Round 9 Drink Of Choice – Lagavulin Single Malt 16YO
Sometimes you don’t need to sugar-coat a result. Sometimes a game is so offensively awful or so irredeemably ugly that you just need to let it all air out and let the odour dissipate. Today was one of those games…well, sort of. It has taken one and a half games but the Parramatta Eels showed their first signs of disarray without Mitchell Moses at the helm in a chaotic showing against the Newcastle Knights. Pushed passes, dropped balls and panicked last tackle options marred the entire contest for the Eels as they regularly handed the home team gift-wrapped opportunities to score.
Fortunately, as bad as the Eels were in attack they were inversely effective in defence. That is to say that they were magnificent as they restricted the Novocastrians to a miserly 4-points despite the smorgasbord of chances afforded to the home team. Defence wins championships, or so they like to say, and Parramatta showed today why what you can do without possession is so damn valuable. Like the titular junkyard dogs fighting over a single morsel, the Eels kept coming at the Knights in defence with a level of aggression and desperation that was almost overwhelming at times.
Sunday’s victory – Parramatta’s 8th of the season – keeps the Eels on top of the ladder and ahead of the surging Panthers. The flawed performance also provides some of the most interesting discussion points for the season so let’s dive in.
Reed letter day
Usually this would be the point where I would write about a Newcastle #9 having a huge game against the Eels. Danny Levi throughout his entire career at the Knights was a menace to the Blue & Gold. Season and career best games against the Eels came easily to an otherwise run-of-the-mill rake and while Andrew McCullough did score Newcastle’s solitary try, he rated a mere 2/10 on TCT’s patented Levi-athan Scale.
Instead, we are celebrating the brilliant efforts of Reed Mahoney as the scheming Eel got his hands in everything in the gritty victory. From laying on a gorgeous try-assist to Ryan Matterson to putting Kalyn Ponga on skates in open space, the Mahoney-Maker was at the heart of most of Parramatta’s best attacking football.
As usual, he led the team in defence with a massive 59 tackles made (2 missed, 6 ineffective) but it his expansive running game in the second that caught my eye. It is arguably the final piece missing in his diverse attacking repertoire and his willingness to exploit a fatiguing Newcastle ruck was vital today.
He can also count himself desperately unlucky to not be on the try-scorer’s sheet. I disagree vehemently with Gerard Sutton’s call of an incorrect play-the-ball by Marata Niukore (he clearly played the ball correctly before David Klemmer tripped him over), which denied the Eels a play-on advantage scenario.
Middle men go nuclear as injury crisis hits DEFCON-1
The Eels entered Round 9 with a worryingly depleted forward pack. Kane Evans, Oregon Kaufusi, Ray Stone and Peni Terepo were all unavailable for selection and we rapidly shifted from DEFCON-3 to DEFCON-1 when Junior Paulo mysteriously failed to return in the second half. James Hooper would later offer up on Big League Wrap that ‘Proptimus Prime’ had been put on ice due to back spasms, so here is to hoping that is was purely precautionary.
In his colossal absence the Eels turned to Nathan Brown and Reagan Campbell-Gillard to carry the burden and boy did they step up. Brown was relentless. He was a man possessed. When the Newcastle forwards stalled in the second half, he sensed the blood in the water and redoubled his efforts. Importantly, he never stifled the team by being over-zealous in his attempts to win the battle in the middle.
Brown went on a Taumalolo-esque tear in attack to accumule a mammoth 273m from 28 carries and backed that up with 52 punishing tackles (4 missed, 4 ineffective). It is another notch on the belt for Brown as he hits the fabled 200m/50 tackle benchmark yet again. Indeed, the process of reaching those impressive twin milestones in a game probably deserves some sort of Brown-based naming rights.
‘Reg’ may have fallen 8 tackles shy of pulling his second ‘Browny’ of the season but his 226m from 22 carries and 42 tackles (4 missed) over 65-minutes was critical for the Eels. Junior brings the pain and panache in equal measure but ‘Reg’ is every bit as valuable as a starter. His no nonsense, no bullshit brand of play is timeless in a way and he is a huge cog in our premiership engine.
A king that uses his head
As the weeks roll by I am increasingly convinced that Clinton Gutherson is the fittest man in the NRL. What he may ever so slightly lack in acceleration, explosiveness and sheer speed he makes up with by virtue of his superhuman aerobic capacity and single-minded determination to be constantly around the ball.
It was fitting then that ‘King Gutho’ broke the game wide open in the 64th minute with a cheeky piece of cerebral footy. While Newcastle were busy remonstrating about a penalty brought on by a high-tackle from Mitchell Pearce, Gutherson bounced off the McDonald Jones Stadium turf like he was made of rubber and showed zero hesitation in taking the quick tap.
