Eels v Broncos: Five key points
One of the most thrilling club games of the year saw the Eels hit back from an early 12-0 deficit to stun the high-flying Broncos 28-14 in a match that had the teams no more than two points apart for three quarters of the contest.
Brisbane's fast start stuns fast-starting Eels…
Usually it's the blue-and-golds racing out of the blocks but on Friday night it was the Broncos who exploded at the start of the game to rock the Eels early.
Over the Eels' four straight wins leading into Friday they had scored in the opening three minutes against the Tigers and Dragons and opening five minutes against the Storm. It took them 23 minutes against Canterbury though they were still first to score in that one too.
Eels coach Brad Arthur, while delighted with the performance, was unhappy with the Eels' attitude as Brisbane raced in two tries in the first seven minutes on Friday.
"Those first five minutes we were blown off the park and I just thought we were a touch negative with our approach early," Arthur said.
"I'm not sure if we were positive and confident enough that first five minutes."
…But Eels strong finish dents Brisbane
While there is no question Parramatta finished the game off far better than Brisbane, Broncos coach Wayne Bennett was most unhappy with his own troops' performance in a final five minutes that saw them concede twice having not been behind by more than two points at any stage of the game before that.
A high shot penalty against Benji Marshall on Semi Radradra to let the Eels off the hook in the 65th minute was arguably what initiated the late fade, according to Bennett, who was also unhappy with a 74th-minute play in which Eel Manu Ma'u offloaded straight to Brisbane only for a poor rushed pass from Adam Blair to Marshall result in a knock on and possession back to the Eels.
"We were losing our way," Bennett said of the closing stages of the game.
"The penalty we gave away when we had them up inside their 10 metre zone up there was pretty costly for us I think. We dropped their heads a bit further by that stage and then they turned the ball over, [Blair] threw the pass and [Marshall] knocked it on so it was a scrum.
"Compounding things that when you run out of time you realise every one of those you've cost yourself another opportunity. In the end they got dispirited."
Injury concerns for McCullough
For all the excitement of the game and the undoubted quality provided by both teams who now each look like they could well make a dent in the 2017 finals series, the pall cast over the loss for Brisbane comes in the shape of their tireless No.9 Andrew McCullough – specifically the image of him being carried from the field with 10 minutes to play.
McCullough's knee folded awkwardly under some friendly fire from Adam Blair, who was coming across to try and stop Michael Jennings chasing a grubber ahead for a possible try. The tackle stopped Jennings off the ball and conceded a crucial penalty goal but the far more painful blow for Brisbane will be a nervous wait on McCullough's scans.
The early prognosis from Bennett was bad, but not worst-case-scenario.
"They think it's a medial [ligament], we're just not sure yet," Bennett said after the game.
"It will be a five or six week injury if it's a medial. He does 50 tackles, we'll have to find someone who'll do at least half that many for us. He's a big player in our team but we've got a couple of options."
It appears likely some combination of Kodi Nikorima, Benji Marshall and Travis Waddell would job share the role in McCullough's absence.
Any injury concerns for the Eels were alleviated after the game; Mitch Moses was limping at times through the game though Arthur said he has been carrying a few bumps. A friendly fire collision between Brad Takairangi's knee and Nathan Brown's face as the former jumped for a short Brisbane kick off late in the game looked nasty but Takairangi played on after looking to twist his knee and while Brown went off for a head injury assessment he suffered no structural damage and seemed fine after the game.
Nervous waits all round at judiciary
As many as three players across both teams will be keeping a nervous eye on the charge sheet from the match review committee when it lands at some stage on Saturday.
Broncos forward Adam Blair nailed Mitch Moses with a shot that had more than a hint of shoulder charge about it as the Eels half grubbered for a try in the 14th minute.
Then there was a double infringement from the Eels around three minutes before half time as Nathan Brown caught Brisbane winger Jonus Pearson with a high shot before his teammate Kenny Edwards drove into the winger on the turf with Edwards' shoulder appearing to collect Pearson high.
The ensuing fracas finished with a Brisbane penalty (that got them in range for a penalty goal shortly after) plus Brown on report, though with Pearson slipping as he got to Brown it appears Edwards may be more likely to have a case to answer.
Injury leads to opportunity as Auva'a takes chance
Former Souths premiership-winning centre Kirisome Auva'a first NRL game since injuring his knee in Round 13 against the Warriors was a memorable one. Last week's injury to Clint Gutherson meant Bevan French was required at fullback, opening the way for Auva'a's return to the top grade.
In nearly 50 NRL appearance, Auva'a has only started on the wing once before Friday night (in 2015 for Souths) but he looked at home in his two-try stunner.
It was made even more impressive by the fact Auva'a has only played 80 minutes of football in two months – for Wentworthville Magpies last week.
His 17th minute finish was a "gimme" thanks to a sublime cut-out pass from Mitch Moses but his match-winning 75th-minute effort in which he flirted with the touchline as he tiptoed his way down for the clincher was a genuine winger's effort.
"He's a bit short of a run, he was blowing there for a period and he hasn't played much wing and I thought he did a really good job," Arthur said.
Auva'a himself admitted he was blowing early on in his NRL recall.
"I'm very tired at the minute. The lungs got a work out in the first half," Auva'a said after the game.
"I had a knee injury towards the last minutes of the Warriors game. I played last week in reserve grade and got my shot today. [Gutherson's injury is] unfortunate but it's a next-man-up mantra type of thing."