After a long and stressful fortnight for the blue and gold, a win at the end would have been the perfect tonic to lift spirits, but a desperate South Sydney side refused to follow the script, coming back from 20-6 down to grind out a much-needed 22-20 win to get their own season back on track after four straight losses.
Tough to take emotion out of the contest but Eels hold heads high
After being battered from pillar to post by salary cap penalties then the loss of key man Nathan Peats to remedy the cap situation, the biggest challenge for the Eels was to push the emotion to one side – while the challenge for the Rabbitohs was to shut out all the noise and focus on their own game.
It could be argued both teams were successful, and certainly the Eels weren’t making any excuses after they conceded two tries – both created by huge plays from their captain Greg Inglis – in the last 10 minutes of a heartbreaking loss.
Eels coach Brad Arthur handled his post-match presser with the same class with which he has handled the issue from day one, refusing to blame the cap scandal while preferring to praise his opponents for their impressive effort.
"We kept fighting to the end... we had a bit of ball there, we won all the stats, our completion was good, possession, we had a bit of ball attacking their try line but we were a bit down on the execution of our plays," he said.
"We're just probably glad the week's over. It would have been better to have a better finish at the end there but I thought the effort and commitment was first class. At 20-6 we need to be better.
"We need to execute a bit better attacking the try-line and land that killer punch but I thought Souths were really good tonight, they tried hard, they were really committed in their defence and at the end of the game Greg Inglis came up with something special.
"The boys are disappointed but we can't focus on it too much, we have to get back into training on Monday and get ready for Melbourne."
Added halfback Corey Norman: "Like we said all along we're not going to use this as an excuse. We had plenty of chances to win and full credit to Souths, they came here to win and we just weren't good enough tonight."
Rabbitohs put their own woes behind
While all the focus pre-game may have been around the situation at Parramatta, the Rabbitohs themselves have been doing it tough with four straight losses. A fifth would have been their first ever run of five straight losses under coach Michael Maguire, and their first such run since 2009 had it occurred.
It would also have put serious doubts over their own finals aspirations, meaning that Eels aside, they needed a win pretty urgently.
"I'm really pleased for the players. They've gone through a fair bit over the last month. They've worked extremely hard at the little things in the game and they were able to find opportunities tonight to get the right result, so proud of the players," Maguire said after the game.
Asked about the emotion clearly running high in the blue and gold camp, he added: "We had a big focus around ourselves; everyone says that and I say that quite a lot but we did. We've been through a fair bit ourselves over the last month.
"Everyone wants the fairytale and what Parramatta have been through, I feel for them and that creates the swell of momentum against you and that's why I'm proud of the players that they were able to continually stick with the things we've been practising."
Path forward now clear for Eels
Despite the loss, the one positive for Parramatta is that there now looks to be clear air ahead. Barring any further twists and turns, their fate and punishment are known, they are under the cap and playing for points, their fate is now in their own hands and most importantly they can finally put the focus back on footy.
"We've got to move on from tonight's performance, we need to be thorough with our review but at least now we've got a bit of clarity moving forward. We need to put everything that's happened in the past but it can't be an excuse either," Arthur said.
"That's my job to make sure we keep doing the same thing we've done every other week up until now."
Arthur said there is no point worrying about how many wins they now need to make the finals, rather they just need to look as far as next Monday's visit from the Storm.
"That's gone now, obviously the boys know [how many wins we need], they don't need to be reminded of it. We just need to take it for next week, Storm, then whoever we play we've just got to go one week at a time."
Reynolds no-try perplexes Maguire
Souths didn't get a lot of the 50-50 calls through the first three quarters of the game but the one that raised a few eyebrows was the no-try call against Adam Reynolds in the 51st minute.
With some big defensive plays and slow play-the-balls stifling the Eels set, Paul Carter was able to race up on Corey Norman and charge down his kick. Seeing the ball skewing towards the sideline – and safety from an Eels point of view – the alert back-rower jinked across and toed the ball back infield.
He showed great touch because it sat up nicely in-goal awaiting chasers in defender Manu Ma'u, and Reynolds looking for the four-pointer.
The bounce wasn't kind to Reynolds, who had an air-swing before landing torso-first on the bobbling ball. Channel Nine commentators Peter Sterling and Andrew Johns felt that with no knock-on the torso grounding was acceptable but senior review official Ben Cummins detected a hint of a knock-on from Reynolds' forearm prior to the torso grounding and disallowed the points.
"Paul Carter [came] up with a nice little kick there, I'm not sure how they can say that was a no try, obviously they've got some pretty sharp TVs upstairs," was all Maguire had to say of the incident.
With Parramatta up 20-12 at the time, it looked like the turning point that proved the footy gods were smiling on the Parramatta fairytale so it was to the Rabbitohs' credit they refused to give in and were still able to mount a comeback and steal the result.
Woodwork almost decides the game
It was the conversion attempt that showed why Adam Reynolds is one of the greatest goal-kickers in rugby league history.
Having hit the woodwork twice already in the match with sideline conversion attempts, Reynolds had an identical chance right before full time from where he had hit the post earlier in the half to make it third time lucky and boot his team to a win.
He moved this one a little further back to widen the angle but increase the distance, and took his time.
From the time it left the boot it was never missing, and it effectively sealed the win for his side. Had either of the two shots that hit the posts earlier gone through it would have taken the pressure off with the win in the end; had this one missed his team could well still have lost. Such is the lot of the goal kicker.
After the game he said he wasn't thinking about the two near-misses.
"A few came off the posts which was unlucky but that's rugby league and you've just got to concentrate on what you can control," Reynolds told NRL.com.
"I just tried to stay in my process; it was no different to any other kick tonight."