ROUND 11: Parramatta Eels v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (CommBank Stadium, 20/5/22, 22-20)

Both Parra and Manly were at a tipping-point in their season when they took the field for a chilly, dour Commbank standoff. The Eels had been in a win-loss rhythm since Round 5, and were looking for some consistency to celebrate Clint Gutherson’s 150th milestone, while the Sea Eagles were outside the eight, and had only won against teams outside the eight in 2022. Two points separated them at the break, in the visitors’ favour, and two separated them at the final siren, in the hosts’ favour, thanks to a brilliant conversion kick from Mitchell Moses.

It was a stunning statement from Moses, who had been binned just before the sheds, due to a fairly harsh professional foul, but gradually reasserted his football authority again over the last half hour. For a player who can be fairly streaky with the boot, it boded well for the next couple of weeks, while Moses’ binning was eventually eclipsed by the dispiriting spectacle of Tom Trbojevic being helped from the field, sixty-three minutes into the game, immediately after the Tom Opacic try that finally put the blue and gold back on the front foot again.

The Sea Eagles worked hard to prevent Manly breaking their thirty for the first three tackles of the match, and so it took a mad charge from Toa Sipley to eventually cross over it, before Lachlan Croker took the first boot about five metres further ahead, and the Eels started working their way back through the smoke that was still hanging over the CommBank turf. Moses was at about the same spot when he hoisted his first one high, as once again the visitors struggled to work it off their own end in the face of some strong Parra defence.

This time around it was a heavily strapped Turbo who carried the footy over the thirty, getting DCE in place for his first kick of the game – not his best, perhaps because the smoke still hadn’t quite cleared, making it hard to get a good read on the Parramatta backline. Dylan Brown got five metres further ahead than Moses for his next kick, and lobbed it to the left corner, where Christian Tuipulotu hesitated for a beat too long, and so permitted the Steeden to slide off his corner with a bounce that defied Tommy but found Gutho ready and waiting to take it.

It would have been a fairytale opening for Gutherson to celebrate his 150th game with the first try of the night, but he was denied due to a Hayze Perham shove on Tuipulotu that, in slow motion, turned out to be a key part of the reason why the Manly winger had ducked away from the play. The Sea Eagles had the first penalty of the evening, and their first foray into opposition territory, and Croker made the most of it, showing the footy for a good dummy half run on the third, before DCE built on a tough Turbo charge with a right side kick.

Now it was Parramatta’s turn to bring it out of their own end, although a deft offload from Opacic on play one, and then a scintillating sweep a play later meant they were back in Manly territory by tackle three, where they promptly received six again off a Morgan Harper ruck infringement. It was a big letdown, then, when Shaun Lane failed to rein in his arm in the face of a Dylan Brown cutout pass, gifting the Sea Eagles their second bump up the park. Once again, though, Parra survived the kick, this time a Kieran Foran boot towards the posts.

In fact, it was Brown himself who collected the ball and brought it fifteen metres forward, making up for his part in Lane’s error immediately, and setting the stage for a pair of terrific charges up the middle, the first from Isaiah Papali’i, the second from Reed Mahoney. Paps was just as staunch in defence, and Croker seemed to sense it, opting for a kick on the fourth, just outside his forty, that Gutho answered with good enough metres for Lane to drag DCE just over the halfway line by midway through the set, before Moses booted it once again.

Finally, the smoke haze had entirely cleared as Turbo took the first carry, and Tuipulotu came up with a miracle offload, losing the Steeden on the ground early in the count, but managing to parlay it into second phase at the very last moment. Tolu Koula read it beautifully, scooping it up and making thirty metres, the cornerstone of what turned out to be the best accumulation of Sea Eagles position so far – and the first time Parra had to work it right off their own chalk, forcing Moses to take the kick well within blue and gold territory.

Midway through the set, Foran extemporised a harbour bridge ball to Reuben Garrick on the left edge, but the Eels were waiting to smother him, while Manly took another step backwards when Turbo reached out both hands for the kick and knocked it back instead. This marked the start of a low patch for the Sea Eagles, as Andrew Davey left the park for an HIA after heavy contact with the full brunt of RCG, Parramatta packed the scrum, and Sipley found himself offside in the ten on tackle two. The blue and gold army were ready to strike.

