Thursday night’s game between Parra and Canberra was easily one of the best of the 2021 season. The Raiders had a pivotal win over the Sharks last week, giving them a finals push that meant they had to act as if they were already playing finals footy when they hosted the Eels at Cbus. That’s just what they did, raising the blue and gold in turn, until the game escalated into a finals intensity, or an Origin-like intensity, treating us to some of the biggest hits and clutchiest options of the year, along with a quartet of tries that were all equally spectacular.
Both teams also had individual challenges that made the clash even more dramatic. Parra were without Mitchell Moses, after the news that he’d played most of Origin III with a fractured back, and they felt his absence with their close-range play, their kicking game, and their limited assists. That said, Ryan Matterson had close to a career-best game against the Titans last week (although he didn’t match it here), while Blake Ferguson was back on the park for the first time since Round 12, and delivered a classic Fergo assist in the second half.
The Eels also had Will Penisini, their version of Joseph Suaalii, although he didn’t make a huge impact. On the other side of the Steeden, the Raiders had a double blow with Jack Wighton and Xavier Savage on the sideline – especially agonising after Savage’s breakout second game last week – while Josh Papalii was barely on before failing his HIA, and Jordan Rapana was fourth-choice fullback. Even so, they became the third team to keep Parra to nil this year after St. George and Penrith, resulting in the first full forty without points for other side since 2019.
Emre Guler took the first carry for the second week in a row, and Fergo the first Parra tackle for his first top-grade touch in seven rounds of football. Corey Harawira-Naera didn’t waste any time continuing his second-phase play after his stunning game against the Sharks, popping out an offload next time the Raiders had ball in hand, while Will Penisini took his first carry three tackles into the subsequent set, before Josh Hodgson was put on report for a dangerous hit on Nathan Brown. Penisini took another touch, and the Eels stuck into the line.
Reed Mahoney mirrored CHN with a deft offload to Reagan Campbell-Gillard, but Sam Williams was up to a tough charge from Maika Sivo on the left edge, coming in low as CHN piled on top to prevent any chance of a try. Play paused as Sivo had his head examined, and the Eels got their second dangerous tackle penalty in as many minutes, although they didn’t do anything with the additional field position, since the Raiders defended just as well on the right, where Matt Frawley saved a Dylan Brown try and Semi Valemei neutralised Penisini.
This was a good let-off for the Raiders, who got the first restart early in their next set, off a Marata Niukore ruck error, only for CHN to cough up the footy while looking for an offload in the midst of an Isaiah Papali’i tackle. The game now accelerated a notch, as Arthur kicked on the second play out of the scrum, and Rapana failed to collect it, leaving it open for Isaiah Papali’i to scoop it up and pop it back inside from the left wing, as Rapana took the intercept.
Parra got the repeat set due to Rapana’s original knock-on, and then a fresh restart as CHN started making up for his loose carry by combining with Joe Tapine for a bone-rattling tackle on Nathan Brown. Hodgson might have conceded another restart, but this was still some of the best goal line defence of the year from Canberra – right down to Arthur’s chip to the left edge, a much better option than his premature kick out of the scrum a couple of sets before.
The Steeden soared over Sebastian Kris, who deflected it just enough to force Waqa Blake into an aerial knock-on before Niukore regathered and grounded it in goal. This was another win for Canberra, who bunched in the Eels on their next defensive set, forcing Brown to boot it from within his thirty. They built more field position, or prevented Parra from building it, when Blake was forced to collect Williams’ next kick right on the chalk, so the Eels’ next restart couldn’t have come at a better time – play two, when Harley Smith-Shields infringed the ruck.
Arthur responded with another early kick, and this time it paid dividends, forcing the first dropout when Rapana was cleaned up with it in goal. This was crunch time for the Raiders, and Tapine got too eager with a shoulder charge on RCG on tackle one. Yet Canberra didn’t have to deliver any more big defensive plays here, since Penisini mistimed an inside pass to Gutherson, delivering his captain a bouncing ball that was always going to end with a knock-on. Canberra had the scrum, and got a fresh feed when the Eels didn’t pack it right.
The Raiders took it up a notch again on the next set, channelling their second-phase play against the Sharkies with a pair of offloads – Croker to Rapana, Young to Williams – that bookended a third attempt from Guler that Junior Paulo denied with a tough ankle tap. Niukore absolutely skittled Rapana on the final play, but Blake came in too early for the hit, gifting Canberra a fresh set, and their first tackle within the Parramatta twenty. Now it was the Eels’ turn to showcase their goal line defence, preventing the Raiders crossing over here.
