The Sharks rocked up at ANZ Stadium with a fairly depleted team on Saturday night. Not only were they missing Paul Gallen, Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan, but Josh Dugan was off for fifteen minutes with an HIA for part of the first stanza, and then missing in action following a tailbone injury that resulted in a series of back spasms in the buildup to Parramatta’s second try. This was Dugan’s first time in the fullback jersey since Round 12 last year, so his absence made a big difference, forcing several of the younger players in the Cronulla squad to step up and lead the team.
In other words, this was a very different kind of game from the Sharks’ decimating win over the Cowboys in Townsville last week, not least because the Eels were hungry for the win after such a disappointing outcome against the Roosters last Friday night, and consequently turned in their most organized and focused game this season – at least in key moments – with Mitchell Moses, in particular, showing an extraordinary amount of vision with both the boot and ball in hand.
Junior Paulo set the tone early on with a short-range run at the line that took all of Andrew Fifita’s defensive strength to hold him up. It was one of the more contorted trysavers of the year, as Fifita got Paulo around the shoulders, before getting beneath him and twisting around on his back, relying on Chad Townsend for some assistance to prevent the football getting to ground. The Eels regathered quickly, as Moses got a dropout on the next tackle, and Michael Jennings responded with a terrific kick chase to land Parramatta their first big attacking opportunity of the evening.
It didn’t produce points, since Josh Morris cleaned up Moses’ kick on the fourth tackle of the next set, while managing to remain within the field of play. However, it did make a big dent in the Cronulla armour, since Dugan landed on his head while contesting the kick chase from Jennings, resulting in an HIA that saw the Sharkies lose their fullback, as Scott Sorensen was subbed onto the park sooner than anybody was expecting.
The Eels now accelerated, with Moses producing another great kick at the end of the next set. Blake Ferguson competed brilliantly for it, forcing Sosaia Feki into an awkward position in the air that resulted in the footy ricocheting off his knee, and straight into the chest of Marata Niukore, who came to ground beneath Townsend. Moses added the icing with his twelfth conversion from fourteen attempts this year, booting the ball so high that it almost sailed over the right post, before curving around and through.Embed from Getty Images
Moses followed up with a linebreak on the fourth tackle, passing the footy back inside to Clint Gutherson, in what initially looked like the start of a second tryscoring sequence, only for Brad Takairangi to lose the ball under some deft pressure from Kurt Capewell. Townsend responded with a terrific kick, sending the ball right to the edge of the sideline, where it came to a halt, but Fergo showed some great judgement too, putting a foot over the sideline and sending the ball dead to get Parra a scrum feed, rather than risking scooping it up and being bundled into touch.
Shortly after, Moses made a second linebreak on the fourth tackle, but this time Mitch himself was the one who failed to capitalise on the play, not passing to Gutherson on his inside. In a way it was worth it, since when Gutho got the footy on the next tackle, one of the most spectacular sequences so far ensued, as the Eels lost possession, and Reed Mahoney kicked the football forward, soccer-style, before chasing it down and bringing it to ground himself.
Unfortunately, the replay showed what had been pretty evident in real time anyway – that while Mahoney might have done a sterling job of gathering the Steeden into his chest, he’d lost it just as he ground it, and only ground it about ten centimetres out from the line to begin with. A bit more ball control, and he could have reached out an arm for four more points, but the Eels still got a fresh set following an offside penalty from Matt Prior.
So far, Paulo had been one of the strongest and hardest players on the park, but he lost the footy on the first tackle of the restart. Between his error, Mahoney’s error, and Moses’ lapse in judgment, this felt like a brief glimpse of the Eels of last year, who always seemed to be on the verge of discovering their greatness only to fall short at the final minute. This was a bit of a boost for the Sharks, especially when Dugan returned to the park a minute later, having passed his HIA, and they started to regather some of the momentum they’d showed in the opening minutes of the game.
Meanwhile, Fergo took a risk on the last tackle of the next set, booting the ball from the sideline, only for Jayson Bukuya to come it with it, rather than Mahoney, who was the intended target, and who now had his second aborted tryscoring opportunity of the night. Dugan made his presence felt for his first run back, on the second tackle, and Jayden Brailey followed up with a terrific one-on-one effort on Gutherson at the start of the next Parramatta set, before an offside penalty for Kyle Flanagan put a temporary pin in the Cronulla momentum.Embed from Getty Images
Down the other end of the field, Moses executed another last-tackle gem, sending the footy straight into the right upright, where it would have bounced favourably for the Eels had Capewell not read the play perfectly, scooping up the Steeden and storming his way back into the field. Feki followed up with a linebreak, but dummied instead of passing inside to Townsend. With Dugan down in backplay, and barely able to walk with a spasming back, the Eels were effectively playing a twelve-man team, and started to get rolling once again.
Luckily for the visitors, the Parramatta attack didn’t really come together on the next set, with Fergo again booting the ball from the right edge, only for it to tumble into touch without much pressure on Cronulla from the kick chase. Things went from bad to worse for Ferguson during the next big Shark attack, as he got to a Townsend kick a mere metre over the try line, reaching out his right hand twice, and missing it both times, before Feki stormed up behind him and scored a metre out from the dead ball line.
