GIO Stadium has not been kind to Parramatta in recent times, it seems like forever ago since the Eels left the nation’s capital with the two competition points. Facing last season’s preliminary finalist, it was going to take much more than the lethargic efforts of the previous fortnight if the Eels were to buck this trend. While the performance was much improved, the long wait continues after Saturday Night’s 30-18 defeat at the hands of the Raiders.
The match’s opening exchanges gave no hint of the breathtaking opening half that was in store. Both teams were conservative with the ball, as they both went about trying to establish the territorial advantage for their backlines to take advantage of. The opening points of the game would have had Brad Arthur tearing his hair out, if it wasn’t for the less than hirsute state of his scalp. Having gifted the Raiders field position, the Eels’ defence had stood firm in the face of a less than imaginative set from the Green Machine. An otherwise unremarkable set of six turned to disaster though when a lack of urgency from both Bevan French and Semi Radradra saw an Aiden Sezer kick bounce into the arms of a rampaging Sia Soliola who scored untouched.
For a team that prides itself on a discipline and defence, 2017 has seen far too many points leaked in this manner. Against the Gold Coast, the Eels practically played them back into the game with piggy back penalties and less than resilient goal line defence. While it is never easy to defend repeat sets against NRL teams, Parramatta would be wise to review their round one opponents’ efforts against them. Despite being camped on their own goal line, Manly held out the Eels for six successive sets. If Parramatta had shown even half of this level of intensity in the last 3 weeks, they would not be licking their wounds from a hat-trick of defeats.
The Eels were the first of the two teams to flex their attacking muscle to even the score mid-way through the first stanza. French from dummy half sent the ball down the shallow side, where the ball went through five other pairs of hands before settling back in the fullback’s as he ended, for him a long two weeks, without a four pointer. Referee Alan Shortall, unsure with French’s grounding, left the decision of whether to award the try with The Bunker. There was little question over the grounding, though many of the Raider fans at GIO may seemed of the view that the Bunker may have reached a different decision had they been able to review forward passes.
Having conceded a soft try and having enjoyed a measly 42% of possession it was a remarkable effort by the Blue and Golds to find themselves on level terms after 25 minutes. Yet just as they appeared ready to wrest the momentum of the match away from the home team, they were stung with a scintillating piece of play that saw Jordan Ropana trip the light fantastic and the Raiders go on a two points a minute, 7-minute spree. A Blake Austin try was followed by Joey Leilua crossing on the very next set.
Parramatta were rattled, a penalty on Canberra’s next possession saw the Eels defending their line grimly yet again. Gifted another try scoring opportunity, the Raiders saw a stuttering play down the left side end up in touch. With their hands on the ball for the first time in nearly eight minutes, the Eels were unable to ease the pressure. A handling mistake on the 30-metre line saw Parramatta on the back foot once again. With the smell of blood in the air, the Raiders did not miss another opportunity to land another blow to their wounded opponent. A static defensive line was punished when Jarrod Croker scored his 100th try on the back of Josh Hodgson grubber. With four minutes to go to the break, the half time siren couldn’t come soon enough for Parramatta.
That they were able to file in to the dressing rooms without any further damage done was a little fortuitous after Corey Norman put the restart after Croker’s try out on the full. Yet 22-6 was the extent of the carnage as they reached for the oranges and Gatorade and received the mother of all bakes from Coach Arthur. Despite the scintillating way Canberra had run up their lead, the margin was far from insurmountable. While the players may have been reassuring themselves by breaking the task down in to bite size pieces, Parramatta fans of my vintage would have let their minds race back to Round 9, 1987. On that day at Parramatta Stadium, the grand final bound Raiders ran up a 22-0 lead by the half-time break. On the back of a masterclass by Bob Lindner, the Eels scored five second half tries to claim an unlikely 30-22 victory.
The second half couldn’t have started any better in their quest to reel in the runaway Raiders. After an horrific kick ended his first half, Corey Norman was able to ignite his team’s comeback efforts. A remarkable 40-20 gave the Eels field position, a penalty allowed them set up camp in the Raiders’ red zone before a Michael Jennings try took the first bite out of the lead.
Enthusiastically the Eels forwards went about their task, putting the Raiders on the back foot, they could claim territory with ease. This renewed energy brought another penalty and with it another opportunity to attack Canberra’s line from close range. Unlike in the first half where they were starved of territory and possession, Parramatta aggressively attacked their opponent with vast quantities of both. After putting them on their heels by punching holes in the middle of it, the Eels tested the Raiders’ defensive line wide. Then, after having stretched it to nearly breaking point, Kaysa Pritchard was able to take advantage of an opening next to the posts which he took with glee. Just like that, it was 22-18 and game on, Parramatta had 30 minutes with which to write their own Bob Lindner story.
Then almost as quickly as they had wrestled the momentum back their way, they watched it slip away. Forty metres out from the Parramatta line Nic Cotric, deputising at dummy half, ran at, then cross field from the Eels defensive line into the arms of Kaysa Pritchard. The intent of the winger’s run became obvious when he broke free from the Eels number 9’s clutches, turning on the afterburners he left Parramatta’s staggered line in his wake. With Bevan French between him and the line he produced a step that, Brad Fittler would be proud of, left the fullback clutching at thin air as he dived over for the decisive try.
It was a much-improved effort from the men in blue and gold but from 2-0 and flying, they now find themselves 2-3. While it could be argued that they were on the end of a highly unrepeatable seven minutes, they need to find a way to shut plays down after their defensive line is disturbed or fractured. After two top four opponents in the last fortnight, on paper the next few fixtures appear a little more kind. After the Titans taught them the lesson of underestimating an opponent, it would be hoped that they turn up ready to play when they meet the Warriors, and their former skipper Kieran Foran, next week.