After losing two key players for the match inside 20 minutes then falling two tries behind midway through the second half, the Eels had every excuse to lose but somehow found a way to claw back a thrilling 22-18 win over the Roosters at Pirtek Stadium on Friday night.
Injuries ravage Eels but players find a way
It seems a long time ago now that Parramatta's feeder club Wentworthville started the season with something close to an all-NRL back seven. With countless players unavailable through injury or having departed the club mid-season and one on Origin duty, the Eels went into Friday night's game with a forward in the three-quarter line and no reserve hooker.
They could ill-afford to lose any backs or their hooker but that's what happened as winger Semi Radradra (medial strain, sixth minute) and hooker Isaac De Gois (concussion) both had their nights ended early. The returning Jeff Robson shifted from halfback to hooker in attack, five-eighth Corey Norman was the lone playmaker in attack and defending at centre, back-rower Kenny Edwards was shifted out wide, and young prop Daniel Alvaro stayed on the field the entire second half.
"I'll have to be honest I don't even know what really happened in the second half, who was playing where," coach Brad Arthur said after the game.
"Dan Alvaro had to play 40 minutes in the second half as a front rower. We just had all our big fellas out there filling in somewhere in the line so it was a pretty tough effort.
"Especially [from] 18-6, to come back – It would have been very easy to say 'well we've got enough excuses, we've got blokes all over the place, how are we going to score a try'. I think that's the way we've played pretty much all year, tough resilient. We haven't played great footy but it's been good enough to win games."
'Big errors' still costing Roosters
As impressive as the Eels were, with a 12-point advantage against a 15-man side with plenty of players running out of position, the Roosters should have been able to go on with it.
But Boyd Cordner was penalised for offloading from the ground with his side attacking a scattered Eels defence and from there Parramatta clawed a try back. Shortly after, Latrell Mitchell dropped a risky inside ball from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves coming out of their own territory and Dylan Napa immediately compounded it, giving away a penalty for a second effort in a tackle. The Eels levelled up the next set when Manu Ma'u crashed over with the aid of a defensive misread from the visitors.
Then in a frantic final 10 minutes with the scores level Jake Friend dropped the ball over the line trying to score from dummy half, then after that Waerea-Hargreaves came up with a cold drop on halfway. The Eels scored the match-winner in the following set.
"I thought we were on top there at 18-6… we had errors and penalties following that and then some big misses on a kick and a line [run] from Manu Ma'u [to score]. Pretty disappointing," said Roosters coach Trent Robinson.
"If you give them an opportunity, if you give them possession close to the line and you give them penalties – It's a game of football, they're going to attack the line. That's what happened. When we've made errors we've made big errors this year.
"We've been defending well for most of the period of the game and then we let a try in. It's not even a half break it's been a big error. It's just been a big try out of nothing and that's been a huge difference in our season this year."
A try saving chase for the ages
It is one of the great sights in rugby league: two young lightning-fast speedsters in a race to the line. We were treated to a memorable one on Friday night when new Eels try-scoring sensation Bevan French floated up out of the line to intercept a Dale Copley pass and, after a brief juggle, streak down the right touch line.
Showing unbelievable anticipation over on the opposite touch-line, Roosters rookie Joseph Manu sensed something was up and began his chase. The 100-metre foot-race was on. French drifted infield then, spotting how close Manu was, used the angle to sprint away towards the corner post. Manu never gave up and unbelievably caught his man just before the line and pushed him into touch.
French, unable to believe what had happened, stayed down in disappointed disbelief for an age while Roosters players swarmed Manu with high fives for what should have been a match-winning play.
"[It was] a big chase down from Joseph Manu which are sometimes turning points in games but it wasn't to be for us," lamented Robinson.
Added Roosters skipper Jake Friend: "Joey Manu, that's a big play in the game. That could have been a turning point. A few errors and a few penalties, we let them back in and we should be able to steel up and defend those sort of errors or penalties and hold them out and we didn't so that's disappointing."
Aerial raid for Tupou pays dividends but not enough
There was plenty of talk in the lead up about how the Roosters had a huge advantage on their left flank where 6'4" winger Daniel Tupou was being marked by rookie French, who at 5'11" and 83kg is one of the smallest in the NRL.
Tupou's huge leaps – generally from towering Mitch Pearce (and formerly James Maloney) cross field bombs – have led to plenty of tries for the Tricolours over the years and given some of the success the Roosters found there on Saturday it's almost a wonder they didn't go there more often.
They tried it in the 14th minute and were denied when the Eels were able to wrap up Tupou after he came down with it and the Roosters hardly went there again until a double success early in the second half. First, Tupou's mark and pass was well cleaned up for the returning Cordner to score in the 47th minute then four minutes later Tupou's bat-back was brilliantly caught by Mitchell for his second try.
Given the play would be borderline impossible to defend for young French if executed perfectly, it looked a missed opportunity for the Roosters.
Roosters not blaming late bunker call
In a thrilling final minute with the Eels clinging desperately to a four-point lead, the Roosters launched an assault at their line. The Eels did brilliantly to hang on until a last tackle play when the Tricolours spread it right, winger Clint Gutherson tried to shut the play down and as he jammed up on Shaun Kenny-Dowall, the centre was just able to get a pass out to winger Manu.
As he dived over a covering Norman just got across in time for a try, and probably match-saving, tackle that just got Manu touch in-goal before he could score.
Although the play was clearly not a try it took a long inspection before the bunker announced it could not find sufficient evidence of a fingertip touch on the ball from Clint Gutherson to rule a Roosters scrum feed and awarded the 20 metre restart to the home side in the face of protestations from the visitors.
After the game the Roosters said while it would have been nice to get a final crack they couldn't be sure Gutherson touched the ball and conceded they shouldn't have been in that position to start with after coughing up their 18-6 advantage.
"I saw what I saw, we've only got the one screen, that was the decision. They've got better vision than us. We'll see what they say," said Robinson.
Added Friend: "Obviously it would have been nice to get a scrum our way and have a crack at them, we probably would have got two or three plays but that wasn't how it went and it probably shouldn't have come to that so we had our opportunities," he said.