The four points were bad for the Eels, but even worse was Fergo’s complacency – his biggest liability as a player – since he could easily have ground the footy, or at least punched it into touch, if he’d been a bit more motivated. Feki had now scored nine tries in eight games against Parramatta, a sterling record that was nicely complemented by Flanagan sending through his first conversion in the NRL. An error from Maika Sivo on the restart boded well for the Sharks, but then Dugan made the worst mistake of the game a few minutes later, letting the high ball simply careen through his hands, in what must have been a concussed response to the play.
After so many innovative last-tackle options from Moses, the Eels now scored off the back of one of Mitch’s more average kicks, which Feki gathered, but then coughed up during a big tackle from Tim Mannah. Keen to get himself back in the game, Fergo started the next set with a big lunge at the line, while Kane Evans testified to his winger’s leadership by running directly in his footsteps on the second tackle. Moses’ leadership now came into the spotlight, as the ex-Tiger rapidly shifted the play to the right, sending the footy through Peni Terepo to Clint Gutherson, who popped it, basketball-style, over Feki’s head, for Brad Takairangi to cross over untouched.
It was hard to overestimate the power of these four points, and how they unfolded, on the brink of half time. First, it was rousing for the Eels to see the perennial Cronulla tryscorer turned into the main casualty of this try – first, when he lost the footy in Mannah’s tackle, and then when he saw the Steeden sail over his head en route from Gutherson to Takairangi. Second, Takairangi has been a bit inconsistent for the Eels over the last few weeks, and had made a critical error in this first half, making it feel like a broader gesture of self-correction and consolidation from Parramatta for him to put down these four points.Embed from Getty Images
With Moses adding the extras, the Eels were now a converted try ahead. The Sharks would be the next to score, however, thanks in part to some big energy after the break, and thanks in part to one of the worst calls of the 2019 NRL season so far. The energy came with a linebreak from Briton Nikora, along with a surge in attack that forced Gutherson into a strip. The luck came when Morris was dragged over the sideline by an enormous pack effort from Parramatta, where he offloaded back in field, only for Moses to grab the footy and start dancing back down the sidline.
So sudden and rapid was Moses’ movement that he would certainly have scored here, or at least set up a tenable tryscoring formation, in what would have been an appropriate spectacle for Mitchell, so dexterous and daring had he been over the game so far. It wasn’t to be, however, since the refs made the extraordinary call that Takairangi had made a second effort on Morris during the previous tackle.
With that kind of shift, it was perhaps inevitable that the Sharks would score on the next set. They took advantage of their luck for the best deception play of the night, as Townsend sent the footy out to Capewell, who sent it back to Townsend just as quickly. From there, all the Cronulla halfback had to do was pop the footy back across to Feki to cross over unmarked. Not only had Feki now scored a double, but Fergo had been unable to prevent him both times, having headed in field once the pass from Townsend to Capewell had suggested the Sharks were sweeping right.
This could easily have decided the game in the Sharks’ favour had Michael Jennings not responded with a double of his own. Coming at the 52nd and 71st minutes, these would be the last two tries of the night, bringing the Eels to their hardest-won win during the 2019 season so far. The first try came off another worrying error from Dugan, who collected the footy right on the tryline at the back of a particularly pummelling Parramatta set, only to lose it beneath Flanagan and the Parra kick chase.
It was one of those chaotic periods that can often take whole minutes to parse on the replay, but Jennings spared the bunker with a remarkably simple play, waiting for the footy to emerge from Dugan’s grasp before reaching down a hand to tap down one of the softest tries of the year so far. Nine minutes out from the end, he scored four more, at the end of a Parramatta set that started with solid runs from Fergo and Takairangi, as Dugan continued to struggle in backplay.Embed from Getty Images
After such a disappointing loss to the Roosters last week, it was critical for the Eels’ self-belief that Fergo was the assister here. Even better, it all started with Moses, who glimpsed some space on the short side and sent the footy out to his winger, before Fergo ate up a few metres and shifted the Steeden back into Jennings for Parramatta’s fourth and final try of the night.
This try felt like a consolidation of all that the potential that the Eels have shown over the last few years. In four points, the blue and gold army had combined Jennings’ veteran status and old-school reliability, Moses’ fresh injection of adrenalin and energy in the wake of his departure from the Tigers, and Fergo’s immediate impact upon the club since joining at the start of 2019. Three distinct periods of Parramatta football had linked up and mutually nurtured each other, in what may well come to be seen as one of their critical football matches this season.
That communication between different generations of the players is key to the Parramatta push. They’ll be keen to continue this fantastic display when they take on the Raiders at GIO next Sunday night, as Fergo goes from playing his most recent club to playing his previous club. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sharks were playing with their B-team, so shouldn’t feel too bad about this loss, but will still be keen to recapitulate their stunning form against the Cowboys when they host the Roosters on Saturday night.