ROUND 23: Parramatta Eels v. North Queensland Cowboys (Cbus Super Stadium, 21/8/21, 32-16)

Both Parra and North Queensland were coming off losing streaks when they met at Cbus on Saturday night. The Eels had only won a single game in their last five, and were sixth on the ladder, meaning a top four berth looked increasingly unlikely, even if finals football was guaranteed. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys were keen to avoid losing ten in a row – and equally keen to exceed twenty for the first time in two months, especially with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow returning in the fullback jersey after four weeks out with appendicitis.

While the blue and gold didn’t need to win here to secure a top eight position, they did need to recover their self-belief with the toughest buildup to finals ahead – the Storm next week, and the Panthers in Round 25. They found that streak in the later part of the game, with a Will Smith try that absorbed the momentum of an unexpected Cowboys comeback, and then Clint Gutherson’s first four-pointer since Round 14, both of which came off Mitch Moses’ general vision and organisation in the halves, even though Gutho was on boot duties as well.

Moses took the kickoff, and Junior Paulo the first run, after only notching up 242 metres last week against the Sea Eagles, before Nathan Brown put it down to gift North Queensland some early field position. The Hammer was close to the twenty by the first tackle, and Francis Molo sailed into it on play two, but the Cowboys didn’t really mount much of a challenge here, as Will Penisini marked his second game in the NRL by taking a Scott Drinkwater chip on the full.

The Eels didn’t break their own forty, but at least they completed their next set, which Moses capped off with a long kick to reset the balance of position. Despite a strong run up the middle from Jordan Maclean on the fifth, the Cows didn’t reach Parramatta territory either, while the Eels got back on the attack again with a rapid sweep midway up the park that cleared up space for a Waqa Blake break on the left wing. He had ample time to shift it back inside for Dylan Brown, who was unmarked and would have scored untouched, but flicked it forward.

As quickly as Parra had elasticised the game, they’d self-destructed, so the Cowboys had a shot at recovering the momentum if they consolidated now. They repeated and absorbed the Eels’ push with an early sweep out to their left edge, albeit without the break, meaning the set came down to an enormous Drinkwater boot that Haze Dunster took on the full. Ben Condon had come closest to reprising Blake’s movement up the edge, so perhaps he was taking out the frustration of that aborted sweep with a crusher on Gutho early in the count.

Parra had the first penalty of the night, and their first full set in the twenty, repeating their previous left sweep on the very first tackle. Brown and Gutho shaped it clinically, but things got more precarious out on the wing, where Blake tapped it on to Sivo, who ricocheted it into the air, caught it on the second go, and lobbed an awkward ball back inside for Blake to take it on the bounce and duck under the defence to score. Yet the precarity of this sequence made it all the more compelling as a consolidation, as Gutho teed up the sideline conversion.

He missed it, keeping the Eels four ahead, but this was still an important early statement, while begging the question of why Moses wasn’t kicking – was his back injury still that bad? In any case, Parra had showed they were prepared to be enterprising with this opening try, and they continued that entertainment factor with a deft Blake-Gutho offload – almost a handover – midway through the restart. Their confidence paid off, denting North Queensland’s body language, as Laitia Moceidreke fumbled the next play-the-ball on debut.

The Eels had scored last time they were in the Cows’ twenty, and Isaiah Papali’i looked determined to repeat that push with a strong platform tackle on play two, only for the Cows to get the better of a wide ball from Moses to Dunster a few plays later. This was a terrific pass from Moses, but Dunster was never going to get around the pack of Cowboys that rallied to drag him into touch, as the visitors dug in to try and withstand the best Parramatta defence so far on the following set, which kept them trapped inside their forty for the first four tackles.

The Hammer got them to the forty at the end of it all, but almost found himself dragged over the right sideline in the process, so Tom Dearden took the kick as soon as possible, content with merely surviving now, while Moses responded with a soaring ball that Holmes took on the full, in his first really decisive play of the night. The Cows had survived Mitch’s boot here, and Dearden consolidated with the best North Queensland kick thus far, deep into the right corner, but they couldn’t answer Moses’ footwork when he careened into space up the right.

This was exactly the one-man vision you’d want from a star halfback, as Moses dummied a couple of times to defy Holmes, tucked the Steeden under his right arm as he danced between Hampton and the sideline, and finally flicked it across for Penisini to score his first NRL try. In the process, he became the fourth-highest assister of 2021 at 23, behind Cody Walker at 35, Tom Trbojevic at 28 and Nicho Hynes at 25, one ahead of his former halves partner Luke Brooks at 22 – not a bad result for a player who’d been on the sideline with a fractured back.