Two plays later, Moses flicked a neat inside ball back to Papali’i, but couldn’t assist the linebreak, and tried to compensate by kicking for himself, only for Josh Schuster to make an immediate impact off the bench with a reflex take and forty-metre charge that had his men inside the Parramatta ten by midway through the count. This had been one of the best handling displays of the year, a real lesson in eyes-up footy, with Schuster responding so rapidly he almost fumbled the Steeden, only to regather it again at the very last second.

Everything now came together on the left edge, as Manly gelled for the first time tonight. Jake started by drifting into the line, Foran did the job with a sharp pass out to Turbo, and Tommy drove deep into the defence before catch-and-passing to Harper, who put the icing on the cake by pivoting off the left boot and shaping back in field before flicking the assist out for Garrick to tumble over. Not only had the Sea Eagles scored off their first penalty, but they’d effected one of the biggest rhythm-shifter in weeks, and got the goal to boot.

As rapidly as Manly had turned the tables, then, the Eels had to regain control. They began with some decent defence on the restart, but even then DCE was almost at halfway when he put boot to ball. Still, the got their chance when they resumed possession, with a flop from Josh Aloiai. Lane might not have got the offload away on play one, and Moses might not have sent Ryan Matterson through the line, but Matto still managed a silky offload on his first touch of the footy, elasticing the Eels to utterly upstage Manly’s left sweep a few plays after that.

This was the best football organisation of the night, and started again with Matto, who flicked the ball out to Dylan Brown, who held up the line long enough to force DCE to commit to Lane’s decoy run, meaning Moses was on his outside shoulder by the time he drove even deeper, and shifted it on for Opacic to pop a quick one out for Perham, the man who had technically prevented Gutho’s first try. Mitch might have missed the goal, but the speed of this comeback, and the sheer supremacy of the sweep, had put Parramatta back on top.   

Despite a massive charge from Junior Paulo on play one of the restart, the Sea Eagles defended pretty well, forcing Moses to slot his next one just shy of halfway, and garnering themselves an extra tackle when Garrick reached a boot back over the try line. It was a rare misfire from the Parramatta sharp shooter, and had the chance to rattle the blue and gold, so Manly couldn’t have asked for a better time to get Dylan Walker and Marty Taupau off the bench, and for the second time made the very most of the opportunity handed to them.

If the Eels had upstaged Manly on the left edge, they hit back now by displaying their assurance on both sides of the park. Schuster started on the left, with a trademark no-looker out to Foran, who responded with a bullet ball that sent Garrick ten metres along the sideline, where he danced the tightrope brilliantly before flicking it back inside for Harper to take the tackle. A play later, Walker made an immediate impact by holding up the line and laying a platform for Daly to lob out one of the most memorable wide passes of the year so far.

It was a beautiful harbour bridge effort, sailing twenty metres, over five players, for Tuipulotu, who mirrored its trajectory in miniature by curving off the right boot and heading back infield, where he disposed of both Gutho and Perham before slamming the Steeden down. Again, Garrick added the sideline conversion, bringing the Sea Eagles to quadruple Parra with sixteen minutes on the clock. Their next chance came a set later, with a slow peel from Walker, and they opted for a series of bone-rattling runs that finally paid dividends with a Jake ruck error.

With a full set inside the ten, Parra now had the best field position of the game, and yet they hadn’t offered much creativity in the way of their charges, and on the verge of dissociating when Moses and Brown failed to link up fluidly on the right edge, only for Mahoney to step up in the spine and improvise a grubber that Tuipulotu had no choice but to clean up in the left corner. It was the first dropout of the game, but the Eels couldn’t do much more than charge straight at the line again, culminating with Matto driving it hard under the crossbar.

