ROUND 4: Wests Tigers v. Parramatta Eels (Stadium Australia, 5/4/21, 22-36)

It was a perfect autumn afternoon for Parramatta’s first daytime match of the 2021 season – against the Tigers at Stadium Australia. Michael Maguire had named the same side that won over the Knights last week, and was looking for back to back wins for the first time since Round 7 last year. On the other side of the Steeden, Ryan Matterson was omitted an hour before kickoff, replaced by Isaiah Papali’i in the second row, while Keegan Hipgrave had been promoted from the reserves to the interchange bench.

Blake Ferguson slipped over on his left leg while trying to collect the kickoff, and Junior Paulo was in position for a hit-up rather than a ball gather, fumbling the footy to concede the first set back to the hosts. David Nofoaluma took the first carry, and James Tamou followed by twisting into the defence, before Zane Musgrove took them over the ten on the third. Adam Doueihi was the first player to really meet a wall of defence, and Daine Laurie was cleared up on the last without too much trouble.

The Eels looked pretty confident working it out of their own end, with Reed Mahoney getting the Steeden over the line from just outside the forty. With the pressure taken off Mitchell Moses, the Eels had a chance for some breathing-space, and set in to defend the first Tigers set from long range. Alex Twal took a strong run into the two Parramatta props, but Tamou couldn’t make any decent post-contact metres, forcing Luke Brooks to make his first bomb from within his own half.

Moses’ next kick looked like it might be the best so far, pulling up right on the Tigers’ line, but in the end it went dead in goal, gifting the black and orange a seven tackle set. Jacob Liddle tried to get six again on the next, to no avail, and so Brooks shanked it high from the thirty, leading to the second miss from Ferguson – but this time with the first penalty for Parramatta, thanks to a poor play from Asu Kepaoa, who took his eyes off the footy to hit the big winger a fraction too early.

The Tiges got their own back at the end of the next set, however, when Marata Niukore was called offside as Moses booted through the kick – the first penalty the hosts had received for a couple of weeks. Doueihi tried to pop his nose through the defence on the third, and Musgrove opened up the play with an offload – the first of the game – to Liddle on the fourth, only for Dylan Brown to come in for a potential trysaving tackle. Once again, they were held up on the last, as the Eels got stuck in for another set.

Fergo was now lucky not to lose the footy on the second, while Reagan Campbell-Gillard made the best metres so far up the middle. Laurie responded in kind, and James Roberts made more metres off a quick play-the-ball, before the Tiges got the first restart off a ruck error from Nathan Brown. This was the first real acceleration from either team so far, and Roberts capitalised further with a rapid run up the right edge and an offload to Laurie, before Fergo cleaned up Kepaoa on the other side of the park.

He couldn’t drag him over the sideline though, or prevent him from crossing over a tackle later, after Musgrove went from offloader to second-phase recipient, thanks to a deft flick pass from Alex Twal. Nevertheless, the Tommy Talau pass was called forward, and the Eels got a restart of their own midway through the subsequent set. Niukore almost took it to the twenty, Moses sent up Isaiah Papali’i for a big left-foot step, and then danced and grubbered to the right, where Niukore put the footy down.

It was a superb symmetrical sequence – Niukore, Moses, Moses, Niukore – and the elegance offset the slightly shaking start for a blue and gold outfit that should have been dominant from kickoff. Moses would go on to have a fairly inconsistent night with the conversions, but he slotted it through here, buoyed up by his second try assist of the year, while also taking advantage of a relatively easy angle. Even so, it wasn’t the most convincing kick, but still enough to put Parramatta six again thirteen minutes in.

Moses had gone the length of the field last time these two sides met on Easter Monday, so this was an important rallying point for the blue and gold troops, even if he didn’t quite pull off the 40/20 midway through the restart. The kick was still good enough to keep the Tigers in their own end, forcing Doueihi to kick from the halfway line, forcing yet another poor read from Fergo, who knocked the Steeden backwards towards the line. This time Clint Gutherson was there to collect it, and his men got rolling again.

The Tigers got another burst on their next set, when a Doueihi offload to Nofoaluma gave way to a second restart, but RCG halted their pace with a decisive tackle on Luke Brooks, although Brooksy nearly broke through the line a play later. Once again, Doueihi had to take the kick, and while he continued the trend of targeting Fergo, he sent it too deep, leaving space for the Fergosaurus to leap up and collect it in the full in goal for seven tackles, while a Moses high catch got the Eels some more momentum.

