THE Eels muscled up after the shock midweek departure of halfback Brett Finch but had no answer for a relentless opposition who made full use of their opportunities.
Meanwhile the home side always seemed to find a way to squander theirs.
Parramatta fans were treated to an explosive, committed opening from their side. But they were left wondering what might have been when, in just the 7th minute, Finch replacement Jeff Robson spilled the ball with the line open after some razzle-dazzle lead-up play from a rejuvenated Jarryd Hayne.
From there the clash developed into a tit-for-tat exchange of brutal defence and chance-your-arm attack that left both teams sucking in the big ones. And with a healthy respect for each other’s commitment, the sides swapped penalty goals for a 2-all scoreline after 29 minutes.
But then the Dragons conjured a try that is bound to feature on highlights reels all year: Jamie Soward perfectly weighted a cross-field chip/bomb at the Eels posts. There were three Parra defenders and one Dragons chaser – skipper Ben Hornby. They all leapt for the ball but only one was subconsciously unconcerned for his safety – Hornby. He fielded the ball, crashed into the right upright yet still had the momentum to fall into the in-goal for what video ref Steve Clark confirmed was a fair four-pointer.
That made it 8-2 after 34 minutes; and just 240 seconds later the Dragons had wrested an unassailable lead.
The Game Swung When… Arguably plenty of moments qualify but Dragons back-rower Neville Costigan’s entrepreneurial try in the 38th minute flattened the Eels.
It started when Parramatta allowed a Soward 6th-tackle bomb to bounce; it was tapped back by the red-and-whites’ chasers before the ball was propelled right where second-rower Matt Prior put in a last-ditch grubber that was knocked-on at the back.
The Dragons regathered through Sailor who ran back to centre-field, threw a flat pass to Soward who popped an inside ball to Costigan. That made it 14-2 at the break and the “arm wrestle” of the opening 34 minutes was gone.
Who Was Hot… Jamie Soward played most of the set plays at halfback but still continued his great form, especially with his precision, error-free kicking game (22 times!). None better. He was Lockyer-esque in dictating play; if he continues his rate of improvement he’ll push for rep honours.
Beau Scott (25 tackles, five dummy-half runs and two great offloads) looks to have found a permanent spot in the centres. Wendell Sailor ran straight (mostly) and earned valuable territory (174 metres). Matt Prior ran hard (12 hit-ups) and defended stoutly (33 tackles).
Theye were all strong, the Dragons.
For the Eels, Eric Grothe took to his tasks (100 metres gained) like he’d consumed a bottle of angry pills, as did Jarryd Hayne after being shifted one spot wide to the centres. Hayne busted the line and was a fierce defender (23 tackles) – a complete turnaround from the meek competitor of the past few weeks.
Nathan Hindmarsh did a good job of emulating his best (42 tackles, 14 hit-ups). And Fuifui Moimoi charged hard.
Who Was Not… Moved by coach Daniel Anderson to his best position at five-eighth, Feleti Mateo was regrettably woeful. He tried too hard. He dropped the ball cold on three vital occasions and forced a bunch of 50:50 offloads, none of which found its mark. He’ll need time to adjust after focussing on his role in the back row but is sure to come right soon. When he does, look out. That said, he still ran the ball 18 times and made 145 metres. But his errors were telling.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Hornby’s crash into the upright, the Dragons’ second try and… Nathan Hindmarsh replaced! In the 49th minute! Yep, after playing every minute of 2009 to date the big guy was given a breather – but only for 12 minutes.
Two great sleight-of-hand moments: In the 27th minute Nathan Hindmarsh was tackled just metres out from the Dragons’ line – except he didn’t have the ball. The play was so deceptive it even fooled the calling crew from Channel Nine.
And in the 32nd minute Dragons No.14 Dan Hunt slipped arguably the latest offload on record, with his arm just millimetres from the ground. It was so late Nathan Hindmarsh appealed for passing off the ground; it wasn’t though.
Bad Boys… Dragons prop Michael Weyman was placed on report for a careless high tackle on Fuifui Moimoi, who stayed down after being tackled to ensure the video ref could review it. Nothing in it. Except it’s against the rules. (The Dragons’ players chided Moimoi for his part.) Weyman was later charged by the match review committee and will miss a week with an early guilty plea.
Jeremy Smith was sin-binned for 10 minutes in the 66th minute for pushing his forearm into the throat of tackled Eel as he lay prone on the ground.
And Neville Costigan and Eric Grothe threw a flurry of punches after Grothe pushed Costigan backwards off his mark.
Refs Watch… Plenty of borderline calls but thankfully none affected the outcome of the game… although they could have.
Sailor’s pass to Soward that set up the Dragons’ second try could easily have been pulled back for being forward.
While Smith was binned for his forearm indiscretion Ashley Klein and Brett Suttor missed a similar one on Michael Weyman in the 21st minute.
Wendall Sailor was penalised for tackling an opposition player in the air when clearly all he was doing was competing for a bomb.
Sailor was also pinged for a second effort in heaving Krisnan Inu over the sideline when clearly it was the one motion.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Jamie Soward (Dragons): Growing in confidence with every game, he’s now an opposition coach’s nightmare; 2 points – Matt Prior (Dragons): Forceful and creative back-rower’s game; 1 point – Wendell Sailor (Dragons): Playing in great form and really contributing to the Dragons’ go-forward.
Dragons 22 (B Hornby, N Costgan, W Sailor tries; J Soward 5 goals) def Eels 8 (L Burt try, 2 goals) at Parramatta Stadium. Crowd: 19,017.