He also set up Gutho with a great kicking angle, but this time the ball hit the posts, keeping Parra to an eight point lead, meaning the Cows would be back in the game with just a converted try under their belts. Paulo and Marata Niukore laid a solid foundation for the restart, Joey Lussick was put on report, and Moses continued the same rapid movement up the right – not breaking through the line this time, but coming in so hard and fast that he just fell head-first into Reece Robson, who found himself banged with a penalty for high contact.

For the moment, however, Parra’s acceleration overtook them, as Shaun Lane proved himself unable to repeat Moses’ vision on the left edge, where he attempted an offload at the end of a left sweep. With four tackles left, and a fragmented North Queensland line, he would have done better to take the hit, and play the footy quickly, since he only had enough time and space to flick it forward, handing the Cowboys the first scrum feed of the game. Even so, the visitors really struggled for field position, and Robson booted it sideways inside his own thirty.

Things moved quickly from here, as Coen Hess reached out an arm to tap it back, Paulo took it on the full, and flicked it just as fast to Penisini, who knocked on, before Parra sent it upstairs, got an inconclusive result, and the Cows found themselves back where they started with a second successive scrum feed. Robson tried to muscle his way through the line straight off the play-the-ball, and Drinkwater kicked early, but Gutho showcased consummate patience by waiting for the very last second for the Steeden to trickle over the dead ball line.

Even so, Ash Klein seemed to see some last-minute contact with the ball, as the Cows got stuck into their first dropout of the game, and their first real close-range attack as well. They never broke the ten, though, thanks to an aborted right sweep that left Drinkwater with nowhere to go, and a Condon knock-on when Dearden chipped back to the left. Nevertheless, North Queensland got the ball back when Lane made his second error of the night, early in the count, with an unforced error that saw the visitors get inside the Parramatta ten after all.

This quickly turned into the most dramatic accumulation of field position for either team so far, as the Cows made up for lost time. After encapsulating the disappointing end to the last set, the halves consolidated now, as Dearden dummied and ran on the third, almost reaching the line before Drinkwater drove it into the right corner. Dearden then repeated his chip to the left, where Lane made it a hat trick of mistakes with a charge down to concede six again –and with Nathan Brown pinged for a crusher on Reuben Cotter, a Cowboys try seemed close.

For a moment, everything looked set to come together, as the Hammer drove it hard and fast into the left corner, where he dummied to get through Dunster and cradled the Steeden in both hands as he came to ground beneath Gutho and Penisini. In real time, the grounding looked slightly suspect, and the replay showed how courageously Gutherson had defended here, never giving up on the play, and sliding his hand beneath the footy at the millisecond that Hamiso’s clutch faltered. In one subliminal moment, a grounding became a loose carry.

This was enough to get Parra back in their flow, but they also had to work for it, since the speed and strength of the Hammer’s run had also unleashed a new adrenalin high across the North Queensland attack. The Eels probably just needed to complete the next set convincingly to restore their upper hand, but instead Sivo spilled the footy and was taken off the park with what looked like an MCL injury, leaving the blue and gold more vulnerable than any point so far. No surprise, than, that the Cowboys took their first try on the following set.

Even with the advantage, this was still an impressive sequence, as North Queensland finally found the right sweep they’d been searching for on their last bout on the Parramatta line, thanks to some deft work from Drinkwater out of dummy half, and a beautiful run from Mitch Dunn, who drifted deep into the defensive line, offloading at the last minute for Heilum Luki. Lane was having a tough night, and it got tougher when he tried to prevent this play, as Luki twisted a full 360-degrees through his tackle before reaching out an arm to put the ball down.

This may have been only the first North Queensland try, but, in its own way, it was more decisive than either of the two Parra tries – especially since Holmes booted through the extras to make it only a two-point game. To get back in the swing of things, the Eels needed a couple of bumps up the park, and they got them a set later, starting with a Niukore-Lussick offload that was initially deemed a knock-on from Joey, but revised with a successful Captain’s Challenge that proved Holmes had shoved the young hooker away from collecting the footy.

Moses now stepped up again – first indirectly, with a rocketing kick that tempted late contact from Hess, and then directly, with a terrific riposte to Dunn’s drifting assist. Leaning into the line, he sent a stellar ball across to Lane, who did better with the left sweep this time around, running such a hard line that he barely noticed the Asi ankle tap on his way to the line. In fact, the entire North Queensland defence seemed to have dissolved, as Lane’s frustrated first thirty almost seemed worth it as a point of comparison to the ease and elegance of this try.

