The Eels were desperate for a win, and desperate not to lose to Canterbury twice in one season, when they took on their rivals at ANZ Stadium in wintry conditions on Thursday night. While they came away with the competition points, it took them some time to make a mark against a Bulldogs outfit that were fairly dominant in the opening half. The result was probably one of the most resilient Parramatta performances of the 2018 season so far, and a critical rallying-point as they look forward to the last six games of one of their most disappointing years in some time.
The Dogs started with an early statement from Jeremy Marshall-King, who booted through a last tackle kick that almost resulted in points there and then, only for Bevan French to just beat Josh Morris to pop the football into touch. The clinical efficiency of JMK’s aim was only exacerbated by a fairly underwhelming last tackle option from Mitchell Moses the set before, and led to a brilliant sequence for Canterbury on the right edge at the back end of the subsequent dropout.
It started with an elegant cut-out pass from Adam Elliott to Kerrod Holland, who sent the ball back into Josh Jackson. Despite being held up in the tackle, and almost stationary, the Canterbury captain managed to offload back to Lachlan Lewis, who pivoted to help Holland wrap back around the play. From there, Holland found a hole in the defence, slicing through so effortlessly that there seemingly had to be an obstruction. Yet the replay showed that this had simply exposed a worrying gap in the Parramatta defence, as Rhyse Martin booted through the extras to put his team six ahead.
As teams often do following such an effortless try, the Bulldogs now accelerated, resulting in a barnstorming set ten minutes again, featuring the shortest of short side runs from Josh Morris, a gutsy run at the line from David Klemmer, plenty of second phase play, and then a call of six again, as the Dogs asked question after question of a Canterbury side that already seemed totally exhausted. In the end, it took an error from the Dogs – a forward pass from JMK to Jackson – rather than any convincing defence from the Eels to bring this onslaught to an end.
Even so, you sensed that a critical consolidation point, and perhaps even a critical turning-point, had slipped away from Canterbury, who wouldn’t score another try for the remainder of the night. The Dogs seemed to sense it too, as JMK was now pinged for verbal dissent – an uncharacteristic penalty for the typically mild-mannered hooker. While the Dogs might have resumed their mojo during the next set, putting Parra through another six gruelling tackles, the Eels now managed to shut down the attack on their own terms, as Clint Gutherson cleaned up a crossfield kick from Lachlan Lewis under considerable pressure from Kerrod Holland.
The blue and gold army now got their best chance of the game so far, but it was undercut by some awkward handling from Moses, who tried to execute a clutch catch-and-pass to get the footy across to George Jennings, but ended up bouncing it forward instead. More like a volleyball move than a rugby league move, this aborted opportunity spoke volumes of the Eels’ frustration, as did a huge tackle from Jennings on Elliott early in the next set. To make matters worse, Holland now showed up Moses with the quickest of catch-of-passes to allow Reimis Smith to collect the ball on the short side, run the sideline and then kick it at high speed towards the Eels’ end of the park once again.
For a moment, this looked like yet another guaranteed tryscoring formation for the Bulldogs, not least because of Smith’s history with opening games wide open with these short side plays. Things got better when Lewis arrived at the football, and then kicked it forward into the in-goal area, only for the posts to defy him, ricocheting the Steeden off at just the right angle for Nathan Brown to scoop in and clean things up. Without the post, Lewis was perfectly poised to score, but with no other Bulldogs around the play fell apart, resulting in yet another let-off for the Parramatta side.
The Eels now responded with a pair of miracle passes – the first from French to Moses just before he was dragged over the edge, and then next from Moses to Jennings as he was being sent in French’s direction. Parra now proceeded to put in their best set of the night with twelve minutes to go – almost as good as the Dogs’ pummelling effort at the ten minutes mark – starting with a big run from Jennings, and culminating with an enormous effort at the line from Kaysa Pritchard, who bent the Bulldogs defence backwards at they tried to contain him.
In the end, it was a heroic one-one-one effort from Jackson that prevented the Parramatta hooker crossing over. The set devolved from here, and ended in the worst possible way – with Jarryd Hayne sending a fumbly pass back from the midst of a sideline tackle that Jennings then lost into touch. Clearly, the Eels needed a lucky moment, as well as a stronger sign of leadership from Hayne, and they received both a couple of minutes later, when a crossfield kick from the ex-49er – who was limping by this stage – resulted in the most complex sequence of the night so far.
It started with a knock-on from Lewis, who was the first player to make contact, and proceeded to both Jennings and French being unable to regain possession. The most that French could do was kick the footy through the line, but because he was marginally in front of Brett Morris, who obstructed him, the sequence resulted in a professional foul and sin bin for the Canterbury no. 3. Early in the next tackle count, Peni Terepo crossed over beneath the posts, but the replay showed that it had come off the back of a forward pass from Pritchard.
This was probably the nadir of the game for the Eels, who had been handed a twelve man team, but still couldn’t seem to tighten their game. It was a flight or fight moment, the point when their season could have gone from terrible to abysmal, and would have haunted them well into next year if it had been their one and only opportunity to score with Morris off the field. Under that unbearable pressure, they got the job done, as a deft pass from Corey Norman led to a linebreak from Tepai Moeroa, who steamrolled over Lachlan Lewis before being brought to ground.
Never giving up on the play, Tepai wriggled forward fast enough to ensure that the tackle wasn’t completed, slamming down the first four points of the nights for Parramatta. Like Moses’ try in the second stanza, this was a fairly grim moment, since there was too much at stake – and the Eels had struggled too much – for elation to be an option. Instead, a grim determination set over the team, almost an assumption that the odds were destined to be against them, an assumption that was only intensified when Hayne was inexplicably pinged for a hand in the ruck following a one-on-one strip on Holland eight minutes into the second stanza.
A couple of minutes later, Moses kicked for Takairangi, who showcased incredible patience as he waited for the ball to sit up at just the right angle, while the Bulldogs defence converged on him. For a moment, it looked as if he’d condensed all the patience that Parra had had to demonstrate over the match into a single sublime play, only for the replay to show just the opposite – that his patience had turned into submission, and that he had waited long enough for Morris to exert enough pressure to force him to bounce the ball to the ground as he leapt to put it down.
This time, there was some question about whether Josh Morris had obstructed the play, and while he wasn’t penalised for it, the spectre of a sin bin seemed to galvanise the Eels, if only by recalling the one condition under which they had managed to score this game. Moments later, a Lewis kick ricocheted off Takairangi, who became an unwitting try assister as Moses scooped up the ball and ran all the way down the park from the Parramatta line, to score the second and last blue and gold try of the night, putting them a converted try ahead once he added the extras.
No player has embodied the disappointments and struggles of the Parramatta season quite like Moses, so there was something cathartic about seeing his sail down the length of the field – like watching the team put their 2018 form behind them – not least because this was one of the fastest runs of Mitch’s career, leaving even French behind him as he crashed over the line. Yet while Moses is usually one of the most vocal and flamboyant swaggerers on the field, his body language was much calmer and grimmer here, suffused with the sense that the pride of the whole season was somehow at stake in the next thirty minutes.
As luck would have it, Parra would hold on, getting themselves a bit more security when Moses booted through two more points after a penalty on Elliott for holding on with twelve minutes to go. It wasn’t just the win, but the fact that the game effectively ended with Moses’ run – and his two subsequent kicks – that made this feel like such a rousing night for the Eels, as well as an unexpected high point in their 2018 season. Whether it’s enough to sustain them against the Bunnies next week is a different question, but for now it’s critical that they relish these moments when they occur.