The Roosters have steadily bounced back from their 0-46 loss to the Storm over the last month, putting 22 on the Dogs, 34 on the Cows, and 28 on the Knights, while keeping each team to fewer and fewer points. Thursday’s game in Mackay was their first match against a top four outfit since that fateful encounter with Melbourne – and they got the catharsis they were looking for, consolidating these accelerating win margins by keeping Parra pointless, while scoring five tries and four conversions, after a first quarter that was scoreless for both sides.
It was a definitive riposte to the Eels’ 31-18 win in Round 9 – even more so in that the Chooks were nursing some serious injuries by this late point in the season, and had lost Billy Smith and Matt Ikuvalu last week against Newcastle. On the other side of the Steeden, this was an especially volatile night for Gutho, who felt the absence of Mitchell Moses acutely during most of the key turning points. Prior to Moses’ absence, Parra had led the NRL in assists off kicks, and were almost double the Roosters at 29-16, but they couldn’t muster that stat here.
Jared Warea-Hargreaves celebrated his 250th Sydney game by taking the first carry, and then the fourth, while the Eels didn’t complete their first set, due to an awkwardly placed pass from Gutherson that Jakob Arthur put down in the middle of the park. Four tackles into their night, Gutho sent it upstairs to claim Josh Morris had got a finger to it first, but the footage was inconclusive, meaning the Eels retained their challenge as the Roosters packed the scrum.
This actually galvanised Parra into some decent goal line defence, culminating with two encounters between Blake Ferguson and Daniel Tupou on the left edge, the second of which saw Fergo bump his quarry into touch as he received a cut-out ball from Drew Hutchison. James Tedesco had tried to make space for Tupou to cross the first time, and continued that searching energy on the next set, testing the Eels’ defensive line from a couple of different angles before Hutchison again targeted Ferguson’s corner with his first bomb of the evening.
Yet Gutho now shifted the momentum with one terrific catch, palming off Victor Radley and pumping it out for Waqa Blake to make fifteen metres up the middle. Reagan Campbell-Gillard made a shot at the line on the next play, and Ryan Matterson popped a deft offload on the next set. The Eels were unable to buld on it, batting it back twice to lose twenty-five metres, although Arthur got some joy after his opening error by forcing a rare fumble under the high ball from Teddy, who momentarily lost his balance and focus beneath an easy catch.
Now it was Parramatta’s turn for the scrum, but they were unable to do much with it, losing RCG in backplay midway through the set (he headed up the tunnel soon after), as Teddy won the next battle with Arthur, waiting patiently on the dead ball line for his grubber to go dead as it decelerated and bounced dangerously right on the chalk. Yet Tedesco didn’t get much joy on the next set, when he had another aborted linkup with Tupou, this time mediated by Adam Keighran, who offloaded with one hand into a big Fergo tackle, and flipped it forwards.
Ten minutes had passed now, and the game hung into the balance, as both teams started to feel the pressure of scoring the first try. Arthur knocked onto into JWH as he tried to set up Nathan Brown, and yet JWH was placed on report at the very same moment for dangerous contact with Brown a few plays before. Sitili Tupouniua responded with a huge run that seemed to steel Sydney and reset the game, clutching tight to the Steeden throughout an equally big defensive effort from Isaiah Papali’i, only to lose it at the very end of the tackle.
We now had a period of aborted scrum feeds, starting with Tom Opacic fumbling a Junior Paulo pass on play one in the face of an oncoming hit from Keighran. No sooner did the Chooks get the scrum again than Sam Verrills made an even earlier mistake, knocking on at the base of the scrum thanks to a heroic push from the Eels’ big men. By now, the Roosters had completed 2/7 sets and the Eels 3/6, so it had become a battle just to gain field position, meaning the next team to really consolidate would probably control the game for some time.
Yet this dawning awareness just made both sides sloppier, as Morris now followed Tedesco with an error under the high ball. Like Tedesco too, he got both hands to it below the crossbar, although he was under considerably more pressure from Arthur and Lane. He did well to recover the footy in front of a crunch effort from Papali’i, but he’d knocked on at the initial moment of contact. Parra had another bout of possession, but the Roosters defended well.
In fact, the strength of this defensive set initially seemed as galvanising as a cohesive attacking set, especially since several of their key players now got a chance to recover from recent errors. Morris immediately got back on track by spearheading a clutch tackle on the left wing, while JWH loomed over Paulo to induce a cough-up late in the count. In the interim, Liu rallied an even bigger pack to hold up Papali’i right on the line, in the closest call so far, while Keighran made up for his forward pass with a good hit on Opacic when the Eels drifted right.