The rash plays from Tapine and Blake spoke to the escalating intensity of the game, along with its increasingly fractured and fragmented energy. Arthur’s next kick was good, but Rapana got lucky when he risked the bounce, watching the Steeden careen twenty-five metres back behind the dead ball line to get his men a seven tackle set. Yet no sooner had the Raiders started to build some momentum, with a restart off a Junior Paulo ruck error, than Guler flicked it forward, giving the Eels a chance to reabsorb this rhythm as their own.
Penisini mistimed his second pass of the game a few plays later, this time an outside ball that he didn’t quite shift to the wing in time for Fergo to score the first four. Full credit to Frawley and Valemei for a trysaving combination as well – a big effort that RCG tried to match and neutralise when he was tempted into a dangerous hit early in the next set. Once again, though, the Raiders didn’t complete, this time by conceding the most egregious error for either side so far – a clean drop from Williams as he swung the footy back, preparing to pass.
By this stage, there was adrenalin coursing up and down the field, so it was simply a matter of which team would eventually claim it as both continued to intensify it. Parra did well on the next set to draw on the Raiders’ rhythm, accelerating into one of their fastest sequences so far with a Paulo-Gutho offload, so it was agonising when Gutho was unable to respond in kind. Finding himself with the footy on the last, up the left edge, he offloaded back into Papali’i, but totally mistimed the bounce, sending it skidding back into the Raiders’ defence.
To put it another way, both teams were on the verge of wilting if they couldn’t claim the energy of the game as their own. Parramatta had completed all ten of their first sets, but only two of their last six, conceding the first Canberra dropout when Gutho had another rough patch at the end of the set, only just chasing down and grounding a Williams grubber before Williams got to it himself. He went long with the dropout, sending it down to the halfway line, and the Raiders got elastic midway through the restart, sweeping across field on the fourth.
Yet as quicly as Canberra had built this speed, Parra absorbed it, as Sivo stole the high ball from Smith-Shield on the right, and offloaded to Arthur on the same play. Fergo got them rolling with a strong run on the second, but this was to be a night of aborted momentum, as Niukore now required medical attention following an awkward tackle from Tom Starling, Hudson Young and Iosia Soliola. Ferguson leaped up to collect the next kick, and was held to have knocked it on, despite clamouring that he was facing his own goal line when he took it.
With eight minutes left on the clock, both teams stabilised a bit now, moving steadily from set to set, gradually consolidating until it felt like the next error might open up a try. Play paused again when Papalii’s head made contact with the ground during a tackle from Papali’i, and he left the field as Tapine came back off the bench earlier than expected. This broke the end-to-end momentum, as Valemei arrived at Arthur’s high ball, took his eyes off the footy to size up Fergo’s kick chase, and lost it over the side as a masked-up Mitch Moses applauded.
The Eels didn’t do much with the field position, though, as Shaun Lane took a deft short ball from Nathan Brown only to pop out an impatient and unnecessary offload. Tapine was heroic in his first big play off the bench, intercepting and then kicking it back to cost Parra the set. From here, the play started to deteriorate, with both teams conceding a ruck error, and a series of mistakes, taking them into the break with the first zero-all scoreline since early 2019.
When they returned from the sheds the stats were pretty evenly dispersed – Parra had 54% of possession, compared to Canberra’s 46%, along with 175 tackles to 183, and 87 runs to 81 – although the Raiders had an additional challenge with the news Papalii had failed his HIA. Both teams rolled up and down the park, with Frawley executing a nice spiralling bomb, and both sides contributed big hits – Young on Brown, and then Sivo on Smith-Shields – before Rapana broke through the line three and a half minutes in as the Parra defence closed on him.
Even so, Young built on the linebreak, saving a poor pass from Hodgson that ricocheted right in front of his right boot, by deflecting it forward to trap Gutho behind the line for the first forced dropout of his career. Three tackles later, Hodgson made up for his poor pass by ferrying the footy deep into the line, clearing up space for Williams to assist CHN, who continued both Rapana’s run and his stunning momentum from last week to score the first try.
He barely had any defence to contend with, getting on the inside of Blake and bumping through a limp low tackle from Arthur to cross over untouched. Finally, forty-five minutes in, we had the first four points, and then six when Jarrod Croker added the conversion. The Raiders didn’t show any signs of slowing down either, muscling their way through the restart before Tapine delivered the biggest hit of the second stanza so far, absolutely skittling Fergo.
Mahoney responded in kind, making a terrific tackle on Rapana out of dummy half early in the next set, but Hodgson wasn’t going to let him have the last word, driving into Sivo and dumping the Parra winger on his back a moment later. By this stage we were at Origin intensity, or finals intensity – a good look for Canberra, who have to fight for their finals berth over these critical weeks. Even better, they defused the next big Parra hit, sending a supposed loose carry from Croker upstairs to show Matto had stripped it with Paulo still in the tackle.
