The Eels had only won four games from twenty-two visits when they rocked up at GIO Stadium on Saturday night, digging deep and withstanding all the Raiders had to throw at them to come away with their first win in the nation’s capital since 2006. Mitchell Moses delivered one of his best ever matches, making up for Dylan Brown’s absence from the halves – due to his crusher tackle on Tyrell Fuimaono last week – by showing how brilliantly he can lead the entire spine and team when he’s playing at full strength.
Ryan Matterson was also out due to concussion concerns, while Isaiah Papali’i, starting in the second row, had arguably the best game of his career too, easily outshining the other Papali’i on the park – a result nobody could have predicted going into this match. Meanwhile, Josh Hodgson was cleared after his hip injury against the Panthers, and Curtis Scott was returning from his rib injury, while Caleb Aekins was in the fullback jersey for the forseeable future while Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad nursed his bulging disc.
The Canberra defence started staunch, forcing Moses to make the first kick from his own end, but the blue and gold army quickly recouped their field position when Jordan Rapana had a shocker right on the line, letting the footy slip over his right shoulder and then tumble into touch. Shaun Lane took a run at the chalk, Moses tried to start a left sweep, Junior Paulo followed in Lane’s footsteps and RCG took a crack on the left edge of the field, before Nathan Brown took the Steeden even further into the same corner.
Everything came together on the final tackle, when Isaiah Papali’i collected a flat ball from Reed Mahoney, slammed over the other Papali’i and crashed to ground beneath Curtis Scott, planting the footy down as a cavalcade of Canberra defenders piled on top. Moses added a terrific sideline conversion and just like that the Eels had a six-nil start, with less than four minutes on the board, before the home team had even got a touch of the football, as the Viking clappers turned silent in the stands.
RCG took the first hit-up of the restart, just as he’d taken the first hit-up of the game, and once again Blake Ferguson took the second, although this time the Eels made slightly more headway up the middle, thanks to five post-contact metres from Papali’i. They ended with another high, deep kick from Moses, before the Raiders finally got their first possession off a better Rapana collect. Papali’i got a strong carry to start making up for his missed tackle, and Fergo slid to ground to take a Jack Wighton kick.
For a moment it looked like Paulo was going to send Lane through the line untouched, with Clint Gutherson coming up in support. Yet while the deception was perfect, with the footy seeming to arc a trajectory back to Will Smith, Paulo sent it a little too hard, forcing a Lane cough-up, and giving Parra their first real chance in the Canberra end. More importantly, perhaps, it put a pin in this barnstorming opening period from the blue and gold, especially once Rapana made up for his fumble in the most dazzling way.
The Eels had taken a whole set to organise their left side attack, but Canberra only took a tackle, spreading the footy with perfect timing until Wighton popped a cut-out pass across the chest of Croker to Rapana, who got around Ferguson to get it down. Croker couldn’t quite nail the kick, though, sending the Steeden spinning across the front of the posts, keeping it a two point game as the first ten minutes elapsed. Still, this was such a strong hit back from the Raiders you’d never guess they’d only score six more.
Marata Niukore made the best post-contact metres so far on the next set, and almost broke through the line, taking the Eels into the Parramatta thirty for the last two tackles. Moses ended with his first bomb from short-range – to the left wing, where Bailey Simonsson not only leaped a metre above the defence to catch it on the full, but tempted an aerial tackle from Paulo that piggy-backed the Raiders back down the park. The Eels survived pretty easily, though, as Gutho caught Wighton’s bomb on the full.
Moses followed with his best kick of the night, booting it from halfway and managing to ensure that it sat up right on the dead ball line, forcing Rapana into his most precarious collect so far – a one-handed scoop-up to just avoid a dropout. Hudson Young responded with a near-linebreak up the right edge on the next set, thanks to a miscommunication between Tom Opacic and Maika Sivo, but Ryan Matterson stepped up, storming across to slam him into touch before he could shift the footy back in field.