Again, Tupouniua looked like he might deliver the flagship run, drilling deep into the Parra defence only for Arthur and Blake to respond in kind by coming in hard, high and low respectively. Worse, Tupou became the third backliner to lose the high ball at the end of the next set, as the Eels glimpsed the first sustained burst of field position in some time after Teddy conceded the first restart of the night with a ruck infringement on the very first tackle.
Even here, though, they couldn’t execute a decent close-range set, as Dylan Brown came up with an abysmal option on the third, a limp grubber that didn’t have chance of ever reaching the try line. The Eels’ night got worse as word came down from the sheds that RCG had followed Shaun Johnson with a game-ending hamstring injury, and yet the Sydney City backline made yet another mistake under the next high ball. This time it was a collaborative error, as Tupou allowed Opacic and then Gutho to knock it back, before Teddy knocked it on.
This was the nadir of the game for Sydney City, who hadn’t made a single tackle in the Eels’ twenty – they had to survive the next set and score immediately or else brace themselves for a torrent of Parramatta points. The Eels knew it too – and Papali’i knew it in particular, bumping off a couple of tackles, disposing of Tupouniua with particular brutality, and making five metres after contact to come closer to the try line than any player so far. Yet that just reiterated the role of defence in bolstering the Roosters’ self-belief during this early period.
It’s not even that their defence was at its best after they dealt with Papali’i – if anything, this effort seemed to momentarily exhaust them. Instead, the Eels failed to make good inroads into their defensive line, culminating with a missed opportunity out on the right edge, where Gutho was ropeable not to receive the footy, anticipating his iconic blow-up at Opacic later on. By this stage, the Roosters had recovered from the Papali’i effort, and by the time Nathan Brown turned it over, Walker was in place to make thirty before the Eels knew what hit them.
This was the turning-point of the game, the sink-or-swim moment for Sydney City, and they delivered with a sublime pair of tries that changed the tone of the whole night in a matter of minutes. After so much prevarication from both sides, these two crossovers were refreshingly simple, as if the Chooks realised they just needed a no frills approach – go up the middle and spread it. The first try came now, off a big run from Manu up centre of the park, followed by a huge bounce pass from Walker to the right wing, where he found Morris waiting to take it.
This wasn’t a pretty pass, and yet there was a brilliance in its messiness – as if Walker realised he had to throw caution to the wind and extemporise whatever assist was necessary to recover momentum. Morris took it beautifully, skidding away from Blake and Sivo for a clean grounding, while Keighran added the extras, and the Chooks scored on the restart. This time the run came from Teddy, who finally got into first-gear as he took the footy from Walker, danced over a Blake ankle tap, swerved away from Papali’i, and burst ebulliently into space.
From the moment Tedesco touched the Steeden, Tupouniua was behind him in support, drawing on the energy he’d brought to the first part of the match, the energy the Eels had so far managed to frustrate, by collecting the footy at the thirty and slamming over to score untouched. The last Sydney City try had been brilliant in its improvisation, in its ability to wrest control from chaos, but this was vintage Roosters, making their first four seem like a warmup.
Once again, they’d gone hard and gone right, but this time they had a linebreak, more speed, and a scintillating sequence from their custodian and fullback, while the putdown had been considerably less pressured as well. Keighran booted through his second conversion, and just like that the Chooks had taken total control of the evening – a tribute to the power of self-belief, especially when it came to this second try, which felt like Sydney City finally waking up.
Fergo was off the park a few minutes later after copping a huge gash when he took Hutchison’s knee in the face, and Teddy put his spotty start behind him by taking a soaring high ball from Dylan Brown shortly after, rallying the backline with one of the best bomb collects of the game. The Roosters were now in a good state of mind to contend with a last-minute Parramatta surge – linebreaks from Will Smith and Dylan Brown, a dropout on the siren, along with a penalty and report from Radley after he swung an arm into Nathan Brown.
Not only did the Roosters continue to keep Parra out in the second half, but they more than doubled their own scoreline in the process. Nevertheless, the Eels looked better back from the break, since Fergo returned to the field, and Brad Arthur had clearly directed a change in strategy. Rather than sweeping from side to side, the visitors now went hard up the middle, as Oregon Kaufusi rescued a spotty first stanza with a pair of good runs on the first set back, clearing space for a Paulo-Mahoney offload, along with decent post-contact metres for Lane.
Fergo pivoted rapidly from boot to boot at the start of the next set, as if squaring up the middle third to produce a safe passage for his men. Yet the Eels were surprisingly lacklustre on the next kick chase, almost pulling back from the play, despite being onside, as Teddy took the high ball. This would have been the perfect moment to deflate Sydney by forcing another error beneath the bomb, but instead Tedesco was motivated by the take, offloading on the ground to Radley a second later, before barging into Gutho under the Roosters’ own high ball.
