ROUND 8: Parramatta Eels v. North Queensland Cowboys (Bankwest Stadium, 3/7/20)

The Eels were playing their fifth game at Bankwest this year, and the Cowboys hadn’t won an away game since the resumption of play, when they met on Friday night in the west. Jai Field was replacing Mitchell Moses in the halves, Clint Gutherson was celebrating his century, and Valentine Holmes was back in the no.1 jersey, as both teams got stuck in for what would be another Parra blitz at Bankwest, despite a very dominant opening from North Queensland.

Reece Robson put Field under severe pressure for his first kick, and while Blake Ferguson managed to catch the deflection, Ryan Matterson knocked it over the sideline a moment later. Jake Clifford made the most of this early field position, ending with a neat grubber that trapped Gutherson behind the chalk for the first dropout three minutes in.

These early signs suggested the Cows might be about to prove why they’re the second best attacking team in 2020, especially when Scott Drinkwater shot a terrific cut-out pass to Justin O’Neill. Still, the Eels forced the visitors to rely on their last kick – a crossfield chip from Drinkwater that Michael Jennings leaped up to contain, and knocked on in the process.

Jason Taumalolo is the only forward in the top five for metre-eaters in 2020 – 232 to James Tedesco’s 217 – and continued to add to his post-contact tally during the next bout of field position, which came when Waqa Blake was called offside within the ten. The Cows swept right, and then left, where a wall of blue and gold jerseys held up Coen Hess after he collected the footy out of dummy half from Tom Opacic and tried to burrow his way through the defensive line.

Field was the one who got beneath the ball – a good way to make up for his opening kick – and the Eels finally had a full set. Blake made a ruck error, and the Cowboys rolled up the middle even more fluidly and confidently, so Drinkwater was pumped enough to demand a Captain’s Challenge when he lost the footy on the first play after a second restart, this time off a mistake from Reagan Campbell-Gillard.

The Bunker footage clearly showed a loose carry from the North Queensland five-eighth, with no interference from RCG – and just like that this incredible rhythm from the visitors came to an end. Parra followed with their fastest set so far, got a restart midway through the tackle count, and then forced their first dropout when a Dylan Brown chip and a sterling four-man chase trapped O’Neill in the right corner.

All it took was a bullet pass from Gutherson to Jennings for the first try – exactly the play that Drinkwater had attempted with O’Neill – putting Parra six ahead once Gutho bookended it all by slotting the first conversion through the posts. They’d defended eight minutes of repeat sets from North Queensland and then scored on their first real touch of the footy, so there was no question who was dominant as Fergo got the restart underway.

Opacic tried to steady the ship with a bold chip-and-chase at the end of the next Cowboys set, but Gutho collected the bounce as if it had always been meant for him, while the Eels got another restart a moment later. The Cows were still completing effectively – they were at 9/10 – and yet Parra were slowly but surely tightening the screws, inducing Clifford to boot it over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space at the seventeen minute mark.

As the second quarter arrived the Eels finally got into first gear, leaning into a relatively consistent tryscoring sequence that lasted most of the game, and saw them capitalise on most of the field position that the Cows conceded to them. The first bout came with a Brown-forced dropout, this time at the expense of Esan Marsters, who had to slide onto the ground to bump it over the line and prevent Parra getting there first.

Junior Paulo offloaded on the third to Reed Mahoney for a change in direction, and Opacic reached out to intercept the subsequent pass to Matterson, only to knock it on first, gifting Parra a scrum from just outside the ten. A ruck error from Marsters was the last straw, as Paulo and RCG forced a swathe of North Queenslanders to hold them up on both sides of the post, before Gutho riffed beautifully on his previous assist, shaping for Jenko but passing for Sivo.

This was pure football poetry, and one of the best assists of the year, thanks in part to the foundation laid by Mahoney and Dylan Brown earlier in the sweep. Gutho’s sideline kick bounced off the left upright, but the Eels wouldn’t have to wait long for their next points, which came off a Brown crossfield kick, and an unusual contest from Blake and Opacic, who both converged on it from the ten.

For a moment, it looked like Blake had obstructed Opacic, crashing into him and then tumbling over him, only just keeping his footing as he reached up to collect the footy. In slow motion, though, you could see that Blake had kept his eyes on the Steeden the whole time, playing the ball rather than the man, meaning the play was still on when O’Neill and then Holmes arrived too late to clean up the putdown.

