Round 17 Drink Of Choice – White Heather Blended Scotch Whisky
Don’t look now but with a weekend of results largely falling their way and a solid victory over the Wests Tigers in the books, the Parramatta Eels are now in possession of a 3-game winning streak and a genuine tilt at the Top 4. Barring a truly forgettable night against the Penrith Panthers in the midst of our dreadful mid-season form slump, the Eels have been a truly formidable presence at Bankwest Stadium chalking up 5 victories from 6 starts and tallying a mountainous points differential of 187-82 (+105).
The strategic importance that our fortress on the Western Front holds can not be understated and as the Eels once more switch gears from plucky re-builders to unlikely contenders, all eyes are on the prize of a home final at Bankwest.
So with the big picture firmly laid out and starting to take shape, let’s take a second to put the magnifying glass on the finer details of Parramatta’s 30-18 victory over the Tigers.
From doghouse to steakhouse, a Brad Takairangi story
I certainly won’t gloss over the frustrating struggles that both Brad Takairangi and fans alike endured before he was ultimately dropped in Round 13 but the man absolutely no-one calls the Cook Island Control Tower was at his devastating best on Sunday notching a career first brace and then hat-trick of tries.
Takairangi, a one-time never-capped Tiger, was the benefactor of some deft play-making from Mitchell Moses and Nathan Brown for his first and third tries. Yet it was his second of the afternoon that caused me to elicit a hearty guffaw as he hilariously pivoted and pirouetted through several defenders, desperately trying to find a support player to offload to before coming to the sudden realisation he could simply reach out and score.
I am not sure the Eels have any post-game traditions when it comes to celebrating hat-tricks but I will be damned if that man doesn’t deserve a steak dinner!
Moses brooks no arguments as to who is the better half
Ever since making his highly publicised mid-season transfer to the Eels in 2017, Mitchell Moses has been public enemy numero uno for fans of the frankensteinien (it is a word now I swear) cat-bird joint-venture. They certainly relished any and all of the struggles that Moses endured in 2018 but following starring roles in the 51-6 and 30-18 victories leading to the sweep of the Tigers, the polarising halfback has hit back in the best possible way.
If Moses was the scintillating superstar in the Round 6 christening of Bankwest Stadium, he was the measured and heady veteran on Sunday. When the Tigers jumped out of the gates full of energy for Benji Marshall’s 300th NRL game, Moses doggedly kept the Eels right in the contest with an array of brilliant clearing kicks. While his uber-talented but inexperienced partner in crime Dylan Brown dealt with a rare case of the yips, Moses patiently stayed his hand until the opportunities properly developed – at which point he pulled the trigger with a stoic savagery that would have made Dirty Harry proud.
Mitchell Moses is far from perfect but in many ways this game was a culmination of what has been to date arguably his most consistent season. Despite Parramatta’s mid-season fragility through the middle, Moses leads the NRL in try-assists with 17 while he is placed 8th in line-break assists with 9 but sometimes less is more and it is the moments where Mitchell is learning to hold back that are the most encouraging.
Brad Arthur reinforced the message about becoming more reliable in his post-match presser and if the Eels ever needed a player to continue to typify that motif as they gear up for a real tilt at the finals it is Mitchell Moses.
Dot your i’s and nail from it from the tee
The other means in which Moses proved to be hugely influential over the outcome of the game was from the kicking tee. Moses was a flawless 7/7 (4/4 conversions, 3/3 penalty conversions) while Esan Marsters’ (0/3) dead-ball struggles proved to be the difference in a game where both teams scored four tries a piece.
The stupendous Sunday of supplemental points striking (say that ten times quickly) bumped Mitchell up to a season strike rate of ~83%, placing him firmly in the upper echelon of full-time goal-kickers this season. It should go without saying that scoring in lots of sixes instead of fours makes for a much easier path to victory and Mitchell’s improvements in this facet of his game have been very welcome.
Blake ‘Prime Time’ Ferguson
Speaking of messages that the coach is reinforcing, Brad Arthur once again re-iterated to the media that he specifically recruited Blake Ferguson for his ability to make the big time plays. In that vein, Ferguson etched his name into Origin immortality on Wednesday night with a miracle effort down the right sideline to put James Tedesco over for the series winning try.
He backed that up with a robust performance for the Eels featuring some good, honest ruck work and a lovely try on the back of some brilliant lead-up work by Brad Takairangi and Manu Ma’u. Most importantly though it looked to my untrained eyes like the most healthy Ferguson has been on the field for the Eels since wearing a brutal shot to his ribs against the Raiders in Round 5.
Naturally the victory did come with some caveats and right at the top of that list was the ease with which the Tigers scored down Parramatta’s left-edge. Both Maika Sivo and Josh Hoffman were guilty at separate times but rather than wasting time pointing fingers the entire edge simply needs to get right as the Eels approach a pivotal stretch of games.
In some ways the fact that our left-edge has even had any degree of defensive integrity through long stretches of this season is truly commendable. Considering we are featuring rookie halves (Brown/Salmon), a new backrower (Lane), a banged up veteran centre (Hoffman) and a rookie winger (Sivo), at some point you do just have to take the lumps that come with all of that!
