Round 12 Drink Of Choice – Fireball Cinnamon Whisky
Margin Of Error – 1 Game
Effort less execution. Effortless execution. The small but critical distinction that a single press of the space bar can create. Unfortunately for the stalwart fans of the Blue & Gold and their battered group of players it was very much a case of the former on Thursday night…as it has been for most of the year.
In perhaps what was the most bitterly frustrating loss of this tough season, the Eels fought back from an early sin-binning and a 12-2 deficit to give the Brisbane Broncos a genuine fight. A litany of squandered scoring opportunities and an officiating effort that left a great deal to be desired combined to scupper any hope of a comeback.
Parramatta remain stranded in 16th position as a result and now cling to margin of error of just a single game. For the relentless optimists out there the finals are still just an improbability and not an impossibility.
The Impact Of Klein-ate Change
I find it impossible to speak about the outcome of the game without first calling the standard of officiating into question. The Parramatta Eels still had opportunities to win in spite of some diabolical calls and no-calls but the last thing a team that is battling its own demons needs it to be getting hosed from the officials.
From Brisbane’s second try which featured an obvious forward pass to a forward pass from dummy half near halfway so blatant that it ushered in a silence to the Fox Sports commentary team. It all contrasted so starkly with a number of line-ball passes by the Eels that were immediately pulled up at crucial times. I don’t mind if officials choose to either be lenient or crack-down on the 50/50 balls in a given game but if you are going to let the boys play, let both teams get the same concessions.
Perhaps the crowning moment was a spectacular defensive play by Joe Ofahengaue in which he clearly stripped Michael Jennings from behind to save a try (only for George Jennings to ground the ball) which was bizarrely called a knock-on by the Parramatta centre upon review by the Bunker.
The imbalances spread beyond there as well. Brad Takairangi was practically assaulted off the ball in the pursuit of an attacking bomb in the second half for no penalty before conceding a crucial penalty of his own when impeding a Brisbane chaser. By the same token, Michael Jennings was clearly taken out by a defender in the first half when chasing a grubber down the right edge. No penalty was forthcoming of course.
‘Taka’ was at the forefront of another issue on Thursday night as he wore two or three high shots in the one tackle and still was unable to draw a penalty. Contrast that with the soft call on a high shot that led to Michael Jennings getting (correctly) sin-binned and it highlights an issue that many Parra fans will attest to – we get little way of traction in the 50/50 calls every week.
All of the above isn’t an excuse for the fact that the Eels are anchored to the bottom of the table, they have themselves to blame for that. However Brad Arthur has pointedly highlighted that fact that the Eels have lost the ‘big moments’ in their recent defeats and I can’t help but feel that on Thursday the officials contributed significantly to that aspect of the loss.
Switching the focus back to the team now and we arrive to one of the bigger problems for the Eels currently in the play of their dummy halves. Cameron King’s indifferent form since getting a reprieve from the Intrust Super Premiership continued against the Broncos. Three missed tackles and sloppy service to his play-makers contributed to the red zone inefficiencies on the night.
Will Smith on the other hand provides excellent utility from the bench but is probably being leveraged for too many minutes as the primary dummy half given that he lacks the nuance and finesse required by the position that handles the ball more than any other.
Even Kaysa Pritchard, who struck a rich vein of form this year prior to sustaining a groin injury against the Cronulla Shark in Round 9, has legitimate questions over his ability to shoulder the mantle at #9.
It is one of the most important issues that the Eels and Brad Arthur along with Bernie Gurr will need to find a solution to over the coming off-season. Options in the short term are sparse but given the season-ending injury to Beau Scott and release of Kenny Edwards, the Eels have some latitude when it comes to both Top 30 spots and dispensation to play development players.
This of course leads me back to Reed Mahoney. The young hooker may very well not ready to tackle a heavy workload in the NRL this year but there is a case to be made for utilising him in short bursts off the bench. The finals are still a possibility but the Eels also need to be building for 2019. Finding out exactly what they have in some of their young prospects and expediting their development for next season.
Who Is The Dominant Playmaker?
The messaging in the public this week was that Mitchell Moses was going to steer the team around and allow Corey Norman to play some footy from the fullback role. There were certainly passages of play where we saw this dynamic working effectively but the reshuffle came at the expense of the impact of Clinton Gutherson for mine.
