Manly were down to 10th on the ladder, and had conceded 88 points in their last three games, when they hosted Parra at Brooky for the third match of Saturday football. It was a clear day after a rainy week, but the surface was still pretty dewy, meaning the second-phase play was riskier, and less frequent, that normal. Ryan Matterson and Blake Ferguson were out for the Eels, and Junior Paulo was back on the park after his spasms against the Knights last week, while Taniela Paseka was starting for Manly.
Despite Parra’s supremacy on the ladder, the first quarter was the best for Manly all year, as Marty Taupau, Daly Cherry-Evans and Danny Levi all sliced through the Eels’ defence. You would never have thought it would end up a four-point game, or that the Sea Eagles wouldn’t score a single point in the second stanza, since these opening twenty minutes promised a landslide of maroon and white points. Even then, Manly handed Parra their second loss of the year, a week before Mitchell Moses returned.
Marty Taupau took the first hit-up, Taniela Paseka had two carries on the first set, and George Jennings knocked on in his first touch of the footy in 2020. Joel Thompson got a hand in there, but the call went Manly’s way. The Sea Eagles now had their first stint in Parra’s twenty before the Eels had even completed a tackle, as Taupau continued the momentum of his opening run by smashing through Jai Field, Nathan Brown and Junior Paulo on play two, from five metres out, to score just beside the uprights.
Manly had only peaked towards the end of their Round 4 clash with Parra, so this was a big statement, putting them about two points per minute when Reuben Garrick booted through the two from right in front. It was also a pretty rude shock for a Parramatta outfit who’d won every match of the season with the exception of their Round 6 game against the Roosters. Finally, five minutes in, they got their first real touch of the footy, and concluded their first set with a decent bomb from Field.
Still, the Sea Eagles didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the next set, as Paseka took yet another tackle, and Daly Cherry-Evans sent the Steeden over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space before Parra got their second set. Jennings was safer now, but his team struggled to get out of their own end, despite big efforts from Paulo and Brown on the fourth and fifth plays, prompting an overlong bomb from Nathan Brown that sailed over the sideline to gift Manly even more field position.
Brown responded with the best Parra tackle so far, skittling Paseka to the ground, but not without the big no. 8 getting an offload back to Cade Cust to open up the second half of the set. Once again the Sea Eagles were attacking from close range, and then again when Shaun Lane stuck out his boot to play at DCE’s grubber on the last. History now seemed to repeat itself as Levi followed Taupau by simply bursting through the line, this time beneath the crossbar, before reaching out his hand to get the ball down.
Rhe Eels got a letoff, however, since the replay showed that Paulo’s legs tackle had done the job, forcing a double movement from the Manly hooker, and keeping the score set at 6-0 as the first ten minutes elapsed. Brown aimed for the same part of the field with his final bomb, but the effect wasn’t that different this time around, since Garrick caught it on the full, in the midst of a big kick chase, and the Sea Eagles got rolling up the park again, before Cust and Brad Parker slammed Gutherson to ground.
Parra seemed on autopilot as they continued to move up the middle at medium speed, unable to find the edge or spark that would allow them to cut though this wall of Manly jerseys. Brown had a shot at changing things up with a bomb to the right edge, but Jorge Taufua was just as safe beneath it as Garrick, while the Sea Eagles got the first penalty of the night when Nathan Brown conceded an offside error a tackle later.
Maika Sivo came up with the worst play under the high ball at the end of the next set, when he waited casually for DCE’s bomb to bounce, and virtually caught it by mistake, meaning that Garrick could get in position to withstand his fend as Moses Suli surged in to drag him over the sideline. If the defence seemed weak when Taupau and Levi burst through, it was non-existent on the Eels’ left edge now, where DCE sliced through Brown and Lane to score more or less untouched – and crack the 500 point ceiling.
Garrick added the extras, and Cust reached a boot over the back line to catch Gutho’s kickoff in touch, as the Eels suddenly found themselves defending their line from close-range again. DCE shifted the play right on the second, and Levi made good on his aborted run a tackle later, slinking past Lane and Jennings almost as easily as his captain and halfback had scored a set before. This was getting surreal, even if Garrick missed the kick, especially given Parra’s poised performances for most of the 2020 season.