True to this last staunch period of defence, Manly summoned a big enough pack to hold the big 13 up, spearheaded by a superb legs tackle from Taupau, who put it down a beat later to provide Parra with one more chance to make good on the most sustained possession of the game. With 33-19 tackles in the opposition half, the blue and gold were in danger of gifting the rest of the second quarter to the visitors if they didn’t deliver here, and yet history seemed doomed to repeat itself when RCG mirrored Matto’s charge on the penultimate play.

That just made it all the more spectacular, however, when they reprised their left edge sweep on the last, making it feel like all this toil up the middle had been one big deception play, a way of distracting Manly from the wings, which they hit now by distilling and simplifying their last passage to Perham’s corner. As if challenging DCE’s ownership of long passes, Mitch spun a wide one out to Gutho, who responded with a harbour bridge ball that rivalled Daly’s vision – a cut-out assist, across the face of Opacic, that gave Perham the best assist he’ll ever get.

This time Moses added the extras, and just like we were back to a two point game, and Parramatta were rolling again. Things felt closer than at any point so far, as Mitch and DCE took their next kicks from halfway, and both teams searched for the break or penalty that would allow them to stamp their signature on the game before the sheds. Foran glimpsed it by mirroring Schuster’s no-looker to Turbo, who reprised his own bullet to Harper, but this echo of that earlier left edge formation came to an end with some stunning Moses defence.

Launching himself at the Manly backliner, Mitch came up with one of the sharpest low tackles of the year, wrapping himself around the waist and putting his whole upper torso on the line to drag his quarry into touch. The sheer belief of this hit galvanised Parra to a new level, and especially Will Penisini, who bumped off five or six potential tackles on the same edge before offloading back in field for his men to ferry the footy across for a Moses chip to the left, where Koula responded in kind, beating Lane for the best high ball take of his career so far.

Harper now tried to make good on that aborted left drive, but found Penisini waiting for him, while the Sea Eagles circled the wagons for some of their strongest defence so far, keeping Parra trapped in their own thirty until a rousing Matto charge, thanks in part to the most elegant combined tackle of the game – Jake below, Olakau’atu on top, to down Lane, who had had a tough couple of minutes. High on that newfound Manly energy, Croker broke through the line on the next set, before shifting it back inside for Turbo to glimpse the line.

He didn’t made it, but did tempt Moses into a professional foul and sin bin for what looked like fairly incidental contact, and while the Sea Eagles didn’t score again before the break, they maintained their lead, and had the delicious prospect of returning from the sheds for ten minutes of footy against a twelve-man outfit. There were two points between the two teams now, and there would be two points at the final siren, although, in the great drama that is rugby league, the balance of power would have shifted back in Moses’ favour by then.

Parramatta hadn’t come from behind when trailing at the break in 2022, so they had a challenge on their hands when they trotted back onto the park, especially without their key playmaker. Conversely, the Sea Eagles had to make a statement now, and Walker and Croker started with a big combined tackle on Papali’i, before Walker came in again with Taupau to prevent Matterson making too many metres. Dylan Brown was well within the forty by the time he took the kick, while Marty muscled it across halfway three plays into the next set.

The Sea Eagles didn’t get much further, however, forcing DCE to try and split the difference between Gutho and Simonsson, who did well to reach out and rein it in. Again, Walker and Croker combined, this time with Jake as third man, to prevent a hard charge from RCG, in what was quickly becoming one of the real arm wrestles of the match. Gutherson gave his men some breathing-space by dribbling it over the right sideline, and this also seemed to wake up Daly, who beat Papali’i to find some extra metres up his own right edge.

This turned out to be the first critical play since the break, buoying Manly into a rapid pivot to the other wing, starting with some deft deception from Walker, who shaped left and shifted right, setting up Foran for a well-pitched pass for Tommy. The Turbo genius now shone, as the cult fullback caught Simonsson napping on his inside, and changed his own line accordingly to defy Penisini, last line of defence, and flick the footy out for Harper to score. Garrick might have missed the sideline conversion, but this was still a beautiful sequence.

