There hasn’t been a more emotional match in the entire history of 1300SMILES than took place on Friday night. With Johnathan Thurston playing his final home game, Matt Scott clocking up his 250th game, and Jake Granville his 100th, and with Jason Tamaulolo back on the field for good measure, it was almost impossible to conceive that Parramatta could come away with the win, especially since the stadium was sold out.
The Eels showed their competitive disadvantage from the very outset, too, clocking up three penalties in the first two minutes, thanks to a dangerous tackle from Siosaia Vave, a flop from Jaemon Salmon and a hand in the ruck for Kane Evans. Appropriately, then, Thurston put down the first points of the night, booting the ball through the uprights to a crowd that roared as if it was the match-winning try.
In the next couple of minutes, Ben Hampton scored a double, and J.T. was the try assister on occasions, stamping his signature all over the field before the Eels had a chance to catch their breath. The first time around, Thurston laid the foundation with a pass that allowed Hampton to send a cut-out ball across to Gideon Gela-Mosby to get around Jarryd Hayne and break through the line on the Cowboys’ left edge.
At the other end of the set, a pass from J.T. sent Hampton over for the first try of the night, bringing the North Queensland master to 2200 points once he sent the Steeden through the posts for the conversion. Shortly after, a deft offload from Kyle Feldt got the Cows back down Parra’s end once again, where Thurston found himself with the footy to the left of the uprights.
Realising that the blue and gold army were already exhausted in the middle, J.T. got the footy back on the inside to Hampton, who slammed through Evans and Corey Norman, while the rest of the Parra looked on in dismay. By the eighteen minute mark, the Eels hadn’t made any significant errors for some time, but the Cows had nevertheless been able to complete their previous nine sets, approaching an Origin-like intensity in the determination and vigour they were bringing to the game.
The game paused for a moment after Tepai Moroea slammed his head into Scott’s arm, leading to the big second-rower being led off the park for the first HIA of the night. Yet the Cows regained their momentum immediately, as a superb crossfield kick from Clifford found Feldt in the corner, where the big winger outleapt Michael Jennings for a clean catch before negotiating Jenko’s swinging legs to get it to ground.
It was galvanising to see Thurston’s halves partner playing so well in these opening stages of the game, especially since Clifford seemed to have a new skip in his step as well, as if realizing that it was important for him to show the crowd that he could continue J.T.’s legacy once he’s gone, even if nobody can entirely fill his massive boots. The crowd went wild, then, when Thurston and Clifford linked up to send Feldt over for his own double shortly after, with J.T. reading the play perfectly on the inside and Clifford responding in turn with a brilliant cut-out pass to his wing man.
It didn’t hurt, either, that this was one of Feldt’s most gymnastic tries of the 2018 season, as he grounded the ball down while the rest of his body was thrust over the sideline. By this stage, it was starting to feel more like a North Queensland party than a regular match, since the Cows had enjoyed an astonishing 81% of possession, as well as clocking up five linebreaks, which was five more than Parra had managed.
Eight minutes out from the end, the North Queensland machine struck again, as some good work in the middle from Thurston established the platform for Granville to send the footy across to Gavin Cooper on the Parramatta line. Reading the play perfectly, the big second rower came right up to the line and drew in Mitchell Moses before popping the Steeden across to Gideon Gela-Mosby for his first try of the season.
For the first stanza, the Cows had been playing near-perfect footy, so it was interesting to think how this match would have looked if they’d had the opportunity to take on a top four team with this kind of energy behind them. Shortly after returning from the sheds, Feldt came up with a hat trick on the back of another Clifford kick – this time a grubber, which seemingly sat up easily enough for Norman and Jennings to boot or usher into touch, only for Feldt to scoot around on Jenko’s inside and beat them both to it.
A beautiful kick from Thurston brought the scoreline to 38-0, while a big boot from JT at the end of the restart saw Gela-Mosby almost chip the footy forward again for a second try, only for it to bounce off Norman’s torso and almost grant the Eels possession once again. Almost, because the refs called this a knock-on, despite the Parramatta fullback never laying hand to ball, setting the stage for the most sustained period of North Queensland possession in the second stanza.
It started with Feldt putting in a mammoth effort to avoid being bundled over the sideline, after which the Eels seemed to leak penalty after penalty. First, it was Marata Niukore for holding Taumalolo down for too long on the fourth tackle of the subsequent set. Then it was a slow peel from Gutherson after a trysaving tackle on Justin O’Neill, who smashed through a sea of Parra defenders despite Feldt being marked on the wing.
The last straw was an offside penalty for Moeroa, resulting in a formal warning, and sure enough Brad Takairangi was sent off shortly after, leaving the Eels to defend with a twelve man team. Second later, Cooper crossed over to slam the ball to ground beneath a pile of Parramatta bodies, compounding Thurston, Scott and Granville’s achievements by becoming the first forward in 100 years to rack up eight successive tries.
Everything about this game had history written on it, so it was a disappointing for the home crowd when Cooper was taken off moments later, after falling on his head during a contest with Hayne for the kick start. In rugby union, Jarryd would have been penalised, but he wasn’t especially at fault, and the game continued, with Parra now finally managing to put points on the board.
Whether it was the deflation of Cooper leaving field, or the desperation of fielding a twelve-man outfit, the blue and gold army now finally consolidated. In a dazzling piece of play, Moses sent a short ball to Norman, who responded with a cut-out pass to send Hayne dancing along the right edge of the field, before sending an inside pass back to Jennings to clock up the first Parramatta try of the evening.
While the Cows may not have scored another try, things just went from bad to worse for the Eels as the match wound down. Two frustrating moments for Hayne said it all – the first when he almost slammed over the line only to be held up by a sterling North Queensland defence, and the second when he actually seemed to have scored a try three minutes out from the end, only for Gutherson to be hit with an obstruction penalty instead.
By the end of the match, then, Parra were barely a presence on the field, and will be looking for a final burst of pride when they take on the Roosters at home next week. Meanwhile, it’s been a frustrating back end to the season for Thurston, so it was great to see him come away with such a gavanising win, in what will always be one of the most historic rugby league matches to be played in Townsville.