Parramatta and Newcastle hadn’t met in finals footy since the 2001 premiership when they rocked up on Sunday afternoon for an elimination backdrop that nobody would have anticipated twenty years ago – the subtropical calm of Browne Park, with palm trees and hazy light casting a balmy glow over everything. Reagan Campbell-Gillard was returning after five weeks on the sideline with a groin injury, while Ray Stone was shifting from back row to starting dummy half for only the second time, with Reed Mahoney and Joey Lussick both off.
Elimination football is all about nerve, and both teams had it in spades this afternoon, with Newcastle’s forward pack dominating for long stretches after being rested for last week’s loss to Brisbane. The difference came from Mitchell Moses, who culminated his gradual recovery from his back injury with an absolute barnstorming game here, leading and organising from all parts of the park, and bristling with an energy we haven’t seen since his best stints at Bankwest, to the point where he seemed to be conjuring Bankwest out of Browne Park itself.
Moses’ brilliance was especially clear in paving what amounted to a comeback from Blake Ferguson, who’s only played four out of the last twelve games for Parramatta, but scored a double on the wing here, and came close to a few more. Fergo always treads a fine line between inspiration and inanity, but he seemed steelier and more sober tonight, accessing his mature side to prove just how much a veteran can bring to the park at the start of finals.
King Gutho took the kickoff, and he must have been flummoxed by the smaller scale of Browne Park, since he sent it well out on the full to gift Newcastle an augmented attacking opportunity for their opening set. Sausao Sue took the first tackle inside the Eels’ forty, with a swift wind at his back, and Kalyn Ponga capitalised as soon as he reached the ten, running deep into the line and simply popping a wide ball out for Enari Tuala to dance over a Mitch Moses legs tackle and come to ground with Gutho and Fergo piling in as last line of defence.
Jake Clifford was only kicking at 33% from the far left this season, and he missed again here, mistiming the breeze to leave the Steeden hanging a good twenty metres away from the uprights, but even so the Knights were over a point per minute – and had scored off Parra’s first mistake of the match. They had their first set from their own end on the restart, accelerating with each run until Mitchell Pearce opted to kick on the fourth from his own forty. It would have been a good one if he’d found the grass, but instead Gutho took it clean.
Ponga showed he could do the same under Moses’ first bomb, though, and once again Pearce booted it from the fourth on his own forty, but this time he followed Gutho by mistiming the kick – not quite sending it out on the full, but still giving the Eels seven tackles after it bounced in goal at an oblique angle and careened over the dead ball line as Gutho pulled back from the play. Moses’ next kick hung even more precariously in the air, and while Shaun Lane came up with a second boot, Dylan Brown collected it only to lose it into Ponga right on the chalk.
Ferguson had his first big play at the end of the next set, outleaping Bradman Best to take the footy on the full, while the wind was crazy enough for Moses to catch his own bomb, and usher his men into six again off a Kurt Mann error, as play paused for Tyson Frizell to get some attention after smashing into RCG a few tackles before. He barely had his balance, but was somehow allowed to remain on the field, while Moses galvanised his men further with a heroic charge into Sue that laid the platform for the left sweep that ended in Parra’s first try.
Moses had made the biggest contact of the match so far with Sauaso, but he still managed a quick play-the-ball as the footy moved through both Browns for Gutho to assist Waqa Blake, who didn’t have much trouble disposing of Frizell, who came off for the HIA in turn as Moses bookended it by booting the two. RCG was fired up on the restart, making a couple of metres after contact, while Moses came up with another David-on-Goliath effort on Daniel Saifiti up the right, already foreshadowing how critical his leadership would be in this elimination final.
Dylan Brown glimpsed a gap in the line a minute later, and while the Knights closed it up, the choppy turf testified to how regularly Parra had been moving it up the middle at the start of their sets. You could say that Brown’s enthusiasm got the better of him when he was pinged for a crusher on Daniel Saifiti midway through the next Newcastle carry, but he wasn’t able to do much else when the big bopper twisted into him on the ground. In any case, Parra survived the Knights’ extra field position, while Moses recouped with a good bomb a set later.
This was one of the best kicks of the afternoon, and accompanied by a decent chase, but it all evaporated as Tuala took the footy and responded with one of the best returns so far as well. After such a fast start, this was becoming an arm-wrestle, even a drudge, although the drama returned when Fergo roared at Sue for some foul play – grabbing him beneath the knee and twisting him onto his back midway up the park. Fergo was taken from the field, and Sue was interchanged and put on report, as Connor Watson and Isaiah Papali’i came on in their place.