In fact, this was the third worst score that the Eels had conceded all year, only nineteen minutes into the match, so they were on the very precipice of a landslide defeat if they didn’t get it together now. Instead, Manly got even more field position on the restart, thanks to a desperate, dangerous tackle from Reed Mahoney, only for Brendan Elliot to overshoot a pass out to Garrick– the first real mistake from the Sea Eagles side, and a critical potential turning-point for Parra as they packed the scrum.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard came up with a good run to steady the next set, and Mahoney made up for his error with possibly the best Parra kick of the night – a long, low, dangerous ball that would have produced a dropout if Elliot hadn’t been in exactly the right place at the right time. Three Eels now surged into to dislodge the footy from Taufua’s grasp, right on the Manly line, and the Sea Eagles lost their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it, as the game slid a little further back in Parra’s direction.
Jennings got his men the first six again on tackle one, thanks to a ruck error from Levi, and the Parramatta props now got a chance to take on the line from close range, only for Dylan Brown to make his second egregious error of the night with a cold drop late in the tackle count. Taupau popped out a sublime offload to get Cust over the forty a few plays later, and DCE grubbered for field position, getting his men in place to trap Jennings on the line, before Joel Thompson almost dragged Waqa Blake back in touch.
In one of the critical one-man efforts of the game, though, Blake managed to keep his arm and the Steeden just in the field of play, before the Eels escaped their own line off a strip from Levi – the second successive error from the ex-Knight. Yet Blake got unlucky a set later, when he contested the high ball with Parker in the air, and upon inspection from the Bunker, turned out to have knocked it into the Manly centre, even though his team mates were expecting a dropout after Taufua cleaned it up in goal.
Still, Gutho cleaned up one of DCE’s choppiest bombs a set later, and the Eels got another piggy-back up the park, thanks to an offside error from Corey Waddell, while drawing on fresh blood with their first interchange of the night, as Marata Niukore came off the bench to relieve Paulo after thirty sterling minutes. Brown did better with the boot this time – or got lucky with the ricochet off DCE, which forced Elliot into a clutch putdown to save a Parramatta try, gifting the Eels their first dropout of the night.
Nathan Brown seemed to sense a shift in temperature, putting in his strongest, hardest run of the night on play one – the kind of run that steadies and guides a team. Sure enough, the Eels got a restart on the next play, off a ruck error from Waddell, while Michael Jennings simply continued Brown’s trajectory on the second tackle, collecting the footy from Gutho and running straight and true into the corner. This time Elliot couldn’t stop the play, and the Eels had four on the board after Gutho missed the kick.
This was a classic Jenko try – a throwback to his glory years that seemed to sync up the Eels with their more immediate past and their 2020 form in the process too. From here, Manly’s opening dominance started to wane, as Parramatta’s big men squared up an excellent restart, muscling their way up the middle third and getting Brown in position for an enormous floating bomb. Garrick collected it on the full, and Manly got their first restart a tackle later, but the Eels closed down their metre tally in defence as well.
Curtis Sironen and Suli found space for Garrick out on the wing, but again the Parramatta defence held strong, forcing a knock-on from the Manly no. 5, before Blake forced another dropout with a clutch grubber right on the line – the kind of split-second attacking inspiration that the Eels had struggled to muster during the first quarter. Brown came close to mirroring Taupau, DCE and Levi late in the next tackle count, only for Cust to come up with the best take on a low kick all night to avoid another dropout.
The game paused briefly for Garrick to get attention for a shoulder cramp, while David Gower subbed on to relieve a Nathan Brown cork, and this brief pause seemed to momentarily reset the game, since for the last three minutes Manly were back to their stellar opening selves, despite being down a player for the next set. Ninety seconds out from the siren they got six more, waging a war of attrition up the right edge to make up ten or twelve metres at a time as the clock wound down.
It all came together with a DCE grubber to the left corner on the last, and a great line from Thompson, who got ahead of Jennings and more or less fell over the footy, exerting the barest modicum of downward movement to notch up the try. With another twenty minutes, the Sea Eagles might have recovered the opening momentum of the match, but as it turned out Garrick’s conversion marked the last points they’d score all night, since Parra mounted a slow but steady comeback in the second stanza.
Once again, though, the Eels didn’t get to the end of their first set, as Mahoney put down a Brad Takairangi offload midway through the tackle count. Paseka took two hit-ups on the first Manly set, and Elliot looked set to follow DCE through the line on the right edge. Yet the Eels were wise to this play now, closing down Manly’s residual momentum, before George Jennings got them rolling again with his hardest run of the night, and Moses Suli came from the field with a fractured sternum a few minutes later.