Papali’i continued to make metres after contact for Parra on the next set, and once again the visitors opened up the Raiders’ right edge. This time it was Sivo who got the chocolates, putting down one of his easiest tries in months by collecting a wide ball from Gutho to cross over untouched. The Raiders had showed the Eels they could score off an even more clinical left sweep, but Gutho’s retort was that he could come up with an even defter cut-out assist than Wighton – at the very moment he hit Simonsson.
You could almost believe that Moses had intended to drill the footy into the left post at just the right angle for it to ricochet back over the crossbar, as the Eels resumed their six point lead with an extra two points to boot. The Raiders survived the restart, however, and got the first six again off a ruck error from Mahoney, only for Gutho to collect the high ball as seamlessly as he had all night. Caleb Aekins did the same on the next set, and the hosts settled into their first really sustained field position of the game.
Canberra came close with a brief burst up the left edge – a strong run along the sideline from Rapana, before he shifted it back in to Croker, who made more metres than he should have, even if it did all come off a blatant forward pass from Elliott Whitehead. Opacic lost it a tackle later, and Rapana almost scored out of the scrum, opening up space for what would have been a certain try if Gutho hadn’t barged him over the sideline a metre out, although the Raiders still got the penalty with a Niukore offside.
They never even got halfway through the set, as Mahoney secured an attempted Hodgson-to-Tapine offload, although they put this momentum in the bank for their next set, where a fresh restart, and a strong run up the middle from Aekins, laid the platform for an escalating series of runs that culminated with a sublime Hodgson linebreak out of dummy half, fend on Brown, and deft inside ball that put George Williams over the line, beside the posts, before Moses could quite get a hand to him.
Croker was always going to add the extras from this angle, and yet despite this superb acceleration these would be the last Canberra points of the night, as the Eels circled the wagons to put another twenty-three points on the board. The Raiders didn’t get to the end of the restart, either, as Wighton popped out an overlong pass to Rapana that missed its man and slid over the sideline. The Eels got their first restart on tackle one, and Sivo almost made it a double, off the most flamboyant left side attack so far.
Gutho’s attempted assist was a high as his last was wide – a parabola ball whose arc carried Sivo head over heels, landing him upside down as a sea of Canberra defenders surged in to prevent him getting the tip to ground. Moses almost got another try by shaping for a kick but instead opting for a late flat pass, and while it didn’t quite pay dividends here, there was no doubt that the Eels were flexing and elasticizing, expanding their playbook by the minute as the Raiders struggled to keep the pace.
That said, they had a bit of a lull on the next set, thanks to Moses’ first questionable kick of the night – a weirdly directed dab that Williams was able to clean up pretty easily right in front of the posts. Still, they kept Wighton at his own forty for the kick, Fergo responded with a strong take on the chalk, and Moses steadied the ship with another superb bomb, forcing Rapana to recall the first few minutes as he steadied himself in turn to catch it.
This was as workmanlike as the plays two sets ago were flamboyant, but even that was an asset for Parra at this point, since with seven minutes on the clock, and very few stoppages in play, the big men in both teams were starting to tire. Wighton came up with the biggest bomb of the night, off the left boot, a minute later – a floater that hovered so dangerously and mercurially that Sivo was never going to collect it, spilling the Steeden off the left palm without a Raider needing to make an effort in the chase.
Canberra now had their first big chance since their try, and once again Rapana shifted left, but this time both Niukore and Fergo were waiting to meet him, with the Fergasaurus absorbing the main brunt of the tackle as Oregon Kaufusi came up in support. There was no offside penalty coming from Niukore this time, so the footy changed hands, only for Kaufusi to lose it a tackle later off a standard short ball from Hodgson, giving both teams a rare breathing-space as the Raiders packed the scrum.
Only a Keegan Hipgrave tackle prevented Ryan Sutton getting though the line, while it took three Eels to hold up the big no. 15 again right on the chalk. For a moment it looked like it might all come together on the last, when Wighton leaped up to collect a Williams kick, and if he’d managed to tap it from the right arm to the left this would have been one of the most elegant tries of Round 6. Instead, he reached out his right palm a bit far, knocking it on in goal to get the Eels a renewed bout of field position.