He sortied down the left sideline in a turn of blind faith, trusting that someone, anyone would come with him. His unwavering belief in his team wasn’t misplaced. A week after he was gifted four tries by virtue of the work of his inside men, Maika Sivo showed the sort of hunger and perception required to sit on top of the try-scoring tally as he raced down the left sideline to run abreast of his captain. Gutherson then sold Ponga with a double-pump and laid the rest up to Sivo neat as you could ever ask.
It typified why both men are so crucial to the Eels and why you always keep your head up!
Another round of officiating head scratchers
I am certain that Newcastle fans will have legitimate gripes about some of the calls that went against them but gee Parramatta were on the end of a few interesting calls and interpretations. The game started in wild circumstances when Shaun Lane was deemed to have taken possession of the bouncing kick-off with a foot on the line. The brief replay we got suggested there was a clear line of green between boot and sideline and the challenge clock expired before the Eels could levy the opinion of the video referee.
Speaking of the captain’s challenge, we need immediate clarity on the discretionary authority of the referee to expand the range of a challenge. When the Parramatta Eels challenged a Maika Sivo knock-on in the final minutes of the game, Gerard Sutton threw in everything – including the kitchen sink – for Ben Galea to check in The Bunker. Ultimately it was determined that Reed Mahoney impacted the defensive line, another verdict I strenuously dispute, and Newcastle ended up with a penalty. Sutton had the power to originally go to the video referee under the pretext of a no-try to check the alleged obstruction and instead hijacked Parramatta’s ability to attempt to veto a call.
Asides from the aforementioned incident involving Marata Niukore and Reed Mahoney there was also a weird moment involving Mitchell Pearce in the second half where it seemed like a knock-on or penalty was the obvious call. Instead, Sutton signalled play-on to the disbelief of the Fox commentary panel. Elsewhere, Dylan Brown was clearly tackled late during a clearing kick – a hit that consigned him to a head injury assessment – and the Eels received no penalty. This all in spite of the fact that Newcastle were allowed a stunning passage of advantage that stretched over 3 tackles when Waqa Blake hit Kalyn Ponga in a similar tackle.
I just don’t know anymore.
Dyl’s first growing pangs, Field’s fearless defence
It is fair to suggest that expectations surrounding Dylan Brown are astronomical. The young man is among the most poised youths will ever see in the game and he has handled everything the NRL has thrown at him with aplomb. Today’s game against the Knights was the first time in any grade that I have seen him play with that degree of indecision. From messy last-tackle kicks to completely butchering a scintillating line-break, Dylan was well and truly off the boil in attack.
Thankfully he pulled things back together late in the second half with a vastly improved kicking game but it was very much a learning experience for the young play-maker.
On the other side of the, erm, field we saw Jai Field battle heroically in defence. Much like Dylan, Field stuttered and stalled in attack but Newcastle made a concerted effort to attack him down Parramatta’s vulnerable right-edge and he rose to the challenge with gusto. Jai made a whopping 30 tackles (3 missed, 2 ineffective) and chopped down Lachlan Fitzgibbon with a zealousness that bordered on fanatical. Andrew McCullough did manage to burrow through him to score Newcastle’s only try but I can not fault the young man today. He was tasked with an immense challenge by the Knights and he met them at every turn.
Well done son.
Nervous wait for Waqa
While we never got to see the replay from the correct angle on his first hit on Kalyn Ponga to ascertain whether there was contact with the head and I personally feel there was nothing in the second tackle (penalty sufficient, his forearm essentially gave the Newcastle fullback a haircut), Blake now faces a nervous wait on the Match Review Committee. Parramatta don’t enjoy a healthy relationship with either the MRC or the judiciary and the fact that Blake’s transgression was against one of the poster-children of the code means that overly aggressive measures could be levied against him.
In positive news, Waqa produced a chaotically brilliant display in defence. Armed with the knowledge that Newcastle would surely attack his edge, the Eels responded in a move that featured some of the biggest brass balls you will ever see as they tasked Parramatta’s mercurial centre with jams that reached as far as the opposing halfback. He also guarded the B-gap on Jai Field’s right hip with a fierce determination and showed great hustle to scoop up several passes and loose balls.
There is plenty of grease and elbow polish left to go into the defence of our right-edge but I can’t fault the effort today.
The Final Word
No 6-Again this week because it is late and I have an episode of The Tip Sheet to edit so I will keep it sweet. Parramatta were abysmal in attack today, as bad as they will be all season. From the sequence of play that resulted in us kicking no-where twice before essentially throwing the ball into touch to the myriad of knock-ons and pushed passes and offloads that knee-capped any momentum the Eels were able to accrue. It was shocking.
It was also the perfect time to produce a season best effort in defence and thanks to that, not only do the Eels own the best scoring defence in the competition, they refused to relinquish their place a top the ladder. Team List Tuesday will potentially bring some huge news to unpack as we sweat on the fates of Junior Paulo, Waqa Blake and Stefano Utoikamanu (COVID-19 breach) as well as a possible early return for Mitchell Moses. Until then, enjoy t he win my dudes and dudettes and be sure to have a listen of the podcast!