Just as importantly, the Sea Eagles had capitalised on Moses’ time in the bin, and had another three minutes to play with before it was thirteen on thirteen once again. Walker bent the line on play one of the restart, and every player after him was raring to break through, including Turbo again on the left, so it was a small victory when Gutho secured the high ball in the face of one of the more aggressive chases of the night from Harper. Dylan Brown had nowhere to go on the third, and Nathan Brown couldn’t make it far up the middle on the fourth either.

Parramatta were starting to severely miss Mitch’s boot, since another sharp shot from DCE meant they started their next set ten from halfway, giving Turbo room to almost break through again early in the count. Koula leaped up to collect the high ball in goal at the end of it all, and actually got both hands to the footy, so he would have scored, mere seconds before Moses returned to the park, if he hadn’t fumbled it. This small moment of serendipity was just what the Eels needed to get rolling – and, in the end, was what won them the game.

No sooner had Moses returned, however, than the Sea Eagles took it up a notch, executing one of their most precarious sweeps to the left to put Garrick in space off a wobbly Foran catch-and-touch, and then leaned back into the same momentum on the last, when Kieran toed it back to the left corner, giving Reuben just enough to slam down another four-pointer. Manly might have missed a try just before Mitch came back from the sheds, but they’d scored so rapidly thereafter that this felt part and parcel of their period of extra-man advantage.

Unfortunately, Garrick followed his fiftieth putdown by missing another kick from out wide, in what would become one of the critical conversions of the match, making this last try the final points they would score. Davey copped some tough Matto-led contact on play one of the restart, and by and large the visitors were well contained here, forcing DCE to boot his next one from just shy of halway, and he did well, sending it far enough, and rallying a strong enough chase, to ensure that even a Paulo offload couldn’t get Parra too far upfield.

While Lane did well to ferry the footy over halfway, this venture into Manly territory was short-lived, thanks to a Perham cough-up that saw Foran back at the opposition twenty by tackle four, at which point DCE delivered some eyes-up footy, realising that Gutho was deep in the line and so booting it hard into the right corner. Clint did a valiant job to arrive at the ball, but couldn’t bring it back in field, and with a dropout to consolidate all their mounting momentum, it felt almost inevitable that the Brooky boys would cross over for four here.

Nothing much happened until the penultimate play, when Foran came up with a flamboyant trick play, dummying hard to the right before shifting it back inside for Turbo to offload on the ground, but even this spectacle dissolved when Walker failed to find quite enough room to squeeze through the defence. All in all, it had been a strangely muted set for a Sea Eagles outfit primed to score, and probably formed the first inchoate turning-point back in Parra’s favour, even if the blue and gold were sitting at 2-17 opposition half hits since the sheds.

The next tipping-point came at the start of the next Eels set. Grinding in to work it right off their own chalk, and fight for a few more inches of position, they found themselves abruptly propelled back into Manly territory thanks to a Sean Keppie offside – and capitalised instantly. We were back to the brinksmanship of the first quarter now, as the Eels again proved they could sweep left just as well as the visitors, while executing a deft little three-man set piece of their own, starting with Gutho pivoting off the left boot after receiving it from Brown.

He did so to accommodate a daring diagonal line from Lane, who realised he wasn’t going to make the chalk, and so offloaded right on the ground for Opacic to bust through and bang down the next four with Olakau’atu barely making contact. As if this Gutho-Lane-Opacic combo wasn’t enough, Moses cemented his return to the park by booting through the first goal since the break. Parra had gone from the prospect of yet another set on their own line to harnessing the flow of the game, and got more with an Olakau’atu high hit on the restart.

Haumole was probably lucky not to be sent to the bin, all things considered, but the Eels didn’t even register that, so pumped up were they now, raring to take the lead again as the rain started to thicken over their home turf. For a second, it looked like Moses had taken his comeback one step further, circling around to ground the footy after it was tapped back by a Peninsini-Harper contest in goal, only for the replay to show that, while Harper had made first contact, and knocked it back, the Parra centre had knocked on a moment later.