With the penalty advantage Parra started their next set right on the Newcastle ten, as Moses tried to reprise the previous left sweep by setting up Dylan Brown for a looping parabola ball out to Haze Dunster on the wing. This time the Knights contained him, and rallied an even bigger pack to hold up Blake when he tried to make it a double in the same spot a few tackles later. Still, this was good ball handling from Dunster, who had reached out one hand to rein it in, while RCG quickly roused the Eels into their best defence so far with a trio of huge tackles.
As a result, Clifford had to kick from within his own red zone on the last, booting it sixty metres but without any shot of a 20/40, as Fergo gingerly returned to the park. Clifford did well to bring Moses’ next grubber back into the field of play, especially since Stone downed him with a shot that seemed to condense RCG’s last three tackles on the Newcastle line into one pummelling moment of contact. It seemed like an age since the Knights had been in Parra territory, as Pearce now kicked at his thirty, and Frizell followed Fergo by preparing to return.
Makahesi Makatoa steadied the Eels with some terrific post-contact metres, shaping three or four times for an offload, but Tuala followed Clifford with a tough run to avoid the dropout, while Will Penisini conceded a much-needed restart with a ruck error, and Marata Niukore coughed up more field position with an all-too-familiar late hit on Watson. Meanwhile, Frizell came back on the park in a near HIA-for-HIA swap, as Brodie Jones left the field to get some head attention after coming on to replace his second-rower ten minutes earlier in the game.
Frizell took the second run after Niukore’s penalty, and then banged into Stone and Blake again on the fourth, as the Knights went from six again on their line to six again on the Parra line, thanks to a Parramatta touch. The Eels actually got a second touch to it, on the right edge, but it didn’t mean much, since it occurred just as Pearce was setting up the Knights’ second try with a superb ball out through Clifford to Hymel Hunt, who surged back inside over a trio of ankle taps from Blake, Dylan Brown and Makatoa to score right behind the crossbar.
There was a brief question of whether Mann had obstructed Brown, but the overlap was attributed to a defensive decision from Dunster – one of the closer calls of the season – clearing the try for Clifford to boot through Newcastle’s first conversion of the game by sending it straight over the roof of Rockhampton Leagues Club. The light was turning golden over Browne Park as Hunt got the restart rolling with an offload out the back to Jayden Brailey, although Parra did well to prevent any of the big men getting second phase play in his wake.
Moses channelled Cleary with his next bomb, forcing Hunt to reach out both hands to get it, before curving around it and reaching out a hand to bump it into touch before reconsidering, and reaching a boot over the sideline as he scooped it up in both hands. Ash Klein deemed that Hunt had got a fingertip to it on that first carry, and the Captain’s Challenge was held to be inconclusive, even though it seemed to show Hunt missing it, so the Knights had to weather a full set in their twenty, summoning their strongest goal line defence so far for four tackles.
Adam O’Brien must have felt there was some poetic justice in this defensive display forcing the first error of the game, when Nathan Brown dropped a Papali’i pass cold, but even so the Eels continued to pile on position, thanks to successive ruck errors from Barnett and Brailey. They really started to elasticise about seven minutes out from the break, making Browne Park seem twice as wide as Brown, Blake and Lane all made terrific metres, so it was a let-off when Dylan Brown didn’t quite nail Browne, mistiming the kick for Ponga to collect before the posts.
Both teams now got a chance to rest and recalibrate, as word returned from the sheds that Jones wouldn’t be returning, RCG left the park after a strong opening stint, and Josh King followed him after copping high contact from Blake, who was put on report for his troubles. As a result, the subsequent Parra restart was more charged than most, and Moses tapped into that energy beautifully, channelling the elasticity of the previous Parra set into a break up the middle – or into the middle, since he started on the right edge and worked his way in.
This wasn’t quite in the same league as Turbo’s nine-man disposal a week ago, but it had the same fluidity, as Moses sailed across the face of the Newcastle defence, eluding Klemmer and Saifiti, before getting around Ponga to slam it down, rise to his feet and roar with a tenacity that we haven’t seen since Parra’s historic win over the Wests Tigers that stamped their ownership of Bankwest. In fact, you could have believed Moses was at Bankwest now – he conjured the Parra home ground in the conviction and belief with which he faced the crowd.
No surprise that he added the extras, or that he made anther near-break on the restart, laying the platform for the man who assisted him to cross over. Fergo had fed the footy to Mitch last set, and now he was the beneficiary of the best right sweep of the game – and an especially spectacular assist from Will Penisini, who drove it deep into the corner, fended off Best, and flicked a no-look offload out to Fergo, who read the play just as brilliantly, barging over the line on one leg for his 11th try in 14 finals appearances, a veteran proving his worth.