Gutho managed to maintain possession, and yet something shifted subliminally in this standoff between the two fullbacks. Teddy might have only bumped Gutho a few metres back into Parramatta territory, but those few metres were critical for marking his own territory. That’s not to say that the Eels exactly wilted here, but that the Chooks were able to withstand them more casually, as had occurred just before the break. Radley conceded six again, and Hutchison and Morris both made handling errors, but Parra never really capitalised on them.
They came closest about an hour in, when they delivered their best set of the game – and the Roosters conceded their most egregious error beneath the high ball. Arthur chipped to the right edge, where Matterson and Keighran competed for it in the air. The footy came backwards off Keighran, and Matto didn’t get a hand to it, so play was live when Opacic stormed in to split the difference between a clean grounding and a knock-on more minutely than any play I’ve seen this year. The match hung in the balance as the Bunker scrutinised it.
Even in slow motion, it looked like Opacic had a shot here. He hadn’t got his handly cleanly to the Steeden, but he did appear to have exerted significant downward pressure with the base of his palms, or at least the very top of his wrist. Moreover, the footy seemed to have touched the turf when he fell on it, making it less likely that this would come down as a bounce. Yet the call was too close for the Bunker to ratify it, so the first four Parra points went begging.
It took their lowest moment to motivate the Roosters during the first half, and so it was here. Their backline took another blow when Morris joined RCG on the sideline with a hamstring injury. Seeing Morris injured will always have a particular emotional resonance for the Chooks, given the way brother Brett left the park for his final game, so this was a big set for the Roosters – as big, in its own way, as the set after Teddy’s second knock-on in stanza one.
In an incredible moment of resurgence, the Chooks now enjoyed a twelve-point turnaround. They’d done it earlier with back-to-back tries, and now they did it by scoring a few tackles after Opacic’s almost-try. Once again, it came off a simple two-man play – a testament to the synergy of the halves, as Hutchison flicked the footy out to Walker, who danced over a Fergo ankle tap, broke through the line, and crossed over the chalk with Tedesco cheering him on.
Keighran added his third straight conversion, while the Eels had another heartbreak a moment later. Gutho and Matto both reached out their arms for Arthur’s kick beneath the crossbars, and Dylan Brown slammed over for a clean grounding on the back of it, but the Bunker confirmed what already seemed likely – that Gutho had got a fingertip to the footy and denied his five-eighth for the try. Gutherson would go on to have an already legendary spray at Opacic, but a part of his frustration must have stemmed from his own mistake here.
It didn’t take long for him to take it out on Opacic, who conceded an escorts just when Gutho seemed to have reset his game by leaping a metre above the Giraffe to collect the high ball cleanly. Yet the Eels got a let-off when Keighran missed the penalty kick, ricocheting it off the crossbar, since the Roosters were totally unprepared for this eventuality. They could have conceivably scored a spectacular try here, or at least forced a dropout, but only Keighran chased down the footy, as if already sensing the ricochet at the moment the ball left his boot.
Dylan Brown was in place to scoop it up and work it back to the ten metre line, and yet this was only a momentary let-off for Parramatta, since the Roosters rallied again at the start of the Eels’ next set, when Tupouniua reached an arm out to intercept a Gutho-Sivo pass. He didn’t make contact with the football, but he did unnerve Sivo sufficiently to force the knock-on, inducing another Gutho blowup even though this was a pretty poor pass in the first place.
After all the aborted scrum options in the first stanza the Roosters had a decent set here, with Tupou and Teddy asking big questions on the left and right edge respectively. Somehow, Ray Stone got away with the most blatant professional foul of the year, laying down on JWH two or three times, but only conceding a restart for his troubles. Yet the Roosters responded with one of the best challenges of their season, sending the last play upstairs to prove that, while Sivo hadn’t initially played at Manu’s kick, the ricochet had led to some secondary contact.
Just when the Eels looked set to get the ball back, the Chooks had another set, and then another, off an unfortunate ruck error from Mahoney. The home crowd held their breath as JWH rose very slowly to his feet on the third play, but his team mates recovered with their fastest sweep to the left wing so far – Lachlan Lam from the middle, then a pair of catch-and-passes from Hutchison and Keighran in the face of Opacic and Fergo. Keighran missed his second kick, keeping the Chooks at 22, as Walker slotted into conversion duty for the last try.
The Eels desperately needed a consolation try now to build some belief for their game against the Bunnies next week. Instead, they got the very opposite of a consolation effort. Five minutes out, Gutho stuck a hand in the ruck, Manu took a quick tap, and caught the whole Parramatta defence napping, storming into open space to score the most decimating try of the night beneath the crossbar. The Roosters couldn’t ask for a better motivator heading into next week’s game against Penrith – they’re now peaking at just the right time for finals footy.