At one stage the Eels looked like running away with an easy win but a struggling Panthers outfit managed to at least give them some late heart flutters, coming back to within six points in an 18-12 loss at ANZ Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Rusty return for Cartwright
Panthers utility Bryce Cartwright's long-awaited return from an ankle injury came at a good time with rookie five-eighth Te Maire Martin given a week off to manage a bulging disc in his neck.
The timing was better than the output though, sadly for Penrith, with the 2016 NSW Origin extended squad member coming up with several costly plays. A double whammy in the early minutes – letting the opening kick off roll dead to concede a dropout then failing to ground a kick to hand the Eels an easy six points before Penrith had even touched the ball – set the Panthers off on the wrong foot.
A hospital pass he threw to Isaah Yeo fluffed an attacking opportunity later in the half while a forward pass and dropped offload in the second half stalled a possible Panthers comeback. In between there were some brighter moments and more effective offloads but his coach Anthony Griffin was just happy to finally have his star playmaker back on the field.
"It was good to get Bryce out there for 80 minutes, he hasn't played much this year," Griffin said.
"He played Round 1 and 10 minutes of Round 2 so he hasn't played much footy in seven weeks. He's obviously a bit rusty as you saw today but it was good to get 80 minutes into him."
Griffin said he knew mid-week that Martin was unlikely to play.
"[Martin] has got a little bulge in his neck that had to get injected during the week so we thought we'd rest him and bring Bryce in," Griffin said.
Eels dominate the middle in the first half
The Eels outran Penrith by a whopping 300 metres (879m-575m) in the first half. Skipper Tim Mannah (92 first-half metres) made more yardage than Penrith's three starting middle forwards combined (James Tamou, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Trent Merrin 77 metres total in the first half).
By the end of the match five Eels forwards had crossed the 100-metre mark compared wwith just two for Penrith.
Asked about the early dominance of his forwards, Eels coach Brad Arthur said the players had made a conscious effort to return to the gritty style that worked so well in trying circumstances in 2016.
"The boys challenged themselves today to really aim up and get back to the way that we played a lot last year," Arthur said. "We probably haven't been like that this year."
For his part, Griffin was happy with the output of his senior middle men.
"Obviously we had no ball in the middle early in the game and that gassed them a bit," Griffin said.
"I thought our middles, particularly when it got to 18-0 got us back in the game, rolled their sleeves up and earned the right for us to get back in the game, particularly defensively."
Eels playmaker stocks get tapped
The Eels started the season with something of a makeshift five-eighth in Clint Gutherson. A recent knee injury to Bevan French forced Gutherson to his more familiar fullback role with centre and part-time playmaker Brad Takairangi moving in to partner halfback Corey Norman.
A suspected PCL injury to Takairangi ended his involvement on Saturday at half-time and if the injury is confirmed would mean roughly a six-week spell on the sidelines.
With French still a few weeks away the options are fringe first-graders Will Smith, Jamal Fogarty and Troy Dargan or to stick with Saturday's on-the-run solution of ball-playing forward Kenny Edwards being used at five-eighth.
Takairangi's absence was likely a contributing factor to the Eels' sluggish second half but Arthur wasn't overly worried about what that solution would be next week – even though he wasn't sure what it was yet.
"It didn't help [losing Takairangi] but we've got enough blokes there that know what their roles are to get it right," Arthur said.
"I really don't know [who will play there next week]. I'll have to worry about it tomorrow."
Slow starts cruel Penrith
Griffin was left ruing a slow start to each half with an early Eels try in each stanza proving pivotal in a tight, low-scoring contest.
Aside from the early Cartwright error in the opening half the Eels also scored a razzle-dazzle try early in the second half, burning through some lacklustre Penrith defence.
"The way we started both halves probably put us up against it," Griffin said.
"The six points at the start of both halves was just enough to keep us away from being comfortable and being able to relax with our game but credit to them they hung in really well.
"When you're playing really tough teams every week in the NRL you can't afford to be giving away six or 12 soft points. That try at the start of the game and the one straight after half time killed us. If it was six or eight nil at half time we go on and win the game I think."
A fine line between madness and genius
Eels fullback Clint Gutherson produced a breathtaking piece of play in the 23rd minute that on the face of it looked like a brain explosion, almost gifted Penrith a try but instead helped Parramatta perform a Houdini-like escape from their own in-goal which was immediately followed by a penalty in what proved to be a monumental momentum swing to his team.
When a trademark Nathan Cleary sky-scraping bomb was allowed to bounce, it shot off its point towards the Parramatta in-goal forcing Gutherson to field the ball. Confronted with a wall of defenders, he opted for a Hail Mary pass over to winger Josh Hoffman, which seemed a low-percentage play at the time and looked a lot worse when the ball slipped forward from his fingers.
But he reflexively popped his foot towards the ball and managed to toe it to Hoffman who caught it on the full and remarkably escaped the in-goal, drawing a penalty in the process.
With the Eels up just 8-0 at the time is was a massive play in the game, helping the Eels start a set on halfway when they could have been kicking a drop-out.