They got a restart a plat later, and accelerated immediately, thanks to some good vision from Gutho, who shifted it left, and then right, before Paulo collected a Nathan Brown offload and Dylan Brown was forced to take the footy to ground. All of a sudden, the set had fragmented, but Paulo got them going again with a late offload, which Nathan Brown followed with the latest offload of the entire round, setting up Mahoney for the wide ball that put Isaiah Papali’i over for four more points.

This was a smashing run from the big no. 15, who received the footy about eight metres out, and then simply muscled his way out of a Doueihi tackle to slam down his first Parramatta try with barely a hand on him. Moses shanked the kick away to the right, but the Eels did more with their restart this time around, thanks to an enormous trio of runs up the middle from Fergo, RCG and Shaun Lane. Moses went high on the last, but Laurie was ready for it, with his first great take under the high ball this afternoon.

Maika Sivo held up Roberts on the right edge, coming in for a risky tackle that paid off, forcing Laurie to boot the footy deep in the Tigers’ end, for a kick that Gutho caught square on the chest. The King and Moses set up Sivo for some field position on the left wing, and while he didn’t score, he did manage to tempt a crowding penalty from Nofoaluma. This was the biggest pressure so far for the Tigers, and they lasted four tackles, holding up Paulo in front of the posts, and Papali’i where he’d just scored.

Tom Opacic was the difference, collecting a short one from Mahoney and slamming through Twal and Doueihi to put down more four in the same place as Papali’i – the second tough try at short range, and the second time the Tigers’ defence had been breached on this right edge. Moses whispered a mantra to himself, and it seemed to worked, since his aim was perfect this time – a brilliant sideline strike that sent the footy straight between the posts to put Parra sixteen-nil.

The Tigers did better to hold up RCG on this third restart, but he still made a decent six or seven post-contact metres, resisting the tackle until the very last minute. He made up for it with a second hit-up on the fourth – his eighth of the first stanza, and Moses got creative with a chip kick on the penultimate play, regaining the footy only for Luke Garner to clean him up for before he could shift the assist inside to Gutherson. This was a big turnaround for the Tiges, who had to consolidate rapidly on the next set.

They got their chance at the end of Doueihi’s kick – halfway between a floater and a spiral bomb – which flew through Gutho’s hands right on the Parramatta line. They were even luckier on the first tackle out of the scrum, when Nofoaluma offloaded of Moses’ boot, and Laurie and then Doueihi knocked it back to the right edge where Joe Ofahengaue finally came up with it. Joffa was even tougher a play later, when he bumped off Moses on the right line, steeling the Tigers for their first tryscoring play.

It came on the last, when Luciano Leilua leaped up to meet a crossfield chip from Brooks, and tap it back to Laurie, who caught it on the full and got on the outside of Dylan Brown to score the first Tigers try untouched – and his first four-pointer in the NRL. This was just the boost that the hosts needed, and Doueihi lined up the conversion as Nofoaluma barked through orders at the troops. He hooked it away to the left, however, keeping the Eels quadruple the Tigers at a 16-4 lead.

Nofa received the kickoff on the restart, and Doeuihi and Roberts got tough on the right edge, before Leilua got an offload away to Talau. Doueihi took the kick, with the highest and hardest spiral bomb of the night, but Fergo was safer than Gutho had been, contorting himself on the ground to make sure he gathered the Steeden into his chest. The Tiges continued to showcase their second-phase play on the following set, Doueihi booted it high again, and this time even Ferguson wasn’t deft enough to catch it.

He made a noble effort, pirouetting around beneath the Steeden in the most gymnastic display so far, but the footy came free, and Brooksy made the most of it, collecting it from Joffa on the ground and then shifting it across to Stefano Utoikamanu to score under the posts. This felt like a turning-point, especially since the Brooks-Utoikomanu combo had played such a critical role in the shock win over the Knighs week, narrowing it to a converted try game when Doueihi added the extras from right in front.

Leilua did well to collect a wayward Brooks pass early in the restart, and Doueihi ended with yet another massive kick, but this time Gutho was down on one knee to collect it. Securing a bomb from the ex-Bunny was a critical step for the Eels in putting the last passage of play behind them, and sure enough they stabilised on this set, which ended with a Shaun Lane kick that produced a Kepaoa error and a Parra scrum a the ten, before Opacic put down a double on the final play, twenty seconds out from the siren.