The Eels now had their biggest lag since the opening eight minutes, although they stayed strong in defence, with Sivo coming in hard to bump Feldt in touch while he was trying to offload back in field to Marsters. It took two linebreaks from O’Neill for the Cows to get into place for their first and only try – a no-look short ball from Drinkwater that finally found his man in Opacic, who crashed over for four points two minutes out from the break.

Nevertheless, Feldt missed the conversion, and the Eels resumed their rhythm as soon as they returned form the sheds, getting sixty metres on their first four tackles, with a near-linebreak from David Gower, and then their next try at the tail end of another deft Dylan Brown kick. Blake was positively balletic in the air, pirouetting above Robson and O’Neill to tap the footy back with his right palm. Field caught it on the full and slammed into the right corner before Opacic had time to bundle him into touch.

This was clinical stuff from the Eels – more like a training run than a regular game – so it was a bit surprising when Mahoney went for a 40/20 on the restart but dropped the ball on the side of his boot, slicing it almost horizontally over the sideline instead. When Reed followed with an accidental offside, it felt like we might be on the verge of a momentum shift – the visitors were only sixteen behind – but it all came to nothing when O’Neill fumbled another beautiful wide ball from Drinkwater two tackles later.

This was the second time Drinkwater and O’Neill had failed to sync up on the left edge, and the Eels seemed motivated by history repeating itself. Sivo almost broke through the line early in the next set, and Brown ended with another brilliant chip to the left corner, where Feldt had to bend down to his knees to collect it. North Queensland were still in their own thirty by the final tackle, and while Clifford booted it long, Fergo caught it on the full with no trouble, to get his men rolling once again.

Parra pretty much picked up where they’d left off on their previous set, as Gutherson broke through the line from long range, careening past five or six defenders to get Matto in the ten by play two. Just as Drinkwater and O’Neill had failed twice, so Gutho and Sivo now got a double, as another sublime pass from the centurion – the first big harbour bridge ball of the night – set up his wingman to ricochet off Feldt and over the line.

Between the earlier linebreak and the sideline conversion, this was probably Gutherson’s best period of the night, although the Eels would have to wait until the last quarter for their final barrage of points. The tipping-point came with a second failed effort to intercept a pass to Matterson – this time from Drinkwater, who reached out to collect a Field ball but knocked it on instead.

Two tackles later, Sivo made it a hat trick as Brown mirrored Gutho’s previous harbour bridge ball, but under considerably less pressure this time. Only a last-ditch ankle tap from Feldt prevented the burly no. 2 from crossing over untouched, and even then Maika made the most of the contact, pivoting over his opposing winger to land, football-first, with his right hand.

This was the second hat-trick for Sivo, who would score his first quadruple about ten minutes later, following another bout of Parramatta acceleration. They got their first penalty on the restart – crowding from Shane Wright – and Brown almost broke through Robson and Hess, before Blake leaped up to meet a great Gutherson kick in the air, only to fumble it too far in goal for Fergo to have a shot at his first 2020 try.

Nevertheless, the Cows now leaked their second penalty in quick succession, as Opacic was pinged for high contact on Blake, giving the Eels a fresh set – and a platform for the best of their seventeen offloads so far. Barging into a huge combined tackle from Josh McGuire and Francis Molo, Junior Paulo still managed to get a hand around the back to offload to Shaun Lane. Blake tried to follow suit on the last, but ended up shifting it back to Drinkwater instead.

Still, the Eels easily had the upper hand, and got their last four-pointer when Opacic lost the footy into Ferguson at the seventy-second minute. They moved steadily up the middle out of the scrum, and got six again off a Clifford error, easing into their last and most relaxed sweep of the night – almost too languorous to be called a sweep – as Sivo collected a chilled-out pass and tap-on from Takairangi to cross over for his fourth.

Gutherson added the extras, and then another two in the last minute, when McGuire was penalised for grappling, bringing the Eels to a historic victory – the first time since their 1986 premiership when they’d won seven out of the first eight games of the season. That they did it without Mitch Moses on the park was even more extraordinary, so you can be sure they’ll be pumped for another massive win margin when they meet the Knights at Hunter next Sunday afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (509 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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