Parramatta coach Brad Arthur has described his team’s 22-20 win at Penrith Stadium as the “proudest” that he has experienced in nearly a decade in the top job at the Eels.
Down on troops and backing up off a devastating loss last weekend against the North Queensland Cowboys, Parra produced a stirring second half showing to win the Battle of the West.
“I said to the players after the game, in nine years now I think it’s the proudest I have been in my time at the club,” said the coach.
“On the back of four six-day turnarounds. These guys (Penrith) are a very good football team that haven’t been beaten out here for a while.
“We’ve only got 19 guys from our full-time squad available, five guys couldn’t train during the week because they’re crook.”
They had come closest in 2021, losing by a point in the regular season and two points in the Finals, and it seemed fitting that they would be the ones to finally beat the Panthers.
Tries from Ryan Matterson and Dylan Brown were enough to turn around a 14-10 deficit and leave the hosts with too much to do late on, with the Eels able to hang on against a late charge.
The Eels did what so few have been able to do: they stayed with Penrith when they had the momentum and then made the most of their opportunities when they arose.
It was hard to pick a single standout for Parramatta. Mitchell Moses kicked for 743m and created the try that eventually got the Eels over the line, while Isaiah Papali’I managed nearly 50 tackles and over 120m with ball in hand. 18 offloads, too, told its own story.
This was a high-quality game, with both sides supremely physical and willing to fight for every inch of grass.
In the end, it was Parra who were best able to withstand in defence, ultimately creating the space for themselves to be successful in attack.
“It was a great effort,” said Arthur. “It’s a bit disappointing that we didn’t compete as hard as that last week.
“We’re not an elite team, but we showed that we can be. Elite teams do that every week. We have showed that when we compete hard and play the style of footy that works for us we can push teams to the 80th minute.
“That game came down the 80th minute and the game against the Storm went past the 80th minute. We have got to make sure we are doing that every week.”
The Panthers were missing their coach, Ivan Cleary, who was watching from a hospital bed with a knee infection, and his second in command, Cameron Ciraldo stuck at home with Covid, leaving Andrew Webster in charge of first team affairs.
Webster revealed that he had only found out that he would be in the hot seat that lunchtime, when hospital staff recommended that Cleary miss the game.
He was philosophical about the defeat.
“The boys are disappointed,” said Webster. “They want to win every game. They also know we’re not going to be perfect all season and forever.”
It would be unfair to criticise the stand-in: Parramatta were superb and got their rewards in the end.
Penrith are rarely seen as toothless in attack, but might look at the amount of field position they generated and wonder if they might not have scored more. Then again, they have rarely faced such committed and capable defence.
There might well be questions about the officiating, but it is hard to say that they decided the result in any way. Penrith fans booed Gerard Sutton from the field, but he had missed a glaring knock on in the run up to the Panthers second try, while a penalty try that went in the Eels favour was, on balance, likely the correct call.
It started so simply for Penrith. As they have done so many times this year, and indeed in the last few years, they accumulated possession, forced set restarts and wore the defence down. When Edwards crashed over in the corner, it looked like nothing special, but was the culmination of several minutes of patient attacking.
Parramatta are made of stern stuff, however, and came straight back. Their try was part improvisation, part fortune: Viliame Kikau was down with what turned out to be an eye injury, and Will Penisini spotted the numbers in his favour.
He almost stuffed up the execution, but found an offload from which Clint Gutherson scored.
The second try was on the other side, but even more opportunistic. Shaun Lane took a poor option down the short side, but had the strength and size to get the ball away. Reed Mahoney caught it and was stopped within an inch after an early contact from Jaeman Salmon.
Gerard Sutton asked the bunker to check whether he would have scored had he not been held, and the video agreed. It was an unusual penalty try, but probably accurate.
The Panthers some good ball and clicked into gear, Cleary feeding Crichton and then the returning Brian To’o, who produced a characteristically low finish. The bunker had another ideas, however, calling the try back for an obstruction.
The Panthers did get their reward. It was a miracle play, with Izack Tago dumping out of a tackle and Kikau slipping a kick through for Taylan May to score in the score.
The Eels were livid after a clear knock on a few plays before, but it was too far in the rear view mirror for the bunker. Ten apiece was fair for half time, though both sides could wonder how they didn’t have more.
The second half began with an almighty arm wrestle, swapping set for set and kick for kick.
Only when Kikau got himself in the way of one of the kicks and regathered the ball did Penrith get field position. It was the Fijian who laid the next try on, too, providing the silky touch that put Taylan May in space.
Parramatta had been battered since half time, but were never downhearted. James Fisher-Harris dropped a ball cold in the centre of the field and invited the Eels in.
Often against Penrith, teams rush their work when they get into good ball. Parramatta could not have been more patient. They forced repeat sets and, when the time came to play footy, Clint Gutherson sent Ryan Matterson through a huge hole to level the scores.
Moses converted to put Parra in front, and then doubled down with a steepling kick that Dylan Edwards missed, Dylan Brown picked up and suddenly, despite being starved of possession and position, the Eels were eight points clear with ten minutes to play.
It wasn’t over yet. Api Koroisau created an angle for Spencer Leniu to burrow in, giving the Panthers two minutes to strike back. Cleary would attempt the two-point field goal, but it was a shocker. The streak was gone.