This time the ex-Cowboy scored off a kick, taking advantage of a Wests Tigers line depleted by a barrage of short-range attacks by the Parra big men, to chase down a Gutho grubber, catch it on the first bounce and slide to ground untouched right on the dead ball line. This was a superb moment from the Parramatta fullback – a real act of leadership – and more than enough to compensate for another spotty kick from Mitch, who shanked it away to the right again after the siren had rung out.

Parra kept the Tigers in their own end on the first set back from the sheds, and Fergo caught Brooks’ first bomb on the full, while the visitors were pretty confident taking it the length of the field, thanks to a big run from Paulo. Leilua got a beautiful offload away to Liddle two tackles into the next set, but Brooks’ kick wasn’t all that challenging, skidding along the ground and straight to Gutherson, who kicked it forward for himself – and for the next tryscoring set for the blue and gold army.

Sivo had a run up the middle, Paulo bumped Liddle out of the way, and Oregon Kaufusi made more metres, before Leilua played at Moses’ grubber to grant the visitors six more. They shifted right on the second, where only a last-ditch tackle from Laurie held up Niukore, and then headed that way again on the fourth. This time it all came together, as the Fergosaurus collected a short ball from Gutherson and then twisted through a low hit from Kepaoa and a high one from Brooks to smash the Steeden down.

This was a superhuman effort from Fergo, who had already matched his 2020 try tally with his fourth four-pointer. He’s such a mercurial player that he always seems to lift the entire team when he scores – even or especially when he’s had a few spotty moments, as he had tonight. Seeing him put down such a decisive try seemed to finally cement Parramatta as the dominant team, or at least put the brief Tigers surge behind them, even if Moses missed yet another conversion from the edge of the park.

Fergo himself was clearly pumped too, barging straight into the defence on tackle one of the restart. In the end, Laurie was able to contain Dylan Brown’s kick, but the Tigers were back down their own end of the field again, and this time Leilua couldn’t get an offload away, even if he didn’t manage to find some space for Talau on the left. Yet that just made it all the more agonising when the play came apart, and Dylan Brown collected the next chip easily, getting Parra in place for more attacking pressure.

Moses now had one of his best runs of the night, getting away from Ofahengaue to make a good fifteen metres up the middle, before chipping the footy on the last to the left edge, where Nofoaluma responded with the most courageous take of the night, bearing the full brunt of Sivo’s burly weight in the process. It was the kind of defence that won games for the Tigers, during the Ivan Cleary era, and was compounded by Leilua’s most relaxed offload yet – this time to Brooks without an Eel in sight.

The Tiges ended with their freakiest play of the night – an offload along the ground from Roberts that Nofa booted forward and chased down in goal, where Gutho came up with it but was trapped behind the chalk for the first dropout of the afternoon. Utoikamanu meant business with his post-contact metres on the second tackle, and Joffa carried Kaufusi a couple of metres with him on the third, only for Moses to reach out a boot and deflect Laurie’s kick – and then collect it on the right side of the park.

Even better, Moses tempted a second effort from the Tigers fullback – and this trio of plays – deflecting, catching, tempting – cemented his superb leadership from the halves over the back forty of the game. The entire match now accelerated a notch, as the Tigers momentarily drew on their former half’s momentum with a relatively strong run up the middle – at least until Ryan Matterson slammed in for a damaging hit on Brooks, and Gutho caught Doueihi’s bomb in the face of a driving chase from Brooksy.

Sivo was immense on play two, and Mahoney drew on his energy with a bold 40/20 – the icing on the cake after Moses’ vision and dexterity over the last five minutes. The Eels now got a chance at a freaky play – a catch-and-pass from Paulo, who tapped a Nathan Brown pass onto Gutho in front of the posts – but it didn’t quite come together, and once again the Tiges had a scrum feed. They needed to be the next to score – at only two converted tries behind, they had a chance – but instead Doueihi put it down.

This was the worst mistake for either side all night – a cold drop off a Moses Mbye pass – and the Eels did much better with their subsequent scrum, experimenting with a deft left sweep out to Sivo, before shifting through a hard Paulo tackle across to the right side of the park. Garner did well to hold up RCG in front of the posts, and the set ended with a whimper rather than a bang, as both Kepaoa and Fergo failed to make effective contact with an over-high Moses chip out to Parramatta’s right wing.

