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Interchange controversy sours defensive performances for the ages: Talking points from the NRL semi

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18th September, 2021
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Parramatta gave it everything they had but it just wasn’t enough, the Eels going down to the Penrith Panthers 8-6 in a heart-stopper in Mackay.

It means next Saturday afternoon we’ll see a replay of the 2020 grand final with the Melbourne Storm – who would have relished watching the energy-sapping physicality of this game – to take on Penrith at Suncorp Stadium.

But before looking ahead to next week, this game needs pulling apart, because this bruising affair should make all fans of rugby league in Sydney’s golden west proud.

It was a local derby for the ages – even if it was played 1600 kilometres north of western Sydney!

Tries don’t make the match
Just in case you missed it in the opening paragraph, the score was 8-6, making this the lowest-scoring final since the Roosters’ 4-0 win over Manly in 2013.

The game was ultimately decided by a Nathan Cleary penalty goal right on the stroke of halftime.

We saw precisely zero points scored in the second stanza.

As for the two tries, Waqa Blake crossed for the opener in the tenth minute, with Kurt Capewell returning serve in the 16th, so the final hour and four minutes – more than three-quarters of the game – had no tries.

And it was absolutely thrilling.

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The great myth that the ARLC have propagated over the past few years, based on the rules they’ve been forcing down our throats, is that high-scoring games are what the punters pay to see.

Look, we all love to see spectacular tries, they’re great fun. But high-scoring games are usually a result of at least one team playing poorly.

But this was a fantastic game because of quality defence, played by two sides who respected the ball, as evidenced by the completion rates of 86 per cent to 84 in favour of the winning side.

And while it was defined by very large, very hard men smashing into each other with wild abandon, the backs played their roles as well, with Stephen Crichton – as just one example – coming up with some huge plays to see his side to victory.

Dylan Edwards of the Panthers is tackled

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Defence wins games, but so does discipline
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how a game so closely fought was won, but the 7-2 penalty count in the Panthers’ favour absolutely played its part.

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Now, I want to be clear about this: people who blame penalty counts for losses generally are arse-backwards (except when my team loses, then it’s because the refs gave penalties away in acts of pure spite designed to ruin my weekend).

When a penalty count is heavily lopsided, it’s not that the penalties decided the game, it’s that the team who kept giving them away weren’t disciplined enough to earn the win.

Yet in his post-match presser, Brad Arthur was keen to bring the penalties up, saying, “It was 7-2 penalty count, the Bunker gets involved, for what reasons?”

Arthur proceeded to highlight two specific moments for which he thought his side should have got penalties. A stretch though both his examples were, that still only makes it 7-4, Brad.

While the Eels weren’t overtly ill-disciplined, their aggression went just a touch too far on too many occasions, in particular seeing their tackles go into territories that have simply seen the ref blow his whistle all year long – Marata Niukore alone was put on report twice.

When the whole thing is just two points apart for the final 40 minutes, the easy metres given away on kicks-for-touch and in back-to-back sets start to stack up.

So you have to wonder whether there would have been a different outcome if Parra could have kept their aggression that little bit more in check.

Controversy with the interchange?
At the 76th minute – with the game in the balance, just in case it needs clearing up – Mitch Kenny went down with an ankle injury.

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The trainer ran on to the field and called for the ref to halt the game. It was a critical moment, the Eels in the ascendency and just 20 metres off the Panthers’ line, but since Kenny was taken from the field, it was the correct call from all parties.

I’m not saying I like it, but since Kenny was removed from the play, the trainer was within his rights to do what he did and referee Ashley Klein responded according to the rules.

Where there was potential for controversy was seeing Tevita Pangai Junior on the sidelines, ready to replace Kenny, holding in his hand the ‘free interchange’ card.

Free interchange? Um… why? Kenny had been injured in an accident – and, again, it was an injury to his ankle, which is pretty tough to call illegal.

Nine’s play-by-play caller Matt Thompson called it out, saying he believed that the Panthers had used all eight of their interchanges and it was obviously not a free interchange.

If that was correct, the result may not be considered legitimate. Like, if Penrith gamed the system to get a free interchange when they had none left, would the NRL strip them of the win? Could they?

However, after the game, Nine reporter Emma Lawrence assured viewers it was just a case of mistaken card and the Panthers still had an interchange to use.

I double checked, going through the interchanges on NRL.com’s match centre.

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It, ah, it makes things more confusing.

Apparently TPJ’s interchange at that moment was regarded as free, but they still had one up their sleeve because Pangai was then traded out for Scott Sorensen two minutes later, in what was regarded as their eighth interchange.

So which was interchange eight? When Pangai came on for Kenny – for an incident that was obviously not ‘free’ – or when he then went off for Sorensen? Don’t those two then make it one too many?

Of course, in the square-up column, Isaiah Papali’i came on for Shaun Lane at 71:39 in what was called Parra’s interchange #9.

Expect this to be brought up at Graham Annesley’s Monday press conference.

The coaching hot seat
Whichever way this game played out, one coach was going to be under pressure.

On the one hand, you’ve got Ivan Cleary, who was bested at the media game by Wayne Bennett last week, leading to Phil Rothfield to highlight the fact Cleary is now the second-most experienced coach of all time to have never won a grand final, behind only Brian Smith (of course, astute, attractive readers will recall a certain Roar piece that brought said piece of information to light in January this year).

Bryce Cartwright of the Eels looks dejected after defeat as the Panthers celebrate victory.

Bryce Cartwright of the Eels looks dejected after defeat as the Panthers celebrate victory. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

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On the other, you’ve got Brad Arthur, whose best result in eight years at the helm of Parramatta is getting bounced out of the finals in the second week, with this being the fourth time in five years he’s achieved such a result – and the only ‘reprieve’ he’s had in that half decade came about because his boys were wooden spooners in 2018.

Well, we know whose bum is a bit warmer today.

Arthur was in serious strife a little over a month ago after his side went down to Manly 56-10, which was their fourth loss in a row.

A 22-10 win over Melbourne a fortnight later gave him a little breathing room, which was stretched further after last week’s elimination-final victory over the Knights.

But that was only his second finals win in his tenure at Parra, which will remain the case for at least another year.

And that’s assuming he keeps his gig.

I’m not death-riding the bloke, but evidence is mounting that Arthur has reached his ceiling with this talented roster.

As for who’s the better option to take over? Oh I spent a large portion of this week putting together a sexy spreadsheet ready to address that whole kerfuffle.

Stay tuned!

Ashley Klein and that finger
Look, it’s not a thing. But…

After Ashley Klein sent Joey Manu away from Latrell Mitchell in the Roosters vs Rabbitohs game late last month, the veteran ref became something of a meme for his finger waving at the incensed Chook with the fractured face.

Referee Ashley Klein speaks with Joseph Manu of the Roosters after receiving a high tackle from Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Now? I can’t stop seeing it.

Ashley Klein dishes out a lecture.

Referee Ashley Klein speaks to Tevita Pangai Junior of the Panthers as Will Smith and Isaiah Papali’i of the Eels watch on. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

It’s Klein’s go-to move when having a terse exchange with a player on the field. Any player.

“Ah-ah-ah-ah,” he appears to be saying, “that’s not how we speak to Mr Klein, even if we are cranky!”

And he’s a ref, so he has a lot of these exchanges.

It looks like he’s taken it straight from the Carla Espinosa school of giving attitude.

Seriously, try not to see it when he’s next overseeing a match.

Betcha can’t!

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