilliant surge in the next stanza.
The next points initially seemed to have come pretty quickly after the teams trotted back from the sheds, thanks to a superb left-foot kick from Ponga that saw Ken Sio bounce over the line, only for some terrific defence from Nathan Brown to hold him up. At first, this felt as if it might be a turning-point for Parramatta – after all, the Knights were only eight ahead – especially since the spectacle of Sio shut out of the corner brought back bad memories of the game against the Rabbitohs in Round 9,
That just made the Newcastle supremacy feel all the more definitive, then, when Sio scored a couple of sets later, on the back of what was initially called to be a knock-on from Fitzgibbon right on the line. Luckily, they sent it upstairs, where the replay showed that the big Newcastle second rower hadn’t actually got a hand to the footy, and that it had in fact been Will Smith who had shouldered in ahead of him and tried to pop it into touch, only for Sio to scoot around and score four more points instead.
Things just got worse for the Eels over the following minutes, as a shoulder charge on Chris Heighington – now equal with Andrew Ettinghausen for the most number of NRL games played – saw Tepai Moeroa on report. The fact of another Parra player being unavailable for near future was dispiriting enough, but it was even worse that this has been a pattern in Moeroa’s strategy before this point, and was supposedly a part of his game play that he had been determined to put behind him this season.
With so many Parramatta players off the field, it barely felt as if the Knights were playing a full side, with their next four points seeming more effortless than any they’ve scored in the last eighteen months. In fact, you couldn’t think of a simpler try more generally, as a short ball from Levi out of dummy half put Daniel Saifiti in place to simply run through a hit-up from Cameron King to put down four casual points.
It was almost inevitable, then, that tension would start to flair in the dying minutes of the game, and sure enough a high hand in the tackle from Levi on Brown led to a bit of a flare-up with fifteen minutes to go. In another kind of match, this might have galvanised the Eels to a late resurgence, but this wasn’t that kind of game, and it was pretty dispiriting to see how quickly and predictably the next Parra set fizzled, coughing up the ball on the back of a big hit from Saifiti to give the Knights the upper hand once again as now Peni Terepo was sent off for an HIA, leaving fourteen men.
A knock-on from Michael Jennings then allowed Sio to reach the twenty on the first tackle, after eluding Smith twice before eventually coming to ground. While Jennings might have cleaned up the footy immediately after, the Knights were even better at self-correcting, as Sio’s own try had demonstrated, with Watson simply continuing Sio’s splendid momentum at the end of the next Newcastle set, where he broke through the line untouched, disheveling Takairangi and Jennings with a quick dummy and run, before coasting ahead for an even easier four points than Saifiti had scored.
With Smith now taken off with a hamstring issue – and replaced by Suaia Matagi – the Eels had no bench, in what felt like their most vulnerable ten minutes of the 2018 season. It was something of an achievement, then, when Josh Hoffman outmanoeuvred Ponga to crash over with five minutes to go, in a genuine consolation try if ever there was one. Still, it was a pretty yawning scoreline, and even Hoffman’s terrific footwork was absorbed back into the general sense of malaise and frustration that had characterised Parramatta’s game over the evening.
The Eels are going to have to brace themselves for next week’s game against the Cowboys in Darwin, then, while the Knights have built a pretty good platform to start capitalising upon a sequence of home fixtures that begins with the Roosters and then moves through the Storm and Bulldogs before they meet up with Parramatta once again. That game will be a good litmus testfor how both teams fare over the coming weeks, and will be even more emotional after the Knights 30-4 victory here.