Laurie was raring to break through on the short side of the next set, but apart from his brief glimpse of field position this was a fairly conventional set from the Tigers, right down to the Doueihi bomb that Gutho caught on the full, without Fergo anywhere in sight. Yet the Tigers got a rare error when Lane spilled a late offload from Mahoney, who spiraled the Steeden out to his right as Utoikamanu wrapped himself around his legs. On play one, though, Parra dragged Roberts over the side – an alpha move.

Full credit to Sivo and Moses in particular, who drove Roberts ten metres sideways before their team mates stormed in for the biggest pack effort of the game. Nevertheless, the Tigers got a second chance with another uncharacteristic Parramatta error – this time an unsuccessfully challenged lost ball from Paulo, who simply dropped it into a combined tackle from Mbye and Joffa. The game was getting messy – epitomised by Thomas Mikaele’s awkward offload back to Leilua two takles later.

For a moment it looked like Gutho had got the ball back, but it turned into an obstruction penalty from Fergo – and the Tigers finally capitalised now. Garner took them inside the ten, Brooks shifted it left for a hard Leilua run, Joffa took a tackle at second receiver in front of the posts, and Doueihi finally showcased some superb footwork to pivot off the right foot, take advantage of a Gutherson slip, and barge through Nathan Brown and then Mahoney to slam down another four for Wests.

This was a stealth try if there ever was one – and, once again, raised the brief spectre of a Tigers comeback, especially when Doueihi converted his own try to narrow the deficit to eight points. Musgrove took the biggest steps of the night to get the restart rolling, and Tamou dragged three defenders six metres on the second, as Keegan Hipgrave came on to give the Eels some fresh energy. Yet Fergo had his second heroic take under a Doueihi bomb, sliding to ground for the second time of the afternoon.

With another converted try, the Tiges would only be two behind, and they got the first restart of the second stanza on their next carry, thanks to a ruck error from Hipgrave. Niukore shut down a beautiful combination between Talau and Leilua on the left edge, and the Tigers responded with some of their most restless ball play all night, pivoting the footy from side to side around Brooks, who came up with a good chip on the last, only for Fergo to finally get the upper hand with a catch and thirty metre run.

He’d reached the Parramatta forty by the time he shifted it back inside to Dylan Brown a pity they didn’t get it back inside to Moses – but Nathan Brown lost the footy right in front of the posts, under a Garner-Laurie combo, meaning the Tigers were able to effectively absorb all the energy of this last Parramatta set for their final try of the night. Liddle got an offload back to Tamou just as he was being dragged to ground, and Garner bombed on the last, not posing much of a challenge to Gutho to collect it.

Still, the Tigers had all the energy at this point, and scored next time they had ball in hand, taking advantage of the breathing-space that ensued when Moses booted it over the line. Mitch came in for a brutal tackle on Nofoaluma three plays later, but the Tiges came up with a sublime play on their left edge – Liddle to Brooks, and then to Leilua, who slammed his way into the line and popped the footy out to Brooksy to break through it, before the cult halfback sent it back inside for Liddle to cross untouched.

Everything hung in the balance now for the Tigers – they were only two points behind, and they’d just scored the most elegant and spectacular try of the night. Even if they’d come away with a four-point deficit this would have been a stellar effort, relatively speaking, but inside the Eels managed to put down two more tries in the last three minutes of the match. The tipping-point came quickly, though, when big pressure from Niukore forced Leilua to knock on a Brooks pass six minutes out from the siren.

The first try came from Gutho, who grubbered at the three minute mark, and then chased down a second grubber from Fergo to put down a flukily brilliant try. Fergo didn’t have to remain assister, though, since he cemented his comeback from the spottier early moments of the match with a classic try right on the eightieth minute, when he caught the footy as Mbye went to boot it over the sideline, curving around behind the posts to score as the Parramatta crowd went wild.

Despite a few hiccups, then, this ended up being the dominant performance you’d expect from the Eels given their position on the ladder, so they should feel pretty empowered when they host the Dragons at Bankwest next Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, the Tigers put in a decent display at times, although of course that just made their final capitulation all the more frustrating, so they’ll be chasing a more consistent outing when they host North Queensland at Leichhardt next Sunday too.

About Billy Stevenson (732 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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