Still, with Michael Jennings (Round 20) and mid-season recruit Waqa Blake (tentatively Round 19) due back in the coming weeks, the Eels can count on both fresh legs and experienced heads to reinforce their flanks.
Different shades of Brown
It was night and day for the two Browns adorning the blue and gold. Dylan Brown was denied a cracking early try on the back of a contentious obstruction penalty and promptly lost his way, producing a kick out of the full, several handling errors and a defensive brain snap at marker that resulted in a penalty. Conversely, Nathan Brown was tearing into absolutely everything on both sides of the ball before capping his night with a try assist for Takairangi’s hat-trick that was jam packed full of nuance and deft touch and would have made Dylan proud.
Arthur hailed Nathan in his presser as his talismanic lock-forward continues to build into full fitness and it shouldn’t really shock you that the Eels finding their steel in the forward pack has corresponded with his rise to full fitness and form.
As for Dylan, am I worried about rookie play-maker? Honestly, no. Not at this stage. Despite an understandably rusty performance in Darwin backed up by a genuinely poor showing today I think Dylan has the mental make up to put it all behind him for the blockbuster at Brookvale.
Super-sub Salmon needs a defined role
On a day where the vast majority of the work of Brad Arthur and his coaching staff deserves valid praise (and I mean that seriously – the Eels never panicked despite a fast start by Wests and worked to a clear plan all game while also throwing some interesting new attacking looks at the Tigers) I do have one bone to pick.
What exactly does Jaeman Salmon do on the bench? Of course he provides tremendous injury cover off the bench with the ability to play in the halves, hooker, backrow, centres and even fullback at a pinch. That is hugely advantageous when the injury bug rears its ugly head. However when everything goes to script like it did on Sunday, what is he doing beyond riding the pine for 75min before relieving Reed Mahoney for a token 5min?
In Darwin he saw the field at right centre for the mandatory 15min that it took for Brad Takairangi to complete a head injury assessment but not a second longer in any other role even considering the testing heat and humidity.
With Marata Niukore featuring in a middle forward role against the Tigers and Manu Ma’u departing to the ESL at season’s end, perhaps there could be a consideration towards throwing Salmon into the edge rotation in the backrow?
I will freely admit that I don’t have the perfect answer here but it does feel like the Eels are carrying a dead spot on the bench as it currently stands.
Catastrophic system failure
I don’t even have the proper words to describe the magnitude of just how farcical the circumstances were that led to the try scored by Robert Jennings. Let me hit up google quickly for a refresher…okay here we go. Calamitous, cataclysmic, perilous, pernicious, repugnant and vile. Not only was it a critical and abject failure from all officials to not utilise the video review process, the fact that there was a touch judge DIRECTLY in-line with Moses Mbye that green-lit the blatant knock-on in such an authoritative manner completely undermines any confidence that I have in that officiating crew.
I get that rugby league is one of the most difficult codes in the world to officiate given the relatively brutal speed in which the game is played but we are talking funda-freaking-mental stuff here and that is why I have no hesitation in labeling it a catastrophic system failure.
Amusingly, Tigers fans and neutrals alike across the net had been up until that point grumbling about the foot-up the Eels had received at the hands of the referees. That is of course ignoring the fact that Corey Thompson clearly changed paths to impede Mitchell Moses, Robbie Farah obviously offloaded from his left arm into his right elbow and that Blake Ferguson’s desperation infield pass was a bang-bang play that replays proved (at least in this biased opinion) inconclusive as to whether he was out.
I honestly doubt the Eels even receive a token apology from Graham Annesley when his weekend review of the officiating is released later today but I do want to credit our boys for playing well enough to make sure that we made certain that god awful call wasn’t a factor towards the ultimate result.
The Final Word
Phew. It has been a mammoth musing this time around, in a ways deserved on the back of Parramatta’s first 3-game win streak since 2017. I could have stretched it even further extolling the games of Junior Paulo, Shaun Lane and David Gower but I think their efforts stand pretty neatly on their own merits. A dishonourable mention also needs to be dispensed to the entire forward pack for losing a scrum against the feed. Let’s make sure that never happens again shall we?
With the seismic shake-up of the ladder this week, next Sunday now looms at the pivotal game to launch a bid for a place in the Top 4. I dubbed it the blockbuster at Brookvale earlier and it absolutely deserves that billing as the 5th and 6th placed teams – both storied rivals – throw down with so, so much on the line.
However, if styles make fights then the Eels should enter this game with plenty of confidence. Even considering the punishing 54-0 loss dealt to us last year that honestly probably derailed the entire season last the Eels are an astonishing 7/9 against Manly under Brad Arthur.
That other loss of course coming in his first venture against them in 2014 when we were cruelled by some fickle officiating including offensive play-the-penalties called only against the Eels and Daly Cherry-Evans manipulating the video review process to belatedly turn a defensive line drop-out into a penalty (I STILL REMEMBER DAMN IT).
Manly, of course, can not be underestimated and like the Eels have punched well above their weight this year. Whoever wins this one quite possibly harnesses the momentum to ride a wave all the way through to those precious two bites of the cherry in the finals. Let’s hope that it is the boys in blue and gold that prevail.