ROUND 2: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Parramatta Eels (ANZ Stadium, 25/3/19)
Sunday afternoon’s game at ANZ was one of the most dramatic of Round 2, starting with a pair of tries from the Bulldogs that initially seemed set to reverse their debilitating loss to the Warriors the week before, only to give way to a devastating surge of points from Parramatta that eventually brought the blue and gold army to a twenty point lead. As a result, this felt like a definitive breakout moment for the Eels, and a key stepping-stone away from the cultural and strategic problems that have haunted the club over the last couple of years,
From the outset, it was clear that the Dogs were determined to play a very different kind of game from their opening match against New Zealand. They were helped by an opening error from Maika Sivo, followed by an opening penalty from Tepai Moeroa for a ball strip. At the other end of the field, a short pass from Lachlan Lewis sent Adam Elliott hurtling at the line, only for a monster tackle from Daniel Alvaro and Clint Gutherson to just prevent the big second-rower from crashing over then and there.
For the next fifteen minutes, Parra would showcase the same determination in defence, starting with Mitch Moses regaining control a few minutes later with a kick over the sideline that gave his men some much-needed breathing-space. Midway through the next set, Christian Crichton poked his nose through the line on the left edge, before a touch from the Eels got Canterbury six again. Sensing that the Bulldogs’ momentum was building, Blake Ferguson reached up an arm to intercept a Will Hopoate pass, only to knock it over the sideline and get Canterbury-Bankstown another scrum feed.
For a moment, this looked like the critical set for the Dogs, as they quickly proceeded to shift the footy over to their right edge. Full credit has to go to Hopoate, who managed the quickest catch-and-pass this year under some enormous pressure from Sivo, who was clearly determined to make up for his opening error. Everything was in place for Reimis Smith to score in the corner, only for Gutherson and Nathan Brown to force him to lose the football in the millisecond before he ground it.
In retrospect, this was probably a key turning-point in the match, since while Canterbury would still score the next two points, the game might have got away from Parra if the Dogs had been permitted to build on their opening momentum this early. Still, things weren’t great for the Eels at this point either, as a handling error from Dylan Brown during second phase play was compounded by an error from Moses, and then a goal line dropout after Fergo was forced to pop a Kieran Foran kick into touch.Embed from Getty Images
At the end of the next set, Lewis had a signature pause before executing one of the oddest kicks of the year – a sidelong chip that landed just shy of the try line, before bouncing back obliquely into Foran’s chest. It was a perfect pickup from the ex-Sea Eagles, but at first it looked as if Lewis’ pause before the kick might have cost his team the try, and left Foran offside. Nevertheless, the replay showed that everything had come together perfectly, bringing the Dogs to a converted try lead once Holland booted through his twenty-third consecutive goal.
Things now seemed to be getting back into gear for the Bulldogs, with a dropped ball from Sivo recalling the start of the match, and suggesting a Parramatta side doomed to repeat the errors that had cost them the first four points. Conversely, the Dogs were consolidating and self-correcting, so it was no surprise that Smith now claimed his try on the right edge, off the back of a superb series of passes from Elliott, Foran and Tolman – and from Foran in particular, who dug deep into the line, drawing in Josh Hoffman as he did so.
Smith had learned his lesson from earlier in the game, remaining far enough infield, and retaining a strong enough hold on the footy, to prevent Gutherson taking the try from him once again. Any Canterbury celebrations were short lived, however, since the Eels now scored their first two tries in quick succession, starting the sequence of points and incredible acceleration of energy that would end up winning them the game.
If the Dogs had seemed to be self-correcting, then Parra proved they could do it even quicker, starting with a pair of repeat sets off the back of some deft kicking from Dylan Brown. At the end of the second, a wide ball from Mahoney, and a short ball from Moses, saw Gutherson dance along the right side of the field, bringing Lewis into the line before popping the footy back to Fergo, who was running in from the sideline at a diagonal angle.
Ferguson now proved himself as an asset, slamming past Lewis, skipping out of a low tackle from Josh Jackson, and then pummeling his way through Hopoate and Holland right on the line. Few buys have had such an immediate impact on their team as Fergo has had on the Eels, and the spectacle of him smashing his way through several stages of defence encapsulated everything about the way he has already managed to lift Parramatta from the dark place they were in at the end of 2018.Embed from Getty Images
The Eels weren’t done, however, as Mahoney compounded his wide ball with a linebreak earlier in the next set, eluding Sauaso Sue to dash up the middle of the field, before popping the ball back inside to Gutherson to cruise over and score. During the replay, you could see that Gutho had read the play at the very moment that Mahoney put his head up after receiving the football, and had got in position accordingly, putting the Eels two points ahead once Moses booted through his second two-pointer of the night.
