Round 15 Drink Of Choice – Balvenie Double Wood 12YO
Forget the string of explosive victories over the likes of the Bulldogs, Tigers, Dragons or Broncos…Saturday night easily marked the most significant victory on the 2019 campaign trail for Brad Arthur and his Eels to date. Not only did Parramatta notch up consecutive victories for the first time since Rounds 1-2 but their ability to overcome a 16pt deficit to a genuine Top 4 contender gives fans arguably the first true stirrings of hope since the near cataclysmic mini-collapse started against the Melbourne Storm in Round 9.
The Eels were far from perfect in the testing Darwin conditions but the game makes for fantastic teaching tape for the team about how opportunities will come your way if you are patient and do not simply roll belly-up to the opposition.
I am reticent to draw a direct parallel at this stage of the season but my immediate reaction on Saturday night drew me to one particular game in 2017 in Round 21 when the Eels rallied magnificently from a 14pt hole against the Brisbane Broncos (another Top 4 contender in that season). Parramatta were far more polished in that particular performance on the back of Mitchell Moses’ master class but in both cases the team showcased similar courage and heart.
Parramatta finally have a signature victory to plant the flag on and push forwards from hence forth. Whether they will remains to be seen but before that let’s jump into what made the Eels tick as they laid down 22 unanswered points in the Top End.
He could sell ice to an Eskimo
It certainly wasn’t improbable that the man that would ignite the Eels to victory would be Manu Ma’u. The Tongan Terminator is among Parramatta’s most relentless competitors in any given week but it was the manner in which he embarrassingly breached the vaunted Canberra defensive line that proved to be so comically inspirational. With a pump-fake so full of pomp and grandeur that it would make any Thespian proud, Manu induced Aiden Sezer into a role that was little more than a rapturous spectator enroute to scoring a particularly memorable try.
I have no doubt that Sezer will be put on full blast in Canberra’s review of Saturday’s loss for opting to take the soft glory play option in the intercept but let’s at least give Manu a modicum of credit for successfully executing one of the greatest over-the-top dummies of our time.
The bench press on…
Season best performances out of Tepai Moeroa and Peni Terepo alongside the continued brilliance of David Gower spearheaded Parramatta’s resurgence on the back of the breakthrough Manu try. The Eels will be without the services of Terepo for between 3-4 games after a receiving a reckless grade for a high tackle on Jordan Rapana but the Eels should be relatively fine moving forwards.
Marata Niukore, Oregon Kaufusi, Tim Mannah and Daniel Alvaro will be jockeying to claim the vacant spot on the bench while with the June 30 deadline passing the Eels also will have access to Development slot players like exciting front-row prospect Stefano Utoikamanu.
All of this selection intrigue circles me back to a point that I really want to hammer home in that interchange forwards hold a massively crucial role for teams in the NRL and the stigma that surrounds the game with being a starting player or bust irks me to no end.
…While the starting props are looking strong
Junior Paulo was superb on Saturday night as he built on a dominant showing for Samoa in the representative round and was once again ably supported by Kane Evans who is, on the weight of things, relishing his second chance in first grade this season.
Paulo’s punishing 180m came off just 15 carries for a bountiful 12m per run while Evans was quite productive in his own right with 109m from 10 carries. Evans missed an alarmingly high 8 tackles in the gruelling conditions but the statistics do not tell the whole story there given that the towering prop forward regularly led the defensive line in aggressive raids that looked to set the tone against a gritty Canberra pack.
Even so, Evans can obviously improve in converting that aggression to effective tackling but the intent was well noted in a game where the Eels were deadset on finishing strong.
Lady Luck shines, even amidst plentiful missed opportunities
Mitchell Moses and Clinton Gutherson were both guilty of squandering attacking raids down the right edge with errant final passes to Blake Ferguson in the first half. Kane Evans too looked to be guilty of a similar indiscretion upon initial viewing following a Benji Marshall-esque flick pass to no one from a line-break but I am reliably informed that Jaeman Salmon was taken out in support.
I guess that makes up for the incorrect penalty awarded to the Eels when Manu Ma’u was deemed to be taken out without the ball while Parramatta were also the beneficiaries of a missed knock-on against Gutherson in the lead up to Ferguson’s sensational corner finish for his first try of the night.
Certainly luck shined on the Eels to an extent on Saturday but it must be said that they also made a lot of it on the back of the sweat of their own brows. Aggressive and willing defence badgered the Raiders into uncharacteristic errors while Canberra equally profited and were punished by the whims of Jack Wighton.
Thanks goodness Dylan Brown is back but best will come later
Dylan Brown looked like a player that has missed 3 months in attack and that honestly shouldn’t shock anyone. The young star understandably lacked the timing and polish he displayed in the first three rounds of 2019 while he also had the ball robbed of his possession from an exceedingly clever 1-on-1 strip.
All of this is perfectly fine in my books because even with his struggles in the Top End the net gain to the team and Mitchell Moses was clear in one of the highest stakes games played by the Eels to date this season.
What Brown didn’t shirk however was his defensive responsibilities. Dylan led the backline with 24 tackles with 2 missed and 2 ineffective and regularly found defensive work closer to the middle when the team needed it.
The bye comes at the perfect time for the Eels and Brown as they look to ease him back into the full workload that comes with the NRL. Look for him to be much closer to his best when the Eels return to the field against the Tigers in Round 17.
The Final Word
I could have easily waxed lyrical about the efforts of Blake Ferguson, Maika Sivo, Josh Hoffman, Mitchell Moses and Reed Mahoney – all of whom rolled up their sleeves in the torrid playing conditions. It took a concerted and whole-hearted team effort to bring home the two competition points and it will take similar efforts in the coming weeks and months if the Eels are to defy realistic expectations and forge something greater out of this rebuilding season.
This is the benchmark. The standard that the entire team needs to hold itself to moving forwards. Now they know that when the chips are down and the stakes are high, that they do in fact possess the grit and tenacity along with the means to claw their way back from a significant deficit against quality opposition.
They have plenty of time to reflect on it with the bye at hand, just as we fans have plenty of time to savour a genuinely excellent victory.
See you in Round 17!