Even better, Gutho nabbed his first conversion, bringing the Eels to an eight point lead for the last ten minutes before the break. Both teams took a set to steady themselves, and then Parra got six again on tackle one, off a Dearden ruck infringement, while Blake only just saved a rushed catch-and-pass from Gutho – or seemed to, until the touch judge correctly discerning that he’d put a boot on the sideline as he scrambled to his feet. Once again, the Eels had accelerated too quickly, and their speed had overtaken them, but earlier up the park this time.

Parra’s main issue had been getting to the North Queensland twenty, since once they were inside the red zone they had a good average – three tries for eleven tackles. They got back on the front foot midway through the next set, summoning a huge pack to drive Hampton over the left sideline. While he managed to flick the footy back in field, Niukore dove on it, and the Eels now mounted their own accumulation of field position, thanks to a penalty from Luki for lying in the ruck, a Maclean report for a hit on Brown, and finally a dropout with three to go.

It all came apart, however, with a Penisini error, so the Eels had to be content with a 14-6 lead as they headed to the sheds. On the other side of the Steeden, Drinkwater tried to galvanise his men with a 40/20 on the first set back, but he didn’t quite nail the angle, while Gutho was already in place to take it on the sideline anyway. Buoyed by this early save, the Eels took it straight and hard up the middle, as Maclean came in for a hit on Nathan Brown, cementing the rivalry that had been building between these two since late in the second half.

Nevertheless, Moses got to a great kick – a hanging ball that put real pressure on the North Queensland defence, before Drinkwater coughed it up to get the Eels into their twenty with four tackles to play with. This time Hess floored Brown before Mclean could get to him, but once again Moses’ boot did the trick, as he now opted for a scintillating grubber-and-chase that trapped Hamiso behind the line for an early dropout. Yet the Cows got the ball back when Drinkwater went short, and while Moceidreke lost it, he clamoured for a penalty and got it. 

All in all, then, this was the most volatile period of play so far – the first time the Cows had really glimpsed a level playing-field, or at least an elastic enough atmosphere to provide them with some decent chances to take the upper hand. Robson was inside the twenty with one tackle left, and Drinkwater booted it out to the left edge, where Dylan Brown came up with a sublime desperation play to rip the footy out of Luki’s grasp a metre infield, come to ground just beside the sideline, and then offload right off the turf for Gutho to get in a safer position.

Moses was the lifesaver here, getting his men out of trouble with a big boot inside the forty that, again, begged the question of why he hadn’t been taking the conversion kicks, especially given Gutho’s track record. Still, the Cowboys had enough momentum behind them to hit back now, as the Hammer made the silkiest break of the match – straight up the middle, and right past Dylan Brown, until Gutho finally got him down – before Drinkwater opted to kick early, securing a dropout with a nicely weighted grubber that Gutho had to clean up in goal. 

For a moment, it looked like we might be in for another accumulation of North Queensland field position, only for Lane to continue his comeback from the first thirty minutes. He’d delivered in attack, with a try before the break, and now he delivered in defence, storming in for an absolute monster of a tackle on Dearden that brought the set to an abrupt end. With Asi called offside on play one, it looked like Parra might just absorb the Cows’ growing position, but in the spirit of this second half Nathan Brown shot it forward a few plays later.

The Hammer was starting to rival Moses as the key playmaker since the sheds, and their contest solidified at the end of the next Parra set, when Mitch sent through his best grubber so far – a series of mercurial bounces that Hamiso somehow brought back into the field of play by curving around a cascade of blue and gold defenders who all relied too heavily on the brilliance of their halfback’s boot. Even better, Hammer remained in the field of play when Dunster finally got to him, five metres back over the try line, right on the cusp of the sideline.

From here, Hammer mirrored Dylan Brown’s previous clutch play, lying parallel to the chalk, and offloading back inside to Hampton, as if to prove that the Cowboys could do everything that Parra could do – and save a near-certain dropout in the process. The Eels only had two real options to get their mojo back – first, they had to accumulate as much field position as possible; and second, Moses had to directly target Hamiso and undo that last brilliant dash.

They achieved both over the next few minutes, as another error from Moceidreke led to another Moses-Hammer showdown. This time Mitch wasn’t taking any chances, glimpsing the North Queensland fullback behind the line, and chipping it over his head to make sure he got the dropout beyond all doubt. Even with these advances, the Eels still needed to somehow absorb the Hammer’s play into their next try, and the stars aligned late in the dropout, when Dylan Brown popped a beautifully placed chip out to left edge, where Asi caught it on the full.