Wighton tried to reprise his bomb at the end of the next set, and while it went almost as high, the aim was bad, soaring over the side as Fergo put his hands on his hips and watched it go dead. Moses came up with a monster run on the left edge, Brown drew in three defenders, Will Smith collected a loose ball and got a restart, Wighton gathered it with five seconds on the clock, and Hodgson kicked it for all it was worth. Simonsson followed it down the sideline, but found touch as he kicked it dead.
Niukore continued to rack up post-contact metres back from the break, building on a strong opening collect from Ferguson, while Rapana mirrored Fergo’s earlier collect beneath the first Moses bomb, getting right down on the grass to make sure he secured the Steeden in both hands. Hodgson had seen some treatment over the break after rolling his ankle towards the end of the first stanza, but he seemed to be fine here – albeit frustrated when Soliola fumbled the footy under a tough Nathan Brown tackle.
This set was mainly a war of attrition for the Eels until Moses scooped up a loose Hipgrave offload and improvised with a deft grubber that trapped Aekins behind the line for the first dropout of the game. Hodgson and Sutton absorbed a big opening run from Brown, the Eels got six again, Papali’i got an offload out to Moses – much tighter than Hipgrave’s – and it felt almost inevitable when Gutho took the footy right into the line and assisted Papali’i to bump off Young and then Simonsson to put down a double.
After such an arm-wrestle in the back end of the first half, this was a superb statement of intent for Parramatta – not just because it cemented Papali’i’s necessity for the starting thirteen, and not just because it mirrored their opening try, but because it was so dexterous on its own terms. Gutho held up the footy so long that it looked as if he was certainly aiming for Opacic, meaning that it was an unwitting assist, as Papali’i slammed in and read the play perfectly to effectively intercept his own man to score.
He was just as staunch on the restart, standing in the tackle for about five seconds and clearing up space for Fergo to do the same, giving Moses room to rival the height of Wighton’s two bombs at the end of the second half. Aekins caught it right on the sideline, and Sivo absolutely skittled him, taking the adrenalin of the whole match up a notch before the Raiders got a restart on their next carry. For a moment Wighton looked like he was going to lay up a set play, but he wilted and took a Mahoney tackle.
Sivo may not have done much damage on Aekins, but Simonsson was less fortunate, landing at an awkward angle after the two men competed for a Williams kick in the air. We had the first real pause in play as the trainer checked Simonsson’s essentials, but even this wasn’t a big break, as the big no. 2 returned to the field, and the Raiders piled on for a big Paulo tackle. Kaufusi carried Hodgson and Soliola about seven metres, and Mahoney came up with a terrific kick inside the 40, only just missing out on a 40/20.
Meanwhile, Simonsson now came off the park, forcing Siliva Havilli on, as Whitehead shifted to centre and Scott made his way to the wing. Moses had a rare fumble a set later, but even managed to turn this into an asset, collecting the footy again and drilling it deep into the right corner, giving his men some time to get their line set as it bounced into touch. Josh Papali’i rejoined the park a moment later, determined to reassert himself as the dominant Papali’i, while the Eels got a fresh hit of RCG at the same time.
Both teams now went set for a set for a few minutes, as each searched for the error that would usher in the next try. Gutho had his most precarious take under the high ball, leaping up to collect it on his wrists, and almost letting it slide down his forearms, only to regain possession just as he hit the deck. Moses now showed his full capacity at leadership, taking three touches in a single play to put Lane over the line and secure the biggest lead of the night for Parramatta.
The sequence started with an improbable late offload from Paulo to Gutho on the left edge. Gutho shifted it across to his halfback, who put in a massive left-foot step to get away from Young and clear up space for a superb wide ball out to Smith on the right side. Not content to leave it there, Moses circled around so that he was in place to collect an offload from his halves partner, taking the Eels into third-phase play as he popped a short one out for Lane, before adding the extras from the side a minute later.
This was absolutely stunning stuff from Moses – a testament to his ability to totally organise play from the halves in Dylan Brown’s absence, along with his growth as a leader and visionary in the Eels over the last twelve months. For a moment, it looked like the blue and gold army might be in for back-to-back tries, off another period of third-phase play midway through the restart, but after missing the Whitehead forward pass the refs now deemed – controversially perhaps – that Brown was more than flat.
