Eels v Dragons: Five key points
After a tough week where they made headlines for the wrong reasons the Eels earned a tough, morale boosting win over the Dragons. Here are five talking points from the 16-14 victory.
Eels finally close out a close one
It may yet prove to be a season of 'what ifs' for an Eels side that would currently be entrenched in the top four had they held on to winning positions against the Warriors, Rabbitohs and Cowboys in recent weeks. But with the game on the line against the Dragons and fans holding their breath thinking 'not again' the Eels kept turning up to make crucial tackles and close out a victory, much to the relief of fans and coach Brad Arthur.
A try-saver on a seemingly try-bound Pete Mata'utia from hulking bench forward Pauli Pauli was arguably the highlight but the entire team scrambled well to shut down attacking raids, with the left edge of Brad Takairangi and Semi Radradra producing some great reads as well.
"It was a very tough, committed win," Arthur said.
"They had eight more sets than us, six of those in the second half, 10 repeat sets in the second half compared to our four. The boys just kept turning up for each other."
He said the side had been turning up for each other in recent weeks without getting the result but tonight got a little bit of luck going their way – possibly a reference to a couple of line-ball no-try calls against the opposition.
"I think the last seven games we've been turning up for each other, we got a little bit of luck tonight as you need but the defence, the commitment, the resolve, we burned through a couple of interchanges quickly in the second half a few of the big boys were out on their feet in the second half.
"That tackle on the try line which young Pauli Pauli was involved in was a great effort and really encouraging for him."
Dragons rue no-try calls
The Dragons had no trouble creating try-scoring chances but plenty went begging both through their own lack of execution and a couple of times when they fell on the wrong side of line-ball decisions.
The first came in the 12th minute when decoy runner Tyson Frizell bumped into Chris Sandow in the attacking line, denying winger Dylan Farrell who crossed in the corner from a precision Benji Marshall cut-out pass.
"'Friz' actually had a skip line, which is an out line, then changed to finish on [Sandow's] inside shoulder so I don't know where he could go, he can't just disappear, he's not a magician," Dragons coach Paul McGregor lamented.
"He started his line on the outside and finished on the inside shoulder. If Benji falls over is that no try? That's the question, I don't know. As a coach you want them to lead hard in the right space and he did that, he couldn't have done much more."
In the 59th minute a Marshall chip out to Farrell was batted back infield for centre Euan Aitken to dive over seemingly for his second but the on-field officials immediately deemed the bat-back travelled forward and the video referee found no evidence to overturn the decision.
If anything it seemed the ball travelled fractionally forward although it was agonisingly close and in-game callers Andrew Voss and Greg Alexander were happy with the decision. Not so McGregor after the game, especially given the Eels raced upfield after that decision and scored a try of their own for a classic 10-point turnaround.
"It's very disappointing, I can't say much more," McGregor said.
"I've been going through the right channels the last couple of weeks [seeking clarity on decisions], I'll keep doing that. I'm getting some answers. I think most people [thought it was all right], even Parramatta did."
Dragons skipper Ben Creagh also thought it was a fair try.
"From all the angles we saw it looked like it went back. 'Dyl' got up and hit the ball back. Like 'Mary' said it's tough to take but that's the way it goes sometimes," Creagh said.
Radradra just keeps on scoring
Blockbusting Eels winger Semi Radradra scored all three of his side's tries in the narrow win. It was his third career hat trick (interestingly, his first ever hat trick not to come in a Round 1 fixture) and the fourth time in four games he'd scored at least two tries.
It takes his tally to 14 in nine games this year, level with equal-second best, Gold Coast's James Roberts (who has 14 in 14 games but is yet to play his Round 16 fixture, against the Roosters) and two behind Bulldogs winger Curtis Rona, who has 16 in 14 games.
"Semi, I think he got a triple tonight, he knows how to score," said Eels stand-in fullback and regular left-edge contributor Corey Norman.
"Our left edge, we just have to keep providing that for him and that starts with the big boys in the middle. They're providing a good platform for us and we jumped on the back of that."
Five day turnaround hurts wounded Dragons
The Eels boast easily the lengthiest casualty ward in the NRL but coming off a fierce Monday night loss to the Roosters just five days ago compared to their opponents' Round 15 bye, the Dragons suffered from the absence of a few regular first grade and a bit of fatigue, which showed in a lack of execution at times in the game.
Winger Jason Nightingale pulled up sore with a knee strain last week and would have been right to play with a few more days rest. Hard-working forward Jack De Belin had to sit out with a knee infection, and hooker Mitch Rein was serving a one-game suspension. Joel Thompson went off in the 65th minute with a hamstring strain having already battled a knee complaint while prop Mike Cooper spent time in the sheds due to back spasms.
"We've got a few busted at the moment, that's the time of the year we're at and the way we play," McGregor said.
"We'll have to have a really good look on Monday, get ourselves out there and be really committed to what we need to do which is put a good performance in against the Cowboys.
"[De Belin] had an infection in his knee, he's been in hospital for a couple of days but he should be okay next week. [Nightingale], five day turnaround, if we had another couple of days he would have been ok to play, just the short turnaround, he wasn't right tonight but he'll be okay next week."
Eels ring-ins get the job done
The Dragons injured list still has nothing on Parramatta, which is easily the longest in the NRL. As noted by Arthur after the game, of the 14 players unavailable for this game, 11 have played NRL this year.
The list includes all three hookers on the roster – Nathan Peats (knee), Issac De Gois (cheek bone) and Kaysa Pritchard (pec). Forwards Kenny Edwards (ACL) and Peni Terepo (pec) and centre Beau Champion (knee) are all out for the season, prop Richie Fa'aoso (shoulder), three-quarter John Folau (fractured leg) and fullback Reece Robinson (fractured cheek) are other long-term absentees, while key left-edge forward Manu Ma'u (suspension) is available next week.
Stand in hooker Cody Nelson did a superb job in a somewhat unfamiliar role, topping the tackle count and providing good service out of dummy half, and five-eighth Corey Norman handled his switch to fullback with aplomb. Anthony Watmough and Tepai Moeroa (both shoulder) did a good job to play through pain on the night.
"We've got 14 players at the moment unavailable for selection and 11 of those have played NRL this year," Arthur said.
"[In Round 14] against Melbourne too we had Dave Gower playing five-eighth, we were down, blokes everywhere, just showed a little bit of resolve.
"Especially the last two weeks but the boys drew a line in the sand, said enough's enough after the Melbourne game. We've really aimed up after a couple of close losses."