Parramatta’s resurgence has been nipped in the bud as an undermanned Canterbury got their NRL season going with a 20-16 win at ANZ Stadium.
The Bulldogs brushed away concerns they couldn’t fire without a host of key players including suspended superstar Ben Barba, as the Eels bubble burst just one week after their opening round mauling of the Warriors.
A contrasting contest which thrilled with seven first half tries transformed into a second half arm-wrestle which failed to yield a point, Josh Reynolds inspirational for a Bulldogs side that refused to give up.
They were made to fight for their first two points of the year however, with the Eels camping themselves on the Bulldogs line over the closing quarter of the match.
But despite numerous chances, they just couldn’t get across the line, their unfulfilled efforts summed up by Jarryd Hayne’s shocking forward pass to an open Cheyse Blair with 13 minutes to go.
Blair did finish with a double for the losers, including a controversial four-pointer just before halftime which had more than a touch of controversy, with debate over whether Chris Sandow committed a shoulder charge in dislodging the ball from Josh Morris close to his line.
Former referees boss Bill Harrigan, commentating on radio, claimed it was a shoulder charge and should have been a Bulldogs penalty, but the new regime thought otherwise as they left the Eels trailing by just four points at the break.
Eels coach Ricky Stuart’s pre-match assertion that his side would do well to stay within three tries of the Bulldogs looked in danger when Canterbury scored two tries – both on the back of penalties – within the first eight minutes.
Parramatta recovered with two tries of their own in the space of four minutes, Sandow the creator on both occasions via a kick for Matt Ryan and then a long pass for Blair’s first of the night.
The see-saw headed the other way as Reynolds did brilliantly to bamboozle Hayne – who had a disappointing night – in an 80 metre run to the line, but Blair’s second just before the break ensured the Eels stayed in touch.
Stuart didn’t have the look of a beaten coach after the game as he talked up the Eels’ improvement following last year’s wooden spoon.
“I’m happier tonight than I was this time last week after our 40-point win,” Stuart said.
“Seeing some of the stuff tonight, I think the big win last week overshadowed why we got the big win.”
There was even rare praise for the referees in relation to the Sandow non-shoulder charge.
“If that was classified as a shoulder charge, we may as well go and get some of those tags and put them outside our shorts and play Oztag,” Stuart said.
Sandow admitted he wasn’t as confident as he waited to see if the try was awarded.
“I got him with my shoulder but wrapped him up at the same time and the ball came loose,” he said.
“I was kind of shitting myself at that moment.”
In contrast to Stuart, Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said his charges needed plenty of improvement ahead of next week’s grand final rematch with Melbourne.
“It was pretty poor, we just couldn’t do anything with possession and the possession we had we gave away,” Hasler said.
“We certainly gave them plenty of opportunities so from that aspect it was pretty disappointing.”