Easter Weekend, so intrinsically linked with themes of resurrection and redemption, was a fitting time for the clash between the Eels and Wests Tigers. Both clubs looking for the opportunity to restart a season mired in inconsistency or turmoil respectively. Back in front of their home crowd for only the second time in 2017, the Eels were presented with the perfect opportunity to get back on the winners list.
To this end the men in blue and gold got off to the perfect start. While spectators were still applying tomato sauce to their hot dogs, Michael Jennings was crossing for the first points of the match. Jennings, and his left side partner Semi Radradra, caused the Tigers’ right edge no end of trouble in the first half without being able to translate opportunity into points. It was the tale of the first half for Parramatta; their execution in try scoring positions, or last tackle options, were for the most part incoherent and ineffective.
If their reading of the play with ball in hand was disappointing, in defence it was even worse. Unable to slow the Tigers down around the ruck, the Eels own edge was exposed by an opponent armed with a glut of possession and territory. Conceding three tries in the first half the Eels were opened up twice with by one pass plays from the dummy half. If not for a line ball forward pass call against the Tigers with an open line in-front of Kevin Naiquama, the Eels may well have had an impossible task in-front of them in the second forty.
It was difficult to find positives in the Eels performance as the two teams had their oranges. Perversely perhaps the biggest positive to be found was the fact that the game was still in reach despite Parramatta’s diabolical completion rate, having only finished 11 of their 17 sets in the opening stanza. Despite this they had been able to poke holes in the Tigers defence and given some poise and opportunity things could quickly turn around.
Early signs in the second half were promising. Despite not threatening on the last, improved ball control on the first three sets saw both sides settle into a good old fashioned arm-wrestle. Poor play calling ultimately proved calamitous on the Eels next set when they turned over the ball over 30 metres out after a mistake on the last. With this head-start the Tigers forced a repeat set after a clever James Tedesco grubber. Although unable to capitalise immediately, a forward pass from Manu Ma’u two tackles later was all that Wests needed to extend the lead. Once again Parramatta’s defence around the ruck was left wanting when Matt McIlwrick tried his luck from dummy half.
For the next five minutes, the Eels faced an unrelenting challenge from the Tigers. Wests marched down field with ease from the kick off, with their forwards putting the Eels on the backfoot. Tedesco and Mitch Moses probed the disjointed line looking for the killer blow. A penalty, followed by a repeat set, meant Parramatta were forced to defend for their lives on their own line. Having been moved from one edge of the field to the other, there was a visible shift in mood when the Eels were able to see off the challenge.
In possession once again after the barrage, the Eels re-joined the contest invigorated. Wests who seemingly had the match at their mercy were stung by 10 minutes of electrifying football from their once wounded foe. With all the Eels’ stars firing, the Tigers simply had no answer and watched their hard earned 12-point lead evaporate in less time than it takes Gordon Ramsay to cook a medium steak.
Clint Gutherson was sensational with ball in hand and it was a bullocking run of his that helped set up Kirisome Auva’a’s second try. When Auva’a wasn’t running down Brad Takairangi kicks, he was making barnstorming runs to set up his outside man Josh Hoffman. If these men weren’t enough to contend with the outside men on the other flank were impressive too. As if stung by media calls for Canberra’s BJ Leilua to be brought into the Test side, Michael Jennings sent a powerful reminder to Mal Meninga of his own worth. The centre left a mighty imprint on the game, having been heavily involved in almost every point scoring drive for his team.
Having very seriously stared 5 straight defeats in the eyes there is no doubt the team will gladly bank the two points from the afternoon’s endeavours. In the second half, they gave their dangerous outside men the opportunity to shine by doing what they do best, they held on to the ball in attack and defended resolutely. On a weekend celebrating history’s greatest comeback, it was a timely recovery for the Eels. At the same time, they would be mindful that performances like those they produced in the first stanza will more often than not leave them on the wrong side of the result.
At the end of the day the result is all that was important on this day. No matter how they achieved it, Parramatta just needed to secure the two points. Having done so, at 3-4 they now have the opportunity to rebuild their season. It is funny what confidence can do for a group, for ten electric minutes they again showed a glimpse of what they produced in the opening fortnight of the competition. It couldn’t have come at a better time for them, if they can produce it consistently they can seriously mix it with anybody.