While the Bulldogs have been the most consistent New South Wales team so far this year, there can be no doubt that Parramatta have been dominant in the Battle of the West that has raged over the last couple of weeks. Fresh off their victory over Canterbury-Bankstown in Round 3, the Eels didn’t allow the Tigers to score a single point when they faced off at ANZ Stadium last Monday night. Although Parra’s attack has been fairly consistent this season, their defence has really come to the fore over the last fortnight – they’ve only given away one try in the last one hundred and sixty minutes of football, and even those four points only occurred in the last four minutes of last weekend’s showdown against the Dogs.
Still, there’s a big difference between conceding four points and conceding no points. As Laurie Daley has pointed out so many times, saving a try is as good as scoring a try, and Parra’s consistency on Monday night was all the more impressive in that second halves have been a bit of a wild card this year, with massive surges and unexpected comebacks turning into the norm. In many ways, that indicates how many teams are struggling for consistency and stability after a massive bout of retirements and player trades, but it also reflects the fact that 2016 is fast turning into a bit of a watershed moment for young guns, players who haven’t quite built the skill or stamina to play for a full eighty minutes. Against that backdrop, Parra’s focus is even more impressive – over a couple of rounds in which giants have fallen and cellar-dwellers have become top eight contenders, the Eels have refined their performance with a clinical, old-school panache.
Their performance at ANZ was all the more incredible in that Tim Mannah was taken off with a shoulder injury, while Junior Paulo and Danny Wicks both suffered concussions, thanks in part to the heavy-duty effort brought by the Eels against an almost equally consistent Tigers side. It was a testament to Parramatta’s dexterity and ingenuity, then, that the team managed to maintain their defence right to the end despite losing some of their biggest men and two of their most important forwards. Throughout the second half, it was a pretty depleted bench for the blue and gold, and yet the team soldiered on regardless, thanks in large part to Semi Radradra’s incredible presence and effort: if he’s phased by the rumours that have emerged around his dissatisfaction with his current contract, he certainly didn’t let on.
The loss was all the more dispiriting for the Tigers in that this was Robbie Farah’s first official appearance in 2016, although it played more as an extended cameo, with Jason Taylor only bringing on the volatile hooker eighteen minutes into the first half and putting him back on the bench eight minutes before the end. While there were speculations as to whether this reflected any kind of ongoing enmity between Farah and Taylor, it seems more realistic to take Taylor at his word and assume that he was resting Robbie before he plunges back in next week, as well saving himself some interchange hassle in the process. At the same time, there was definitely a surprise factor to how Taylor handled Robbie, who hasn’t started on the bench since 2009, which seemed as if it might be designed to disorient and dishevel Parramatta as well, especially since Taylor also made the fairly unusual decision to start with three dummy-halves.
For all that this marked Farah’s return, though,the match was very much the James Tedesco show. While Parra may have won, Tedesco was ultimately the Man of the Match, putting in a performance that more than rivalled his hattrick against the Sea Eagles at Leichhardt Oval a couple of weeks. In this case, however, it wasn’t a trio of tries but a trio of goal tackles that distinguished Teddy’s form, with the cult fullback managing to stop Semi Radradra dead in his tracks in the fourth minute with a move that seemed just as improbable as Semi’s freak offload against the Bulldogs last weekend. That was a key moment in halting Parramatta’s assault – the Eels wouldn’t score a try for another 51 minutes – but it was even more impressive when Teddy managed to halt Michael Jennings in the second half at the try line as well.
As if that wasn’t enough, Tedesco came pretty close to stopping the Eels’ only try of the night as well, with a smart takedown of Junior Paulo that appeared to niggle the ball free, leading to a no try call that was overruled when the video refs determined that Paulo’s finger was still on the Steeden when it went to ground. Nevertheless, Teddy had succeeded in taking down both the Parramatta centres right at the try line, and with a little more luck could have kept the Eels at 2-0. Of course, thinking hypothetically is never useful in League, but without Michael Gordon’s penalty goal in the first half it’s not hard to see how Tedesco could have single-handedly defended the Tigers against the Eels, who took fifty-five minutes to get their first try and conversion, and didn’t manage it again for the rest of the game.
In other words, the Tigers were nearly as consistent as the Eels. Over the last couple of weeks, it’s become clear that one of their problems is conceding lots of points, and while they may not quite have managed to get up at ANZ Stadium, they certainly managed to keep Parramatta down. Like the blue and gold, they gave us a masterclass in what defensive football is all about, with Tedesco demonstrating yet another skill set that should qualify him for Origin, as well as a form of defence that hasn’t really been seen at the Tigers for a couple of years. Deep down, I desperately want to believe that the Tigers are the new Storm, and that Teddy, Brooks and Moses have a chance of rivalling Smith, Slater and Cronk – and seeing this kind of innovation made that fantasy seem just that little more more achievable.
At the very least, Tedesco surely has to be in contention for the Blues by this point. Shutting down two Eels tries that seemed like certainties and single-handedly bracing himself against the Radradra-Jennings machine, he took his game to a new level, and really made it feel as if ANZ was a Wests home ground. While both Brett Stewart and Shaun Johnson seemed to own their respective victories in Round 4, no single player has defended their team over the course of the season as emphatically as Teddy. If Parra have proved that consistency and stability is partly about not conceding points, then Tedesco outshone any single Eels player on the field, even if the Tigers as a whole weren’t operating with the same slickness and focus as Parramatta.
Of course, that’s not to underestimate Parra’s very serious achievement at this point in the game. At only 39 conceded points the Eels have the best defensive record so far this year, followed by Cronulla-Sutherland at 50. While the Dogs may still feel a little more dominant in New South Wales Rugby League, the Eels have set the standard for defensive play, and it’s a little unnerving to think of what they might achieve once Mannah, Paulo and Wicks are back on board. In a series of rounds marked by anniversaries, this was a particularly apposite way, then, for Kieran Foran to play his 150th game. Sure, he wasn’t instrumental in the Parra fireworks – he put in a modest, if solid performance – but that wouldn’t have quite felt right either, given he’s only played with the Eels for last couple of rounds. Instead, it felt like the team were wishing Foran a happy 150th game by showing them what they could do, and inviting him to be a part of it, and here’s hoping he takes up the invitation when they square off against the Panthers this Sunday.