Canberra had a big let-off here, and managed to get into some second-phase play of their own right on the Parramatta line. They looked good on the penultimate play, when Havilii was held up over the line, and then got a fresh set on the last, thanks to an escort from Lane. The green machine had to score here to get back in the game – it was their best bout of field position since the break – and Aekins channeled the urgency with a hard run up the right, only for Hodgson to kick directly to RCG’s chest.
If the Brown forward pass was a dramatic turnaround for the Raiders, then Hodgson’s mistimed effort with the boot was an even bigger resumption for the Eels. Mahoney got them rolling with a linebreak that propelled Wiremu Greig into open space for his first touch in the NRL, so it was anticlimactic when Opacic dropped the footy a tackle later. Word came from the sheds that Simonsson wouldn’t be returning, and Starling and Tapine came on for Hodgson and Sutton as the Raiders improvised without him.
Moses’ next bomb was a beauty – so high that the bounce was as challenging as a regular kick, even if it did result in a knock-on against Opacic, who was having a rough couple of minutes. Yet Gutho was safe as houses under Wighton’s next bomb, while Rapana came off worse for wear with the accompanying tackle, as the last fifteen minutes of the match arrived. A Starling error got Parra the next scrum, but the blue and gold now had their one messy period of the match, off two Mahoney brainsnaps.
First, Mahoney popped a bludger of a pass out to the right edge, where Fergo nevertheless managed to scoop it up and almost send Lane across for a double – and what would have been one of the worst ever passes leading to a try. Then, on the last, Mahoney kicked right on the line, and despite the fact that the ball was played at, regathered it and then kicked it over the dead ball line to give Canberra the advantage.
Again, it was critical that the Raiders score off this good luck if they were to remain in the game – and for a moment it looked like they would, when Sivo fumbled the bomb on the right edge, leaving it open for Young to come up with it right on the line. In the last and most dramatic of the turnarounds in Parra’s favour, however, Sivo came good with the tackle, thanks to some assistance from Gutho, forcing a change in possession that was augmented by a penalty from a very frustrated Papali’i for verbal dissent.
This was the most vulnerable moment of the game for big Josh – the first penalty for backchat in a season where games have moved too fast for dissent – so it made sense that the Eels scored on this set. No surprise that it came off a Moses bomb that landed with Brown, who shifted it across to Mahoney to slide in under the posts before hooker and halfback met for a slam of celebration, aware that the Parramatta spine had synced up perfectly for this dazzling display of speed, strength, dexterity and timing.
With Moses booting through the extras the Eels were eighteen ahead, and on the cusp of their first win at GIO since 2006 – a pretty sobering result for a Canberra outfit completing at 86% in the first half. Aekins had the most courageous take of the night under the Gutho grubber that ended the restart, getting to his knees as Paulo came in at full speed, and running the risk of a knee in the face, but it wasn’t enough to galvanise the Raiders into another try – or prevent Parra scoring once more in the final five.
Moses got them rolling with a field goal at the end of the next Parramatta set, slotting the footy into the left upright for the second time in the match, as Ben Cummins sent it upstairs to the Bunker to confirm that it had bounced back over the upright. The replay showed that it had actually hit the crossbar as well, for the freakiest and most spectacular field goal since Adam Reynolds’ debut two-pointer against the Broncos.
Canberra went for the short kickoff on the next set, but it didn’t deter Parra, as Fergo drove the football deep into the line, Moses opened up some space for RCG on the line, Greig took another big run, and Moses shaped to kick only to send it across to Smith. The Eels got six again, and Opacic made up for his pair of errors with a superb linebreak off a Greig ball, busting through two tackles before shifting it inside for Gutho to score, bringing the Eels to a 35-10 lead once Moses added his final conversion.
It was a sobering game for the Raiders – and a sobering second stanza in particular – so they’ll be keen to do some soul-searching and team-building as they get ready to shift from cold-climate to the tropics when they take on the Cowboys in Townsville this weekend. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a stunning display from the Eels, and a real milestone in the career of Mitchell Moses, who’ll be looking to lead just as decisively when he leads the troops into battle against Brisbane on Friday night.