It was Benji Marshall’s 300th game when the Tigers hosted the Eels at Bankwest on Saturday afternoon, but Parramatta were clearly determined to ruin his big day. Maika Sivo made a big statement early on with a huge hit on Corey Thompson, while Blake Ferguson followed up with an enormous defensive effort to take Robert Jennings over the sideline at the end of the Tigers’ best attacking opportunity so far.
Eight minutes in, Mitchell Moses ran the football, and almost got through the line before kicking it dead, albeit not without an escorts penalty from Corey Thompson, who didn’t change his line, but didn’t make much effort to get out of the way either. Moses added the two points, and the Eels were on the board, but Benji responded with a stong run of his own a set later, before offloading to Robbie Farah, who secured a dropout after Sivo was forced to clean up the footy in goal.
The Tigers didn’t get a chance to capitalise on their field position, however, since Jennings coughed it up on the first tackle of the dropout, thanks to some big pressure from Ferguson and Tepai Moeroa. Jennings started making up for it at the end of the next set, when he caught a poor Moses kick on the full and quickly ferried the football back up the field, where a penalty from Kane Evans for working on the ground got the Tigers another shot at the Parramatta line.
Once again it came to nothing, thanks to a hospital pass from Luke Brooks that Ryan Matterson never had a chance of securing, especially with Josh Hoffman and Dylan Brown up in his face. Parra got their second penalty on the next set, following a slow peel from Jennings, but Brooks responded by forcing a knock-on from Junior Paulo. It was a David-and-Goliath play that breathed new life into the home team, especially once a slow peel from Shaun Lane got them back down the other end shortly after.
Moments later, Benji racked up the first try assist in his milestone game, sending the footy out to Thompson, who slammed through Hoffman and Sivo to put the Steeden down in the corner, for his sixth try in six games against the Eels. For a moment, Thompson seemed to have injured his ankle in the process, but after a minute he got up and joined the Wests Tigers huddle, as Esan Marsters swung the kick away to the left of the uprights.Embed from Getty Images
The Tigers had scored first, but between Marsters’ kick and Moses’ penalty they were only two points ahead. They got their chance to break the game open a minute later, when Marsters beat two tackles midway up the field and Brooks kicked for his most dangerous bounce of the afternoon. In the most agonising gaffe in the game so far, however, Farah scooped up the Steeden on the wing and passed it directly back to the Eels, recalling Damien Cook’s no-look pass at ANZ the afternoon before.
To make matters even worse, Thompson lost the footy into the opposition on the first tackle of the next set, paving the way for two successive tries from Brad Takairangi that got the Eels a quick lead in the minutes before half time. First, though, Moses took the two after a penalty from Elijah Taylor for working on the ground, in what initially felt like a bit of a letoff for the home team.
Moses wasn’t content with two, however, setting up Takairangi with a pitch-perfect kick a set later – a kick that defied Mbye and Jennings to get there in time, while leaving Thompson scrambling behind the right post to get himself back into the action. It was a clean, simple, elegant try – just what Parra needed to recover their spirits before half time – and Takairangi made it a double moments later, on the back of a considerably more complex and serendipitous passage of play.
Once again, Moses initiated things by sending the footy out to Fergo, who twisted around and passed it on to Gutherson. The Eels seemed poised for a right sweep, but Gutho disrupted the defence’s momentum by lobbing the ball, harbor-bridge style, to Takairangi, who slammed through Moses and Brooks to come down half a metre out from the line. In his own deception move, Takairangi dummied as if to offload, before putting out an arm and planting the ball to ground before the defence could contain him.
With Moses booting through the extras, the Eels had gone from a two-point deficit to a twelve-point lead in a matter of minutes, but the Tigers got the first try after half time, thanks to some good synergy from the halves. Brooks and Benji both brought the football deep into the line, setting up David Nofoaluma to crash over under Gutherson for another four points.Embed from Getty Images
Moments later, Benji put in his best organisation of the game, ferrying the footy across to the right side of the field, where he got it to Marsters, who sent it along to Nofoaluma in turn. From there, Nofa booted it back inside the field, where Thompson picked it up right on the try line and planted it down, only for the play to be called off because Thompson had been a foot offside.
With this try, the Tigers would have matched the Eels’ energy at the end of the first stanza, so it was doubly frustrating for them when Ferguson scored on the next Parramatta set, off one of the most spectacular blue and gold formations all evening. It started with a kick from Moses, which Takairangi batted backwards, before Manu Ma’ua scooped it up and shifted it across to Ferguson, who took control on the outside to score on the wing.
If the buildup was an object lesson in grace under pressure, then Fergo’s putdown was a sublime one-man display of speed and strength. Despite the fact that Jennings was waiting directly in his path, the ex-Rooster managed to pivot off his right foot and get around him. Brooks then came in for a low tackle – the last line of defence – but Ferguson was able to get a leg away and reach out to score, while remaining poised at the very cusp of the sideline while seeming to avoid being dragged over too, at least as the referees called it.
This was probably Ferguson’s try this year, as well as one of the best one-on-one contests on the wing all year. Parra couldn’t have decimated the promise of Thompson’s near-try better if they’d scripted it, especially once Moses sliced through another conversion to make it a 22-8 lead. What the Tigers needed now was luck, and they got it soon after, when Benji sent a cut-out pass to Mbye, who rolled the footy forward across the line for Jennings to put it down in the corner.
By the time the forward pass – or forward roll – had been discerned, the whistle had been blown. The Eels weren’t seriously challenged, however, since Marsters missed the conversion again, begging the question of why the Tigers continue to prioritise him as top kicker. In fact, kicks would turn out to be the defining feature of the match, since with Takairangi and and Nofoaluma both scoring in the last ten minutes, both teams had four tries apiece.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, the Eels were two converted tries ahead, thanks to three missed conversions from Marsters, and three penalty kicks from Moses, the last of which came a minute out from the end. By Nofoaluma’s final try, Mbye was kicking, and sent through the only Wests Tigers conversion of the night, but it was too late by this stage, and the Eels won partly on the strength of Moses’ boot, which has only matured further over the course of 2019.
For the second time this year, then, the Eels have beat the Tigers at Bankwest Stadium. While the scoreline wasn’t as dramatic this time around, the impact was just as emotional, given that it was Benji’s milestone match, and given that Cameron Smith had nailed his milestone match against Cronulla the afternoon before. The Tigers will be looking for some catharsis, then, when they travel to Canberra next week, while Parra will be keen for the same synergy against Manly at Brookvale.