The spectacle of Croker backing himself for his own Captain’s Challenge now galvanised the Raiders into their second and final try. It took place in the same part of the park as CHN’s crossover, except that it was now the fourth-choice fullback who flew across. Rapana might have had a few spotty moments in the first half, but he fully inhabited the no. 1 jersey here, ending a left sweep with a good ball for Kris, and then retaking the footy out of dummy half.
He got it down just as RCG and Oregon Kaufusi were converging on him, reaching his entire body across the line to get it to ground, setting up Croker for a conversion in the same part of the park as well. Booting it through the posts, the Canberra captain culminated a sequence that started with his own Challenge to become the equal third NRL kicker of all time, in the rarefied company of Johnathan Thurston. The Eels needed a big one-man play here, and Fergo provided it on their very next set, with one of his all-time classic dashes up the right sideline.
This was vintage Fergo from start to finish, including his initial bobble of the ball, which made his subsequent speed all the more spectacular. Ferguson works best at this precipitous place between error and genius, and he tapped into that precarity now, recovering control of the Steeden, and smashing through Young and Croker like the biggest forward in the pack, before booting it at speed from the Raiders’ thirty. The bounce was a beauty, ricocheting back for Dylan Brown to get it down just before the dead ball line with Rapana and Frawley at his back.
Fergo had to play for his career this game – and he’d done it, coming up with an option that was both brilliant and indelibly stamped with his signature, worthy of his best Origin or finals performances, and garnering Parra their first linebreak in the process. Gutho booted through the extras, and we were back to a six point game as the final quarter got rolling. By this stage the Raiders were completing with 87% and, with such a low scoreline, it felt like they only needed to put down one more try to come away with the chocolates during this crucial game.
Rapana had his best moment at fullack (after his try) a moment later, leaping over the sideline to kick a Mahoney ball back inside, a split-second before it became a successful 40/20. Yet the Eels settled into the most sustained field position of the second half when Young was pinged for lifting Gutho above the horizontal, forcing Canberra into their most heroic goal line defence of the whole game. Parra got the first restart of the second half off a ruck error from Sutton, and Arthur tried to take charge with a sweep out to Sivo’s wing a few plays later.
This was possibly the moment where Parra felt the absence of Mitch Moses most acutely – especially his ability to organise and orchestrate assists at close range. Arthur couldn’t get it all the way to Sivo, so Blake had to leap up and collect the footy on the full. As if disoriented by the clutchiness of the pass, Waqa offloaded back to Williams, who nevertheless knocked on under pressure from Arthur, who had circled around again to try and redeem his sweep.
Things got a bit wobbly when Dylan Ball’s ball on the first play out of the scrum bounced twice on the right edge, but once again Fergo was the man, scooping it up and withstanding a massive Canberra pack to remain in the field of play. Arthur tried to bust through Frawley and CHN, and Gutho kicked on the fourth, garnering a dropout as Frawley scrambled to ground the ball in a sea of blue and gold attackers. Croker conceded six again midway through the repeat set, and Paulo made a late offload to Mahoney, so everything seemed in place now.
Instead, Matto knocked on a play later, while the Eels got another heartbreak a minute after, in a battle of the young guns beneath the Parra kick. Smith-Shields went for it, but Arthur leaped up above him to secure it on the full, before landing on his back and flicking it out to Nathan Brown. This sequence was so short and sudden that Brown wasn’t ready to receive the footy, although the replay showed the tackle was complete before Arthur popped it out.
Things got worse for the Eels when they lost their Captain’s Challenge contesting a Papali’i knock-on, and yet they got one last burst when Williams tried and failed for a field goal. He should have got it from right in front, but instead the Eels got the ball back, and pushed their way up the park with seven tackles under their belt, ending with an Arthur chip to the left, which set up the last, closest and most closely scrutinised four-pointer of the whole match.
Blake and Smith-Shields contested it in the air, and while it initially looked like Blake had tapped it back, this turned out to be a knock-on from the Canberra winger. Papali’i caught it at head level and flicked it out for Gutho to shifted it across to the wing for Sivo. The cult winger squared off Smith-Shields, who’d had a rough contest, palming him off with a big right hand fend before falling as much as diving into the corner, where he only just got the tip of the Steeden down as his arm hit the base of the post – one of the closest putdowns in 2021.
Sivo was now equal third tryscorer with Jason Saab at 16, behind Alex Johnston at 24 and the Foxx at 19, and this was easily his best grounding, so it was shattering when Gutho missed the sideline conversion to keep it 10-12. Neither team scored during the last three minutes, despite a final dropout for Parra, so the Raiders came away with the win they’d have hoped for after last week’s stint against the Sharks – good enough to fuel them into a big one against Kalyn Ponga’s Knights next week, as the Eels prepare to take on the Chooks in a week’s time.