In a less volatile back half of footy, this might have been a conversation-stopper, but the Eels never gave up on the kick chase here, causing the young backliner to lose it behind him, where Paulo made it a hat trick of clutch plays on the ground. Just as Hamiso had upstaged Brown on the sideline, Junior upstaged them both with the lowest and most precarious pass of the game – a one-handed tap-on, more like tennis than rugby league, just before the Steeden came to rest, ensuring that Will Smith was able to cross over untouched when he took it clean.

This wasn’t just the key consolidation try of the game – it was the fulcrum for Parramatta to play themselves back into form on the cusp of finals footy. Their next four-pointer felt like a victory lap, as well as a summary of the key moments of the match on blue and gold terms. Moses set it up, finding space to for Dunster to break through the line on the left edge, where he booted it at speed back for Gutho take it on the bounce, score his first try since Round 14 beneath the posts, and outpace Hamiso for good measure, before adding an easy conversion.

North Queensland weren’t done yet, however, surviving the restart and capitalising immediately on their next big shot – a Papali’i strip on Dunn. They used their next set to execute two terrific sweeps, the first out to the left, where Drinkwater echoed Moses’ wide ball of the first stanza with the same breadth out to Holmes, who didn’t score then and there, but did manage (unlike Dunster) to remain in the field of play. Drinkwater shaped to kick a play later, but was bundled up, and this became the pivot for the sweep back out to the right.

It was fortunate, in retrospect, that Drinkwater was contained here, since the Cowboys showed some of their silkiest footwork for this next sequence, which ended with Moceidreke scoring on debut off a short ball from Asi. In spirit, though, the assist came from Jeremiah Nanai, who pulled off a subliminal flick pass to put Asi in place – his first big moment of the night, but one of the best in the entire game. Holmes missed the kick, but the Cows glimpsed a real comeback when Bryce Cartwright was pinged for a dangerous shot early in the restart.

Instead, Hess mirrored Lane’s poor judgement on the line with an unnecessary offload on tackle two, perhaps taking his cues from a Dunn-Granville offload on tackle one, but falling far short as he lobbed the footy forward. With Cotter copping a penalty for a dangerous tackle in turn, the Eels had put Carty’s error behind them, and had almost a full set to play with inside the Cowboys’ red zone. For a moment, it looked like Papali’i might just barge his way to the line, beside the posts, in slow motion, or at least lay the platform for a quick four points.

It was agonising, then, when the Eels got their own flashback to Lane’s mistimed offload, as well as the aborted Moses-Dunster wide ball from the first half, as Gutho found himself on the right edge, and opted for some poorly planned second phase to his no. 3 rather than taking the tackle and playing it quickly. Lane read the next kick well, though, and Dunster got some joy with a tough run, while Carty put his mistake behind him with a nice offload, only for Gutho to double down on his poor pass by knocking on before the second phase got going.

With a little under nine minutes on the clock, the game was getting sloppy. While the Cows didn’t have much chance of winning now, it was critical that Parra maintain this point differential in order to steel themselves for the next two weeks. As it turned out, that’s just what they did, since both teams would score another converted try before the siren rang out. North Queensland were first, getting a boost with an offside from Carty early in the count, and then a second beautiful play from Nanai – an around-the corner offload back to Dearden.

This was a stellar sequel to Nanai’s work on the wing, and showcased a similar kind of dexterity – a capacity to edge his way around the defence like it was a training run. It also inspired Molo to do the same even later in the next tackle from Dunn, who culminated this cascade of Cowboys with a beautiful grubber that Granville took on the bounce and outpaced Moses to score. Holmes booted through the two from right in front, and the Eels were staring down only a ten-point lead with six on the clock, as the visitors got expansive on the restart.

Indeed, without two terrific tackles from Smith, Dunn would have likely broken through the line on the second play, and Drinkwater on the third, so the Eels really needed Gutho to deliver on the high ball – and he did, coming to ground with the footy clutched into his chest before Molo found himself offside for a critical six again. Moses wobbled it high at the end of the set, and the Eels got the stark contrast in capacity they needed to end this game on a high – the Hammer trying to mirror Gutho’s take on the ground, but losing it cold on the chalk.

Dylan Brown was in place to deliver, remaining onside and timing his run perfectly to scoop up the Steeden the moment it sailed through Hamiso’s hands and launch over the line, before Gutho capped off the battle of the fullbacks with one last conversion for a 32-16 finish. The Cowboys might have failed to score twenty in their eighth game, but they still put up a pretty decent fight here, while the Eels got the burst they needed to take on the Storm and Panthers over the next two weeks – the hardest journey to finals football of any team in the top eight.

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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