Parramatta have all but ended Manly’s season after a 36-20 thriller at 4 Pines Park that saw the lead shift several times, with both sides leading by more than a converted try, before the Eels blew it out late.
After tonight’s defeat, it is hard to plot a path to the post-season for Manly: they are two wins and plenty of points differential back on the 8th place Sydney Roosters with games fast running out. Parra, on the other hand, are back in touching distance of the top four.
It was a redemption story for Jake Arthur: the young halfback was booed by his own supporters when his name was read out before their clash with the Broncos two weeks ago and was the target of some nasty social media abuse.
Given the starting 7 jumper after Mitchell Moses broke a finger, Arthur grew into the game and proved pivotal in the second half, laying on two crucial tries – one a contender for finish of the year, with Waqa Blake, in game 150, the scorer.
“He’s a young bloke learning his trade,” said father and coach Brad Arthur.
“He’s fortunate that he’s in a good team: he’s behind two very good halves so he understands what his role is and he’s done his job. I’m very grateful to the rest of the squad that they made it possible for him to do his job.
“Regardless of what happened tonight, I know his character and I knew he’d handle it. I’m proud of him regardless – he’s my son – but it’s his character.
“He doesn’t let things bother him. He just moves on from it. I thought his halves partner did a really good job, which allowed him a bit of freedom and more time to get into the game.”
Without Moses, Parra needed their leaders to stand up. Gutherson and Dylan Brown did exactly that, with the fullback laying on three tries and scoring a spectacular one of his own that gave Parramatta a lead that they would not relinquish.
“I thought Dylan did a really good job,” added Arthur. “I said to him tonight that it’s the best that he’s stepped up without Mitchell (Moses) there, as the senior playmaker. He let Jake work himself into the game without too much pressure.
“It’s what we expect from Gutho and he does it every week. He brings our energy and competes on every play. He was very good.”
Manly welcomed back their seven refuseniks from last week and got tries out of three of them, with Tolutau Koula, Christian Tuipulotu and Jason Saab all crossing. Saab was Manly’s best player on the night, with four line breaks and several key defensive plays, and did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Des Hasler admitted that his side would need to win out from here to stand a chance of making the eight, a task that got all the more difficult after five-eighth Kieran Foran limped out late on with a hamstring strain. He will certainly miss next week’s trip to the Gold Coast.
“We’ve got to win the next four from four,” he said. “We’re realistic but it gives us a chance. I haven’t done the maths but anything less is not going to work.
“We’ve got the players to do it. We just have to find a way and win. We were in a position to win tonight. Parra played well, but we were in a position to win it and didn’t. We can’t afford to do that.”
The first half was a tale of two halves. From minute one through minute 20, it was all Parra: they had 65% of the ball and scored twice through Maika Sivo.
The first was a simple left shift that Tuipulotu totally misread, enabling an easy stroll to the line for the Fijian winger. The second was crafted by Brown and Gutherson, who overloaded the short side to get their man in again.
The Eels are often unable to keep up intensity over a half, and lost the run of themselves completely. Jason Saab was at the heart of the resurrection: he made four line breaks in 15 minutes, the first of which got the Sea Eagles into the field position from which Daly Cherry-Evans kicked for Koula to score.
Then followed one of the most bizarre passages of the year. Manly kicked, with Gutherson nowhere near the bounce. Cherry-Evans took it and was held, but got the ball out – only for Saab and Harper to have run straight past the play.
Andrew Davey picked up, kicked a second time and Sivo, behind his own posts, knocked on direct to Dylan Brown in the field of play. After it all, Brown was offside and Reuben Garrick took the easiest of two points to level the scores.
Saab would get one of his own, spinning through Waqa Blake and touching down, before Parra bounced back with Shaun Lane offloading for Gutherson, who found Tom Opacic to level the scores.
The second half started at the same breakneck speed. Tuipulotu crashed over Gutherson to put Manly back in front, before the bunker controversy involving Harper and Penisini. The points did come eventually, but only two as Garrick took advantage of an escort call in the shadow of the posts.
Just as Manly had opened up their biggest lead of the night, they were immediately pegged back. Parra did it in style.
Arthur through a looping pass – high enough to easily clear Saab at full stretch – that Blake caught above his head and grounded at the corner with his entire body out of the field and a millimetre of grass between the ball and the chalk.
The Eels then thought they had the lead, with Ryan Matterson going over, but the bunker pulled him back for the most marginal of knock-ons.
It didn’t matter, because Parra turned on the style again – Lane to Gutherson, one of the most productive combinations in the NRL, with the fullback showing Garrick a clean set of heels to run it in from halfway.
Arthur then sealed the deal with a smart dab for Penisini to score. With ten to go and a ten point lead, that would be enough, though Brown added another one from distance through tired tackling to seal the deal.