The wind defied Moses’ next conversion attempt but even so this was a barnstorming end to a low-scoring first stanza, while Mitch’s bursts of leadership in the opening quarter had come to full fruition in this dazzling display on the brink of half time, culminating his best forty of footy all year. By the time they returned to the park, the gloaming had started to settle on Rockhampton, the mountain was in shadow, and the wind had settled, albeit not fully died.
Moses had to kick the first one from within his own thirty, and delivered a lovely arcing ball that framed the mountain as it curved from one end of the park to the other. Yet Ponga quickly disposed of that leisurely rhythm, taking advantage of six again on their first set, off a Shaun Lane ruck error, to drive it deep into the left corner. He couldn’t break the bank for Tuala, but he got the Knights back into first gear, ending this close-range set with another terrific play on the other edge, where he tried to set up Hunt as assiduously as he had Tuala.
Best made some of the best metres after contact on the next Newcastle set, but Ferguson parlayed them into a Parra victory by spearheading a big pack to drag him over the sideline – one or two post-contact metres too many. Big Fergo was clearly amped up, and magic often happens when he’s in this state of play, so it was no surprise that Moses fed it out to his wing as quickly as possible. Seeing what was happening, and anxious to prevent Fergo gaining any more headway, Best jammed in on Gutho to halt the sweep, but knocked it into him instead.
This could have been a consolidation moment for Parra, so for a moment it looked a letoff, potentially a momentum-changer, when Penisini lost the footy. Yet the Knights were defending again pretty quickly, as Clifford coughed it up a few tackles later, and Saifiti was pinged for crowding two tackles out of the subsequent scrum. Will Smith took a quick tap, the Eels got six again, and everything was in place for a torrent of blue and gold points, as all eyes turned to Moses – and Moses delivered just as quickly, assisting Fergy Ferg for a second try.
This time Mitch wasn’t going to risk Best ruining his sweep, so he bypassed the sweep altogether, running deep into the line and lobbing it back to Ferguson, who had ample room to tuck it under his arm and then plant it down one-handed for his third double in finals footy. Moses’ conversion was one of the most mercurial of his career, since he booted it straight into the breeze rather than aiming it at the posts, relying on the wind to hold it up and spin it back over the crossbar. Parra were now a converted try beyond Newcastle, 22 points to 10.
They’d stay that way until the dying moments of the game, as the Knights now mounted a gritty comeback that saw them double their scoreline without Parra answering them. They started with a rapid acceleration of field position, as Smith charged down a Pearce kick, and Niukore followed with an offside – and they capitalised just as quickly. Clifford showed Moses he could also productively disrupt – or compress – a sweep on the last, shaping to pass it out to the wing only to send it off the boot for Tuala to chase down and nab a double of his own.
Even better for Newcastle, Fergo was the casualty here, wrapping his massive frame around Tuala for what would have been a conversation-stopper if the wiry winger hadn’t been so dexterous with the ball handling. He actually spilled it down his leg when Ferguson came in for the contact, only to regrip it against his thigh just in time to score cleanly, before both men were bundled into touch. Clifford’s conversion was as good as the assist, and so the Knights were back to a six point game as RCG waited to rejoin it all from the Browne sideline.
Fergo came close to another brilliant moment a set later, leaping up to take a kick that was too high even for him, and popping it back for Blake, who booted it back into his chest for what would have been the most eccentric assist of finals footy so far if Fergo managed to take it clean, since he had decent room to make it back to the line. Junior Paulo joined the list of players on report with an equally eccentric high shot a moment later, as Niukore’s aggro fuelled him to drive Mann low and hard into the big prop, who made the error inadvertently.
This was a good outcome for Newcastle, since Saifiti had lost the footy cold on the very next play – and Sue made a statement by banging into Niukore to put him in his place. He couldn’t get the offload away, but this one-on-one contest effectively neutralised Parra’s last push, as Ponga consolidated with one of the best passes of his career to date, a beautiful wide ball that travelled fast and true as a bullet, clearing Moses, Blake and than Fergo, who was caught slightly inside as Tuala clutched it into his chest and slammed down to replicate the first try.
This was stunning stuff from Ponga, who in one play had shut down the Moses-Fergo combos that bookended the break, proving that he could lead just as brilliantly (and even more concisely) than Moses, and forcing Fergo to concede a second straight try from a man half his size. That in itself was enough to totally reset the rhythm of the game on the cusp of the final quarter, but the Knights took two pretty hard blows, starting with a missed conversion from Clifford that would grow ever more significant as this two point game started to wind down.