Brad Arthur was pleased with how the switch played out for both Norman and Gutherson in his post-match presser but Gutho’s best moments in the game came when he rucked the ball out – something he does in his traditional capacity as a fullback. Norman had some quality touches and certainly upped his involvement as opposed to recent weeks but that also came with some momentum killing misplays during the Eels’ final surge.
At the conclusion of the game though I was left confused as to who exactly was the dominant playmaker for the Eels. Moses handled most of the mid-field kicking duties, albeit poorly with a predilection for the uninspiring mid-field bomb while Norman was the preferred red-zone option.
An important sub-plot to all of this was that the Eels had absolutely no-one backing up their forwards and there were plenty of opportunities for huge second phase plays that were left on the field. That is the massive opportunity cost that comes with playing Norman at fullback.
Just how Parramatta moves forwards from this point will be intriguing because I am not convinced this configuration of the spine best serves them moving forwards.
One unit that has increasingly stepped up to the plate in recent weeks are the middle forwards. Despite coughing the ball up once Peni Terepo continues to excel in the absence of Nathan Brown and Tim Mannah. 139m off just 12 carries at an impressive 11.58m a tick and 33 tackles (3 missed, unfortunately including one for a line break to Tevita Pangai Junior) jump right off the stat-sheet and reinforce what the eyes are seeing – Terepo is playing with a hardened edge.
Throw in a standout game from Daniel Alvaro (128m, 11 runs, 48 tackles [2 missed]) and another vintage performance from David Gower (128m, 14 runs 29 tackles [2 missed]) and you see why the Eels weren’t struggling to make progress between the two 20m marks.
Manu Ma’u played with plenty of vigor and aggression on the way to a 172m/16 run game while Tepai Moeroa looked much better to the eye than the numbers suggested (90m, 9 runs, 41 tackles [4 missed]).
It is clear that the forward pack needs a little ‘something something’ to ascend to the next level in 2019. Junior Paulo is part of that riddle, hopefully another big bopper is as well but there is no doubt that the embattled forwards at the club have rolled their sleeves up.
It has been a horror three weeks for one of the code’s premier scoring merchants. Starting with a contentious no-try call against the Canterbury Bulldogs and bottoming out with a sin-binning and two bombed tries against Brisbane on Thursday…everything that could have gone wrong has for Michael Jennings.
Brad Takairangi had his own misfires on Thursday as well with a horrible decision to kick early in a red-zone raid in the first half but there is a question to be asked of how much longer you can carry ‘Jenko’ in his heavy slump of form.
There is no questioning his work rate on Thursday night mind you. 130m from 13 runs and a whopping 20 tackles (2 missed) for a centre is the definition of high involvement but Jennings has been at the centre of the aforementioned big moments that have fallen by the way side for the Eels in recent times.
Centre is one of the few position where the Eels have some flexibility to tweak their roster. Jarryd Hayne is due back soon while Kirisome Auva’a is available in the ISP. Jaeman Salmon and even Dane Aukafolau are more left-field options if ‘BA’ is interested in throwing a younger option into the deep end.
There is no doubting the talent of Michael but as with the rest of the team, the effort has been apparent but the execution and finishing has been lacking. The Eels need to find a way to turn these effervescent sparks into a raging blaze and perhaps a short stint at Wenty will help kindle that fire. I could also be miles off the mark mind you!
The Final Word
It was a valiant loss on Thursday but yet another game in which the fragile psyche of the team was made apparent once more. It was against this very team last year in Round 21 when the Eels won an arguably season defining game as they overcame an early two-try deficit to prevail 28-14. The circumstances on Thursday were eerily similar and indeed Parramatta gave themselves plenty of opportunities to spark a similarly epic comeback but between their own inability to finish things and some frustrating calls and no-calls they just couldn’t engineer a way out.
The clock counting down on their season has nearly struck midnight. There is but one more game they can drop before they begin to rely on the machinations of events beyond their control.
And yet the team hasn’t given up.
There is no doubt they are their own worst enemies but they are still fighting their way forwards with their every being. It makes for awful, frustrating and gut-wrenching viewing at times but as a fan, I can’t quit on a team that won’t quit on themselves.
If a miracle run to the finals is out of our reach I do hope we get to see some young talent blooded in the backend of 2018 but more than anything I just want to see this team heal and rediscover who they are.
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Photos courtesy of the Parramatta Eels. Stats courtesy of Champion Data.