Both teams cruised up and down the park for the next couple of minutes, going more or less set for set, with only the occasional error or restart to break the rhythm. For a moment it looked like the Sea Eagles might get the upper hand again, as Brown conceded two successive errors, and Lachlan Croker steadied the ship with a superb 40/20 kick. Gutherson shanked the footy over the stand in frustration, but he needn’t have worried, since Blake came up with the first great long-range play a tackle later.
Andrew Davey had just made his debut for the Eels, and he made his first big NRL statement now, wrapping himself around Taupau’s legs as big Marty was looking to offload right on the line. Blake seized the moment, storming in to wrestle the footy out of Kapow’s grasp – a play that was scrutinized pretty closely by the Bunker officials, who eventually decided Blake had taken control of the ball just as Taupau had started the offload, splitting the difference between a strip and an intercept from close range.
From there, Blake burst into open space, outpacing Parker and then shifting out to the wing to elude Garrick, who only got to a legs tackle ten metres out from the line, by which point Blake had so much speed and space behind him that he could actually afford to decelerate a little to get the footy down. DCE was agitated, and for good reason, since the Eels had scored off a Manly 40/20, the play that should have gifted the Sea Eagles their next try, even though Gutho once again failed to get the extras.
For a moment, it looked like the Sea Eagles might return the favour, and score off a superb piece of Parramatta play – the 22nd run from RCG, hard and fast up the middle, which brought the big prop to 200 metres with a full quarter left on the clock. Mahoney cancelled out the momentum with an early kick, Paulo conceded an offside penalty, DCE booted one of his longest for field position, and Gutho made a ruck error for six again, as Manly got stuck into their first sustained close-range attack since the break.
Yet a Sironen error got the Eels back on the front foot again, as the game started to settle into a slog – dour enough that the Sea Eagles could probably win here if they just stayed solid in defence, although even that was a pretty anticlimactic prospect given their sublime opening twenty. There were still some big plays though, most notably from Gutho, who had been targeting DCE all night, and slid ahead of RCG, with nineteen minutes left, to clean up one of Daly’s grubbers before Daly could get to it.
DCE’s next grubber was a long-range effort down the left sideline, but Gutho was just as safe, gathering it on the ground and then barging headlong for one of the toughest kick returns of the night. Daly’s following kick was a beauty, sitting up ten centimetres behind the Parramatta line, and almost trapping George Jennings right in the corner, so it was a boon for the Eels when Sivo made his first big midfield run of the night, and then collected a Jenko offload, while Garrick was downed in backplay with a head issue.
He came off the field almost immediately, and Suli returned from the bench, right arm hanging from his side, indicating that his pec issue was far from resolved. Dylan Brown continued Sivo’s momentum and took immediate advantage of this Manly reshuffle, ending with a well-weighted grubber that Jack Gosiewski bumped into touch at the very last minute, while DCE barked out a warning as he surged up along the Parra chase.
Sean Keppie had his best tackle of the night to hold up Jennings on the fourth, and Mahoney compounded a pretty spotty night with a forward pass to RCG, who was covered by the Manly defence anyway, although the Eels came back big by recovering the footy against the scrum feed. They got two successive restarts to boot, as Takaiangi, Sivo, Dylan Brown, Paulo and Blake all made hard runs at the line in the ten, and Mahoney made up for his forward pass with his best grubber of the entire game.
RCG was in prime position to score, and actually gathered the footy up into his chest, only to fumble it into a last-ditch-tackle from Elliot. Yet with Taufua turning over the ball on the first tackle, the Eels just had too much field position not to score, even if Gutho put down the ball on the wing late in the count. Next set, after a Suli error, Parra got the left sweep right, as Gutho popped out a superb short-ball to get Jenko over the line, and into the top ten of all-time NRL tryscorers as he curved behind the posts.
Gutho added a quick conversion from right in front, and the Eels scored once more, forty seconds out from the siren, when George Jennings got some joy after his opening error by following brother Michael over the line. The try was doubly amazing in that Parker seemed to have ended the game with the best hit so far – a huge effort that slammed Sivo to ground on the left edge of the park, with only thirty-four seconds left.
As it turned out, though, the pause worked to Parra’s advantage, steeling them to consolidate once more on the right edge. George Jennings had save a play there a set before, and now he collected a no-look pass from Blake to put down the final four. It was a great moment for Parra, although a flat game as a whole, so they’ll be raring to get back in top gear when they take on Tigers next Thursday, while Manly will be keen to draw on their sublime first quarter here against the Cowboys on Friday evening.