For the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s Battle of the West, Parramatta looked completely irrepressible. After losing the coin toss, they were gifted first use of the ball and went to work on making Penrith pay for this decision.
In Jarryd Hayne’s 200th NRL Game, and first for Parramatta after trying his luck in the NFL, Rugby 7’s and for the Gold Coast Titans the Eels pack went about paving a platform for Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses to dictate terms of the match. The Panthers simply had no answer for the barnstorming runs of Nathan Brown and Daniel Alvaro and gifted the Eels field position with diabolical ball control.
While Penrith completed just one of the first five possessions of the game, Moses made each of Parramatta’s count with fantastic last tackle decision making. Josh Hoffman, in his first game since Round 13, was the beneficiary on a pair of these last play options finding himself across the line twice in the first six minutes. A knock on prevented him from opening the scoring on his first crossing, after a pin point Moses kick, he wasn’t to be denied second time around. Working with minimal space the former Bronco beat potential 2019 team mate, Josh Mansour, on the outside and found a way to finish spectacularly in the corner.
At the NRL season launch a week ago, Johnathon Thurston called for a sin bin penalty for late tackles on play makers. In this match we saw another example of why the North Queensland skipper has made this suggestion. At the end of Parramatta’s first set of the game, Mitchell Moses was taken in an extremely late tackle that, even though it drew a penalty, hurt the Eels much more than the Panthers. In the 14th minute Moses had to leave the field as a result of this tackle, a result Penrith would gladly give away a penalty for every day of the week.
With his halves partner undergoing the HIA protocol, Corey Norman did it all himself for the Eels second try. Running the ball at the line, he had the Panthers defence in all sorts, a jink and a dummy saw him in space and across the line. Even crossing the stripe without Moses on the paddock, his absence was felt in the conversion attempt when Norman missed one the number seven would casually put over in his sleep.
When Josh Hoffman crashed over for his second try in the 26th minute, you would have been hard pressed to find many people prepared to give Penrith a chance in the game and perhaps even less willing to suggest the Eels wouldn’t score again. Yet that is exactly what transpired with Parramatta wilting in the 30+degree conditions and affording their fans little else to cheer about for the rest of the afternoon.
Having so comprehensively taken control of the game, the Eels meekly surrendered it either side of the half time break. A broken down Panther attack, nearly 40 metres out from the Eels line, somehow turned into a try in the 34th minute when Waqa Blake scooped up the loose ball and ran straight. Not taking anything away for Blake’s terrific run but it was a feeble defensive effort that saw him beat six would be tacklers on the way to the line.
Unchastened by this defensive lapse, they began the second half where they left off the first. A drop ball gifted the Panthers field position which was then compounded by a pair of penalties and shoddy goal line defence which saw Billy Kikau run over three Eels on the way to the Panthers second four pointer.
In this match we saw that no matter the good intentions of the new stricter play the ball interpretations, they are only as strong as the referees enforcing them. In the first half Trent Merrin was justly penalised for not striking the ball with his feet in the play the ball. It was an interesting effort from Merrin who seemed to actually decide not too, when it might have been easier to touch the ball with his foot than it was for him to avoid it.
On the flip side we saw inconsistency in my biggest bug bear in the play the ball, a player getting to his feet before placing the ball on the ground. With the Panthers running over the top of the Eels, Billy Kikau was awarded a penalty which saw the scores levelled. Somehow the referee decided there was play the ball interference despite the fact that Kikau had lost possession of the ball after placing it on the ground before rising to his feet. Reinforcing the fact that we live in a ‘Ruck Lotto’ world in the NRL, Kane Evans was penalised later in the match for placing the ball on the ground before he had gotten to his feet. That is before we mention Nathan Cleary stepping forward of the mark to play the ball which drew the sin-binning of Moses. If we are serious about sorting out the play the ball, you can’t be penalising a player for being offside when he is only out of position due to an infringement by the opposition.
Pedanticism about play the balls aside, the Eels had nobody but themselves to blame for their surrendering of two premiership points that were theirs for the taking after 26 minutes. In the second half of the contest they lost all semblance of discipline committing six errors and giving away five penalties. After 30 minutes of football worthy of a premiership contender they spent the rest of the contest doing everything within their power to appear anything but.
Penrith 24 (Blake 2, Kikau Tries, Cleary 3 Goals) def
Parramatta 14 (Hoffman 2, Norman Tries, Moses goal)
Match Officials: Ashley Klein, Matt Nyen.
Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Nick Beashel.
Official Crowd: TBC at Panthers Stadium.