With a win against the premiers and one of the hottest teams of Rounds 1 and 2 under their belt, the Eels have now reached a critical moment in their early season surge. Playing the Tigers next week, they need to decide whether this is going to be an anomaly or the beginning of a new era for Parramatta, just as the Bulldogs need to regroup and reconsider their strategy after a fairly brutal 18-6 loss to the Eels at ANZ on Friday night. To some extent, the traditional rivalry between Canterbury-Bankstown and Parramatta goes some way to explaining the particular intensity of this showdown, but there’s also something about ANZ that tends to make those kinds of rivalries feel less visceral and plosive as well. Watching the Eels take on the Cowboys at Pirtek last weekend felt like more of a local barny that anything happening in the empty, cavernous, soulless grounds of ANZ Stadium on Friday – a timely reminder of what’s at stake if the NRL goes ahead with their plan of holding three-quarters of all matches at large scale venues.
As a Dogs fan, I may be simply trying to find excuses, but I do think that there is something about these kinds of massive venues that also makes them peculiarly unsuited for home games as well, at least for underdogs like the Dogs. For a high-profile, high-prestige, high-money outfit like the Roosters, Allianz doesn’t feel like such an unlikely match, especially since it often feels as if the Chooks are battling with the Tahs for supremacy as the Sydney City corporate football team of choice. For the Dogs, however, ANZ is another matter entirely, not least because this is the most anonymous and decontextualised stadium in the competition, miles away from anything resembling a commercial precinct or football community. No matter how great the game, you always feel as if you’re stepping out into a business park, while the Stadium only ever really feels full during Origin or Finals season, and even then feels pretty cavernous. For a team whose home ground was once Belmore Oval, that’s a big comedown, and I don’t think it’s really fair that the Eels get to bask in the local spirit I saw on display last weekend at Pirtek while the Dogs have to suffer this bland, empty wasteland.
Nevertheless, you can’t entirely blame the venue, since by all accounts the Dogs put in a fairly scrappy performance on Friday night. Seeming slightly off-kilter from the very outset, they played like a desperate team, with Aiden Tolman’s future a little uncertain over the next couple of weeks after a high hit onTepai Moeroa in the first half. Adding to the Dogs’ distress was the first genuine bunker controversy of the season, with the ref calling a try from Sam Perrett in the 57th minute that was disqualified by the video refs. Not only was that disappointing, but there was a certain procedural confusion – or even inconsistency – in the fact that the point of contention was a forward pass, not normally the domain of video refs, with the result that the decision was pretty hard to swallow, even if it seemed like the right one. It was an odd moment for the bunker, which has repeatedly been marketed as a cosy, intimate, almost domestic space, but on Friday night felt light years away from the field, as anonymous and disinterested as ANZ itself. Given how obsessively the bunker has been marketed – when I went to the Souths-Roosters game in Round 1, it was used for every decision, no matter how obvious – you’d think that they’d aim for a bit more procedural consistency than we saw on Friday night.
As Des Hasler pointed out, the bunker decision was certainly a “momentum killer,” since at this point the Eels were only ahead by eight points and the Dogs were yet to score. As it turned out, Canterbury-Bankstown wouldn’t manage to break the Parra line until the 78th minute, when a last-dash try from Will Hopoate was converted by Moses Mbye with his usual grace under pressure. By that point, of course, it was too late, although a reminder to the Eels that they need to tighten up their game in the later stages of the second half to avoid these kinds of consolation tries. Given that the Tigers are facing a similar quandary at the moment – how to avoid giving away unnecessary points while maintaining a lead, something painfully clear in their showdown against the Titans last night – it’ll be interesting to see how these two teams fair at ANZ Stadium next weekend, as well as the lessons that they learn from each other.
Of course, even a seasoned Dogs fan couldn’t deny that Parra won on Friday night on the back of an absolutely extraordinary performance from Semi Radradra, who put down two tries and was effectively responsible for the third by way of one of the most freakish try assists I have ever seen, without which Michael Jennings simply wouldn’t have stood a chance of scoring his first points for the blue and gold. In the process, Radradra scored his 50th try for the Eels, in only his 52nd game – an extraordinary statistic – in what has to be his best performance to date, and the first time it really feels as if he’s managed to fully channel the intensity of the Eels’ Nines performance this season. Given that his try assist came off a perfectly placed bomb from Kieran Foran, there was a sense that Parra’s three big assets were all synergising in perfect harmony, a nice prospect for a moment in Rugby League when big buys and hyped-up trades have a tendency to be underwhelming, especially when players change clubs as unexpectedly and incongruously as Foran and Jennings.
Although Foran was great, however, it was the Jennings-Radradra combo that should prove most comforting to Parra fans. While we already knew that Foran was great, and tough enough to be adaptable to any situation, it was questionable whether Jennings would work at Parra – not just because he’s a fish out of water, or because he has always disliked Parra, or because he reputedly has discipline problems, but because he has a tendency to hog the ball, begging the question of how well he would work like a player who needs as much Steeden as Semi. Last night seemed to put a lot of those concerns to rest, however, with the Jennings-Radradra machine more or less owning the left side of the field, in a performance that would have had Origin potential written all over it if only Semi had been a contender.
At the same time, what made Jennings, Radradra and Foran so remarkable was that their star power was clearly contained by a team-wide momentum and effort, something they seem to have taken away from their clash last weekend against the Cowboys, the NRL team par excellence. With a 14-3 lead in offloads by halftime, it was clear Parra were synergising as a unit, thanks in part to a flawless kicking game from Michael Gordon – including a perfectly placed penalty goal – but also to Beau Scott’s toughness and courage on the field. Downed with a shoulder injury in the 26nd minute, he stayed on for nearly another half hour, only hobbling off in the 52nd minute after a collision with David Klemmer that made the Dogs’ self-styled hard man feel like a novice. In his commitment to working around the interchange, Scott was ultimately the star of the show for the Eels – a great emblem for a team that need both courage and consistency to remain contenders at this early stage, and showed both in droves on Friday night.