It was to be a great kicking night generally for young Mitch, who landed all six of the required conversions, although the Eels couldn’t yet know how dramatic their win would be. There were signs, however, that things were improving, as the Eels found themselves completing set after set as the half time siren drew near, until possession was nearly 50/50, making them seem like a totally different team from the one that had allowed Canterbury-Bankstown to put down two tries in quick succession.
The Eels didn’t have to wait long before putting down another three tries, scoring on their first, third and fourth sets of the second stanza, capping off one of the most prolific tryscoring periods in team history. On the first, a series of silky passes saw the ball move through Gower, Moses and Gutherson, before a brilliant one-handed flick pass from Takairangi gave Ferguson some room to breathe on the right edge. From there, Fergo timed the play perfectly, disposing of Crichton before popping the footy back into Gutho to score his first double of the 2019 season.
The Bulldogs seemed to have got a momentary reprieve when Moses ended the next set by kicking the footy out on the full, giving them seven tackles to try and put themselves back on the scoreboard. Things got better for Canterbury-Bankstown when Shaun Lane knocked down the next kick from Lewis for Raymond Faitala-Mariner to scoop up just out from the line. Yet this would turn out to be the mere precursor to two incredible intercept tries from the blue and gold army, the first of which occurred a few seconds later.
Seeing the ball move across to the Eels’ left edge through Foran, Fergo intercepted a pass from Jackson to run ninety metres downfield, at least twenty metres away from the nearest defender until he decelerated on the cusp of the try line, where he was met by a congratulatory moment from cousin Reimis Smith. You couldn’t blame Smith, since Ferguson’s brilliance was contagious, cementing him as the single most critical trade of the 2019 season, and the game-changer that the Eels have been searching for after the disappointing outcomes of Jarryd Hayne and Semi Radradra.Embed from Getty Images
On the very next set, Lane intercepted a short ball from Raymond Faitala-Mariner in the midst of a tackle from Hoffman and Brown. Holding his head up and shifting the footy into his other arm, Lane headed downfield for another four points, before Moses booted through his fifth conversion of the night, It was as if Fergo’s vision had percolated its way throughout the rest of the team, imbuing him with a stature and centrality that seems to have refined his own sense of discipline and responsibility as well, as evinced in his recent request to Brad Fittler to be reinstated at Blues camp.
Eighteen minutes out from the end, we were given the first really big pause of the game, after Elliott was removed from the field for an HIA, and Fergo was debilitated for a bit with what appeared to be a leg injury. While he was able to return to the field, it felt as if the intensity of their tryscoring had momentarily exhausted Parramatta, since Marata Niukore leaked the first penalty of the second half on the next set, for a late tackle, and the Bulldogs scored their next and final try moments later.
It started with a deft pass from Michael Lichaa, who had just subbed on for Jeremy Marshall-King, and who sent the ball across to Lewis to pop over to Dylan Napa in turn. The ex-Rooster now provided the one-man effort that the Dogs desperately needed, barging his way through Mahoney before coming to ground before Gutherson could get beneath him to hold the football up. It was a bit like a twist-and-spin in slow motion, and further out from the line, raising the question of whetehr Napa had committed a double movement in the putdown, but the replay cleared it, and the Bulldogs were finally back on the board with fifteen minutes to go.
They could conceivably have worked their way back from here, but with a lost ball from Fualalo at the start of the next set the Eels were able to start consolidating once again. A few minutes later, a massive tackle from Fergo got Parramatta rolling, proving to his team that he was still 100% – a critical gesture of leadership, as it turned out, since a tackle later Brown collected the ball from Paulo and sent it across to Jaeman Salmon to break through the line, before recollecting it from him and dashing the last metres to score the final Eels try of the afternoon.Embed from Getty Images
You couldn’t have asked for a better summation of the Parramatta effort than this final push, with the strength and vision of Fergo laying a platform for innovative and adventurous play from the team’s young guns. For only the third time in the modern NRL era, the Eels have now won their first two games of the season, making this every bit as historic a match as the Tigers’ table-topping performance against the Warriors the same afternoon.
The Eels will be keen to continue flexing their muscles when they take on the Roosters next week, while Ferguson will be just as keen to condense and refine all the leadership he’s shown so far this year to prove himself against his old club. If anything, the memory of winning the grand final with the Chooks will make it even more paramount that Ferguson put in a show of football that cements his new affiliation with the Eels, especially since Sydney City have had such a spotty start to the 2019 season in his absence. By contrast, the Dogs will be desperate to beat a triumphant Wests Tigers outfit when they meet at Campbelltown, in what promises to be another of the exciting western battles that have started the 2019 season.
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