Having stolen the points late against the Tigers on Easter Monday, round 8 saw the Eels again host a local rival at their temporary home out at Homebush. Going up against Penrith, many pundits’ pre-season premiership fancy, a more consistent 80-minute performance would be required. To that end, the game couldn’t have started much better for the men in blue and gold.
From the moment Penrith were unable to prevent Corey Norman’s kick off going dead, Parramatta went about their business with a vigour and intensity that was difficult for the Panthers to counter. From their early advantage, the Eels continued to build pressure with intelligent last tackle options that brought repeat set after repeat set. Under the barrage, it was only a matter of time before Penrith’s line was breached and Norman was the man to score the first four pointer of the match. The Queenslander was perhaps a little fortuitous, grounding the ball after a calamitous effort from Bryce Cartwright to clean up a bobbling ball grubber from Brad Takaraingi.
The discipline of early weeks returned with ball in hand, as did the starch in defence. It was a different team to the one that had conceded 20+ points in the previous 5 weeks. The goal line defence was exceptional as it held firm in the wake of Penrith attacks. So strong was the defence that it was only a few long range Nathan Cleary bombs that made it look vulnerable in any way. One such kick required a circus trick from Clint Gutherson and Josh Hoffman to diffuse. In-goal and under pressure from three Panther chasers, Gutherson attempted to pass to his winger only to lose control of the ball. Quick thinking saw Gutherson throw his foot at the ball and the unintentional kick flew towards Hoffman who collected the ball sensationally near his shoe laces. If the sensational pick up wasn’t enough, the former Bronco then managed to beat four Panthers to get the ball back into play to avoid the drop out.
The pair combined later in the match to spectacularly save the team from a certain 40-20. Gutherson has been fantastic this season for the team, especially the last fortnight in the number one jersey. The suspected PCL injury to Brad Takaraingi way well have save Brad Arthur from a difficult choice when Bevan French is fit and available again for selection. The more I see of Hoffman, the more he impresses me. While most of the Eels attack goes down the other flank, he is incredibly difficult to tackle, and has made the most of the opportunities that have come his way.
The Eels forwards were simply unstoppable in the first half. On the back of rampaging running from Manu Ma’u, Nathan Brown and co, the Eels continually had the Panthers on the back foot. The momentum gained created the perfect conditions for their outside backs to thrive. As the half-time break grew ever closer, Penrith were hanging on grimly in an effort to maintain the deficit at the more than manageable 8-points that it had been since the 13th minute.
The relentlessness of the Eels efforts eventually caused the Panthers’ resistance to crack either side of the break. A precise kick from Norman and strong finish from Radradra, his 14th try from 15 matches at the Olympic Stadium, capped off the Eels first half performance.
Where they struck with precision before the break, the Eels try immediately after half-time lent itself more to instinct and perhaps a little luck. With the Penrith defensive line disjointed after a bullocking run from Siosaia Vave, Kaysa Pritchard made the interesting decision to run the ball from dummy half on the last tackle despite still being 10-metres from the half-way line. Having caught the Panthers napping, the Parramatta hooker put Gutherson through a gap whose grubber kick found Corey Norman who ended the 60 metre play with a four pointer, extending the Eels lead to 18-0. While many unkind pundits have suggested that Pritchard made the run unaware that it was the last tackle, I’m prepared to give the number 9 credit for a brave and match turning play.
Having made all the running to this point of the match there was very little that had gone against the men in blue gold. Perhaps the only piece of misfortune was the Michael Jennings try disallowed late in the first half. A blistering finish from the centre was left unrewarded when The Bunker ruled Gutherson knocked on earlier in the play. When asked in a half time interview whether the fullback had knocked on Jennings expressed bewilderment, “A similar event happened last night with the Broncos. Yeah, it wasn’t a knock-on.”
I found it an interesting ruling from the video official, especially when the on-field ruling was a try. The replays suggested that Gutherson may have lost possession of the ball, but two questions spring to mind. I was of the view that the replay needed to comprehensively disprove the on-field ruling and secondly, when did dropping the ball backwards constitute a knock on? This was just one of a number of incidents that I like to refer to as ‘loose ball lotto’. While I understand, and appreciate the fact that refereeing is a difficult job, the amount of stripped ball calls when a foreign hand has come nowhere near the ball suggests it’s a blind guess by the official whenever the Steeden hits the ground. The other example of this kind of decision by suspicion was when Jennings was ruled to have knocked on a ball that had clearly rolled off his foot and not his hand.
Matches between the two sides in recent times have been absolute nail biters. The last seven clashes decided by an average margin of less than two converted tries. The last four matches even closer, with the teams splitting the contests with a winning margin of less than a converted try in each. This kind of history suggested that, despite the Eels leading by 18 with less than 30 minutes to play, there was bound to be a twist in the tale.
Discipline, the bedrock upon which the Eels lead had been built, completely eluded them in the final 30 minutes of the contest. Relentless completion of their sets was replaced with dropped balls and penalties. Where they had been outstanding in their final play decision making, they were now seeing Kenny Edwards kicking the ball out on the full. To be fair on Edwards, Gutherson also caused the Touch Judge to wave his flag in a circular motion too, when he put one of his downfield kicks somewhere closer to Row F than the touch line.
Grimly and determinably the Eels attempted to hold out their fast finishing rivals. They absorbed enormous pressure as they watched their lead slowly evaporate. Thankfully, in the end, 50 minutes of effort was enough to see the Eels hold on for an 18-12 victory. A trip to Townsville lies in wait for the team next week. After back to back victories, the Cowboys are the perfect test for this improving outfit.