Sea Eagles v Eels: Five key points
On a tough afternoon at Lottoland, Manly showed considerable steel but terrible ball-handling to largely withstand an endless Parramatta onslaught before falling 20-12.
Norman stunner sets the scene
In his first NRL game since Round 18 last year, Eels maestro Corey Norman produced a miraculous play at a crucial juncture that was the key play of the game.
With his side up 8-6 and having just endured a set of torrid defence from Manly, Norman looked like he was going to be tackled on the last inside his own half. He managed to offload to Manu Ma'u, ran around his back-rower to receive the ball back then launched a hit-and hope kick that spiralled downfield before shooting sideways into touch for one of the finest 40/20 kicks ever seen.
It was a massive momentum swing and it got better moments later when Norman fired a brilliant face-ball – again to Ma'u – who popped a lovely offload for French to score and put his team up 14-6.
A crucial penalty makes things tough for Manly
Around 10 minutes after half-time and with Manly already struggling under a weight of Eels possession, Parramatta received a fortuitous penalty for a second effort tackle on Semi Radradra. There was a suggestion Radradra wasn't held in the original tackle and had played the ball unnecessarily when hit a second time.
The penalty marched the Eels downfield, Manly winger Akuila Uate fumbled their kick and Parramatta then forced drop outs then scored a try via Clint Gutherson to complete a match-clinching passage.
Manly take heart from stout defence
From that Gutherson try there was a further passage of four consecutive drop outs against Manly on the back of a Uate error to complete a horror 13 minute stretch of nine sets where Manly weren't tackled with the ball.
The gas that took out of the tank and the time left on the clock when they finally got the ball back in decent territory meant the match was all but gone.
The flipside of that coin was the immense defensive effort Manly showed in that period, in particular the four-straight drop outs with no points conceded and was the biggest silver lining for coach Trent Barrett after the game.
Bruising battle in the middle
The two new-look forward packs went at it from the get-go – in not dissimilar fashion to the bruising encounter at Lottoland last year (which prompted Eels back-rower Tepai Moeroa to suggest Parramatta would be out for retribution for that "bashing").
It's hard to argue either pack dominated the other in that category even if the Eels won the armwrestle. Fiery Manly prop Marty Taupau launched some stunning hits, while his running battle with fellow Kiwi Suaia Matagi was a sight to behold.
Parramatta's 60 per cent possession helped them to easily win the yardage battle though; props Tim Mannah (173 metres), Matagi (148 metres), Nathan Brown (144 metres) and Daniel Alvaro (138 metres) each ran for more than any Manly player.
Eels combinations off to a bright start
One of the biggest question marks for Parramatta heading into this season was how the new combinations would go, with fullback Bevan French only a handful of games into his NRL career, five-eighth Clint Gutherson starting out in a new position and hooker Kaysa Pritchard having rarely played more than limited minutes off the bench in his four years as an NRL player at Parramatta.
It wasn't a "put your house on the Eels to win the comp" type of performance, but the signs were certainly impressive.
Gutherson and Norman linked up well on both sides of the field, Gutherson kicked well in general play when called upon, Pritchard got through the 80 minutes and provided good service from dummy-half and French showed that not only is he a brilliant support player, he can ball-play as well. Those four will only get better with more time together.