Eels shrug off horror week with tense win
The Eels have repaid the faith of long-suffering fans after a week in which they made headlines for all the wrong reasons, holding out a fast-finishing Dragons side in a tense 16-12 win at Pirtek Stadium on Saturday night.
With almost as many players in the casualty ward as on the field, ex-Titans back-rower Cody Nelson standing in at hooker, and a week of headlines surrounding whether or not Manly star Kieran Foran would still join the club following issues with his contract and Parramatta's governance, the Eels produced a determined defensive display in front of 15,046 dedicated fans.
Blockbusting winger Semi Radradra's hat-trick pushed him to 14 tries in nine games this year, under-fire halfback Chris Sandow kicked beautifully all night, Corey Norman looked at home at fullback and the previously sieve-like blue and gold defence held firm late in the game as Dragons halves Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop reached deep into their bag of tricks but ultimately came up empty.
The match started brightly and seemed destined for an avalanche of points when it was 6-all inside six minutes but after a high-quality half where each side displayed strong defence and a sound kicking game a Gareth Widdop penalty goal was the only further addition to the scores before the break.
The Eels looked in for a long night when a precision Marshall chip found winger Dylan Farrell in space and he laid it back for Aitken to score, despite a serious question mark over his grounding.
When Leeson Ah Mau dropped it from the restart the Eels were handed a golden chance to hit back and hit back they did as Norman chimed up in the line in a left-edge play to help Semi Radradra add to his prolific 2015 season, scoring his 12th try in just his ninth game.
The Dragons were denied shortly after when a nice Marshall cut-out put Farrell over in the corner but Tyson Frizell was penalised for obstruction for bumping into Chris Sandow in the line in the lead-up.
The Eels came close a few times down their right edge as stand-in five eighth Luke Kelly showed some nice touches and combined well with Will Hopoate and Ryan Morgan. First a precision chip only just rolled into touch before Morgan could get there and later Joel Thompson produced a great try-saver to hold Kelly up.
The worst period for the Eels came around the half hour mark when the Dragons earned three straight sets at their line but they held strong and would have been relieved when Widdop opted to take the two after Kelly was deemed to have taken bench hooker Craig Garvey high.
Radradra scored his second of the night shortly after the restart when a great David Gower run and Takairangi decoy allowed Sandow to send his winger down a short side to earn his side the lead for the first time in the match, Sandow nailing another sideline conversion to make it 12-8.
The Dragons were denied a chance to go ahead after 60 minutes when Marshall's chip to Farrell was batted back to Aitken who looked to have scored, but the video referees upheld the on-field call that the bat-back had travelled fractionally forward.
It proved a critical call as the Eels got a penalty in the ensuing set against Will Mathews for putting Watmough in a dangerous position, then went the length for Radradra to bag his third career hat-trick.
It was another slick left-side shift from the Eels as Sandow and Takairangi combined to send the blockbusting Fijian over for his 14th try of the season.
Sandow hit the post with his attempted conversion but the eight-point buffer was the biggest lead of the night for either side and with 15 minutes remaining the Dragons started to feel some scoreboard pressure.
A magic grubber, regather and flick pass from Marshall almost led to a try but the flick went forward, then a powerful, surging run from Josh Dugan broke the line then drew a penalty to allow his side to press the Eels.
It allowed the Red V's own flying Fijian Eto Nabuli to bag his first try of the night when the Dragons went left to take advantage of a retreating Eels defensive line, although Widdop's miss from out wide kept the buffer at four points with 12 minutes to play.
Suddenly it was the visitors with all the momentum and the Eels looked shot when Aitken sliced straight through the middle but a forced offload let the home side off the hook.
The Dragons exploded into life as the clock wound down, both halves threatened every time they had the ball and the Red V piled on the pressure with several repeat sets in the final minutes.
Parramatta produced arguably their best defensive period of the season to hold their line with a number of try-savers, including Dugan being held up and a great Pauli Pauli save on a seemingly try-bound Peter Mata'utia.
The tense crowd burst into applause twice in the dying minutes as first Marshall and then Widdop passed into touch searching for an overlap, one going behind Farrell then another in front of him, as a desperate Eels side held on for a much-needed morale-boosting win.
Parramatta Eels 16 (Radradra 3 tries; Sandow 2 goals) defeated St George Illawarra Dragons 12 (Aitken, Nabuli tries; Widdop 2 goals). Half-time Dragons 8-6. Crowd 15,046.