In-form Penrith fullback Matt Moylan is facing a lengthy layoff with an ankle injury in a double blow for a Penrith side that went down 26-20 in a helter-skelter loss to Parramatta at Pepper Stadium on Friday night.
Moylan went off with a suspected medial ligament strain after just 10 minutes, with his side already down 12-0. Despite being blown away Penrith managed to come back and level the scores in the second half following a predictable Parramatta fade-out before a blistering Semi Radradra double shot the Eels ahead before yet another Penrith comeback almost produced a final twist.
Penrith were also without five-eighth Jamie Soward for a period in the second half with an AC joint injury due to a late hit from Eels giant Pauli Pauli, who found himself on report for the shot, while Eels centre Brad Takairangi (ankle) and captain Tim Mannah (wrist) also finished with injury concerns.
Maligned halfback Chris Sandow nailed five from five goal attempts, two from right on the sideline, in a welcome return to kicking form.
The Eels absolutely exploded out of the block to start the game, producing two sets of almost perfect attacking rugby league before a slick right-side movement with lots of bodies in motion and quick passing led up to a silky tap-on from Will Hopoate to put Ryan Morgan over.
Just three minutes later, without the Panthers getting the ball back in between, a left-side shift allowed Corey Norman to fire a cut-out that put Semi Radradra into space. He drew fullback Matt Moylan before putting his own No.1 Reece Robinson over for a 12-0 lead after seven minutes.
Things then went from bad to worse for the home side as Moylan went down awkwardly in an innocuous Manu Ma'u tackle and had to be assisted from the field.
The only further points in the half came from a Sandow penalty goal but the Eels remained positive, tackling strongly and refusing to allow Penrith to come close to getting over the advantage line and forcing them to play from their own end.
Good sliding defence from the Eels – typically a weakness for them in 2015 – helped shut down what looked like certain tries on either side of the field. Parramatta finished with almost double the running metres of their opponents in the opening 40 with Penrith being forced to make 60 more tackles than the visitors.
Only one team made it out of the sheds at half-time as the disciplined Eels fell apart in the face of a Bryce Cartwright-inspired comeback, the talented back-rower in everything as the Panthers levelled at 14-all.
First a James Segeyaro burst put Isaah Yeo over in the same play in which Soward was hurt, leading to a missed conversion from Cartwright.
Then a brilliant sliding run to the left from Cartwright and an offload around the back of Hopoate put David Simmons over.
It became three tries in eight minutes when Cartwright crossed himself after selling Hopoate a dummy on the same edge.
Looking down and out, the Eels then blew the game open with a three-minute double to Radradra, playing at centre while Takairangi managed an ankle injury on the wing.
The first came as a Radradra pass helped Takairangi into space, the outside man putting it on the toe for Radradra to win the chase for the ball, then a perfect flat ball from Sandow at the Panthers line found its mark to make it 26-14 with 15 to go.
The final stanza was frantic, and the comeback looked on when a try to stand-in fullback Dalin Watene-Zelezniak made it a six-point ball game with 10 to play but despite some desperate attacking sets from the home team, Parramatta held on.
Parramatta Eels 26 (Radradra 2, Morgan, Robinson tries; Sandow 5 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 20 (Yeo, Simmons, Cartwright, Watene-Zelezniak tries; Wallace 2 goals) at Pepper Stadium. Crowd: 17,821.