Still, the conviction of Mitch’s putdown, and the synergy with his halves partner, was a big gee up for the Eels now, and probably the single event that solidified their belief over the last fifteen minutes. On the other side of the Steeden, Manly’s sudden slump reached an absolute nadir when Turbo rose from this in-goal miasma clutching his left arm in pain – and was gingerly led off the park before the try had even been denied. Parra had lost Moses for ten minutes, but now Manly and the Blues had a far more traumatic prospect on their hands.

Moses’ next kick was one of his highest, and although Koula did well to take it, Simonsson ensured he didn’t make more than a couple of metres, so it was a real boon when the Sea Eagles got a penalty a play later – at least until the Eels sent it upstairs to prove that Matto hadn’t put a crusher on Harper in the midst of a Parramatta pack effort. Worse still, Harper himself conceded the next penalty, after a good deep kick from Daly and a plosive hit from Keppie on Matto momentarily promised a Manly hitback as the final quarter hour arrived.

Harper’s gaffe was a second effort on Papali’i, who put it down a couple of plays later, right as the set was peaking, off a last-minute offload from Moses, in the face of a terrific jamming tackle from Koula. Manly might have had a spotty season with defence, but you wouldn’t have known it from tonight’s game, at least for long stretches, and with only four points between the two teams, and ten minutes on the clock, it felt like the Brooky boys might have a genuine shot at a comeback now, as Keppie pumped them up by busting two tackles.

A minute later, it was their turn to get a full set in the opposition half, thanks to a Matterson error, and like Parramatta before them, they were on the cusp of peaking when Harper coughed it up into a Penisini tackle. He sent it upstairs, and the footage seemed to show that he’d marginally lost control – or perhaps only retained control because the Steeden was cramped up against the Parra centre – in a nasty flashback to Dane Gagai’s disappointment the night before, although the situation wasn’t anywhere near as egregious this time around.

Both teams had now glimpsed the try that would likely win them the game, making it feel like the next major error would determine the outcome. Moments later, the Sea Eagles capitulated, first with undue pressure from Harper, then with some dangerous contact from Keppie that saw Manly defending their four point lead with only a twelve man outfit for the remaining seven minutes of the match. As if that weren’t pressure enough, Tuipulotu came in high on Perham to drive him over the sideline at the end of a dangerous left edge sweep.

This had to be the tipping-point of the game, even if Perham had simply slipped on the sodden turf into the Manly backliner, and had mainly made contact with the chest anyway, causing DCE to have some serious words with the ref before the call was confirmed, and bringing the match to peak volatility as the rain reached its heaviest all night. Moses started by setting up Nathan Brown in the middle, and RCG took a charge in the same spot, where he copped a hand in the face from Kapow, and stayed down for an age in an effort to garner the penalty.

While he didn’t get the six again, it didn’t really matter, since Moses did the job with the boot, skidding it low and fast beneath the crossbar, and deep in goal, where Olakau’atu only just beat Nathan Brown to lay hands on it. With four on the clock, Parra had what was likely to be the last dropout of the game, as Matto took the first charge, Nathan Brown the second, and Paulo the third, adding an offload that Harper tried to intercept, but instead flicked forward,  capping off a rough second stanza from the Manly backliner, as Parra got six again after all.

This was the most dramatic accumulation of field position all night, and produced dividends three tackles later, off the tightest right sweep of the evening. Matterson started it all, collecting a midfield Mahoney ball, and never giving up on the play by making his sixth and last offload the latest of the game – a perfect flick back to his hooker, who sent it on for Gutho to drive deep into the line, and draw in Harper, who didn’t have time to properly combine with Koula as Papali’i flicked a short assist out for Penisini to break the line in the corner.

True to the to-and-fro spirit of this tightly fought game, the score was 20-20, with a little over two minutes on the clock, putting enormous pressure on Moses as he lined up the conversion from the sideline. As if cancelling out his bin before the break (but also galvanised by the injustice of it), Mitch struck it as sharply and clinically as he ever had, shooting the Steeden so straight and true that Parramatta now felt more than a mere two points ahead. They’d reached a different footy level, standing them in good stead for Canberra in Round 12.  

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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