Even worse, Pearce made the most egregious error of his entire season, denying his men a restart when he fumbled the kickoff in goal. From a shot at back-to-back tries, the Knights had now gone to defending RCG at his most barnstorming at the start of a sudden dropout, but they got lucky with the Captain’s Challenge they sent upstairs to prove a Paulo error hadn’t been a Watson strip. This was a huge let-off for Pearce, as Newcastle packed the scrum and tried to restore some semblance of their restart, digging deep into Browne Park’s divots.
They did pretty well, getting Clifford to the halfway line for his kick, where he came up with a brilliant bounce that would have asked big questions of Gutho if the chase had matched it. With fifteen on the clock, and only two points between each side and elimination, things were desperate, especially for the Knights, and especially for Pearce, who put Mann under pressure with a crazy hospital ball that he had to take on his ankles, on the chalk, as Lane slammed in.
Yet Lane himself put it down a set later, and as the Knights packed the scrum, players from both sides seemed to register a new volatility that had spread over the park. The light was mercurial, at the cusp between afternoon and evening, and that created a new sense of flux in the game as well, with both sides seeming to glimpse that the next tryscorer would likely win it. Fergo responded to this new energy with his most elegant take under the high ball, condensing all his years of experience as he fell onto his back, off one leg, to collect it clean.
Fergo ended up on his back at the beginning of the next set too, thanks to a barnstorming forward-like carry, while Moses tried to recoup some field position by hooking it away from Ponga, striking it so hard that the footy rolled dead even though he’d booted it from his own forty. Seven tackles was nothing to scoff at with ten on the clock, so this was the perfect time for RCG to place his best shot of the night, barging into Frizell to knock the big Knight straight into the air, while Parramatta got six again at the start of their next set to get back on track.
Moses looked more vital, in these last twenty minutes, than at any other point this year, and he channelled that energy brilliantly now, with a grubber off the side of his boot that initially looked like a second overlong effort, but ricocheted in goal at an oblique angle that forced Tuala to pop it into touch. Between his kick over the backline, and this grubber that nearly went over the backline, Moses reached his apex of the match, running into the middle of the park to take the dropout on the full, while taking a tough carry up the middle on the second.
From here, Mitch almost set up two terrific tries, the first from Fergo, who was suffocated by three Knights desperate to prevent the hat trick. Then, Moses ended the dropout with a stunning sequel to the grubber that produced it, threading the needle in front of the posts, and getting a bounce that slid up Watson’s torso and into the arms of Bryce Cartwright, who mirrored Fergo’s take under the high ball by reining it in with one hand and smashing to ground in front of the posts for what seemed destined to be the match-winning four points.
Instead, Watson recovered, slammed in, and made the best defensive effort of the night to get under Carty’s body, leaving just enough time for Ponga to come in on top and decisively wrap up the play. Even now, Bryce had clean possession of the ball – there was no knock-on – but the Knights survived, turning a match-winning try into what felt like a match-winning piece of defence if they could somehow contend with that two point advantage. Night fell, Gutho made an error, and we had an ending worthy of Roosters-Titans and Panthers-Bunnies.
On a night so driven by disrupted or compressed sweeps, this was the most dramatic – and the most contentious – as Gutho received the footy from Moses and opted to kick instead of flicking out a wide pass for Fergo to put down a hat trick unmarked on the wing. In fact, this kick was so awkward that the Bunker initially had to check whether Gutho had made the kick at all, or whether he’d simply lost the ball into his boot as Best wrapped himself around him.
Once the kick was cleared, we were able to examine the rest of the play, which saw Tuala come in for a legs tackle as Penisini made his way to the footy, while Ponga pivoted back in from the wing. This seemed like it couldn’t be a penalty try given the way that Roosters-Titans played out – Victor Radley had a much better shot – but the Bunker must have determined that Ponga was less of a defensive threat, since they awarded the six points now to hand Parramatta the game, instead of slapping with Tuala a simple professional foul and sin bin.
This was a dramatic ending at one level, but it was equally frustrating, given the heroic effort from both sides, to see it all end in this way. Parra will take on the Panthers next week in a displaced Battle of the West, while Moses, in particular, deserves all the plaudits coming his way, since in this game he truly, finally, seemed to come back from the fractured back that has plagued him this year, roaring in triumph at the end like he was back at Bankwest again – a rousing sight for the majority of Parramatta fans who are watching from deep in lockdown.