Round 5: Parramatta Eels v. Penrith Panthers (Pirtek Stadium, 03/04/16)

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Having smashed both the Bulldogs and the Tigers in the last two weeks, Parramatta were set to win the Western Derby by a landslide until a try by Josh Mansour in the 76th minute and another from Bryce Cartwright in the 80th minute sent the blue and gold away from Pirtek Stadium with an 18-20 loss. Of all the Western teams, it seemed as if the Panthers might put up the least resistance, but with the return of Matt Moylan after nearly twelve months Penrith seem to have discovered a new sense of purpose. From their opening match against Canberra, to Kerrod Holland’s conversion at Pepper Stadium, to Josh Dugan’s try at WIN Stadium, the Panthers have had their fair share of last-minute heartbreaks in 2016, so it was amazing to see them reverse expectations and put in one of the most dominant finales seen so far this year.

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That said, this was a bit of a messy game points wise, with both kickers failing to consistently bring home conversions. For the Eels, Michael Gordon only got 2/3 through the posts, while Jamie Soward only managed 2/4, neither of which were attached to the last two tries. When Soward failed to convert Mansour’s four-pointer, it felt as if Penrith were gone for good, but the NRL’s favourite antihero soon made up for it with a beautiful cross-field bomb to Waqa Blake, who flipped it over to Bryce Cartwright with a couple of seconds left on the clock. While Soward failed to convert that try as well, he nevertheless played an important role in glueing the final four-pointers together. For the first time in his career, he feels like a veteran, and there hasn’t really been a single Penrith game this season in which he has failed to contribute in some powerful manner.

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The Penrith victory was all the more unexpected in that Parra had one of the compressed surges that has defined their growing dominance this season, with Michael Gordon kicking a penalty in the 65th minute, Isaac de Gois scoring in the 66th, and then Gordon converting once again the 67th. When a team racks up eight points in three minutes things often seem set in stone, especially that late in the game, and Gordon was probably the Man of the Match overall, galvanised into one o his best performances this season while squaring off against his former club. Helping him out was Junior Paulo, who showed a bit of quick thinking when he smashed through at close range to put down the Eels’ first four at the twenty-three-minute mark, although Kieran Foran also deserves credit for a beautiful try assist. Having scored the Eels’ opening try for the second week in a row, Paulo is proving himself to be a great opener, and seems to have a great way of rousing and rallying the team around him.

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On the Penrith side, Josh Mansour was a bit of a champion all round, running 203 metres – compared to Michael Jennings’ 136 – and putting in what was probably the most impressive try of the game, as well as the critical turning-point for Penrith, even though it occurred so late in the play. Given Mansour’s proximity to Dugan’s last-minute try in Wollongong weekend – you could see the agony on his face – there was something cathartic about seeing him come good on Sunday afternoon, as well as something a bit vindicating for those of us who reckon that Mansour is one of the most underrated wingers out there at the moment. Matt Moylan also has to get credit for helping set up Mansour’s big moment, and it was great to see his elegance and dexterity back on the field after such a long time: if there was any doubt about whether he’d settle back into the captaincy seamlessly, his work with Mansour more than dispelled it.

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Nevertheless, the game wasn’t without its controversies, since it was only a contentious bunker call that allocated Penrith the scrum needed for them to build their last couple of minutes of brilliance. While there seems to be some resignation now that the bunker can be inconsistent and unreliable, it feels as if players haven’t quite got used to how counter-intuitive, remote and inscrutable its call can appear. At least when you’ve got a ref on the field you can ask questions or blow some bluster his way, but the remoteness of the bunker creates a different kind of confusion and disorientation, something that was especially evident as Parra tried – and failed – to regroup satisfactorily in the final five minutes.

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More generally, Parra are in a bit of a weird place, having only won three of their games so far this year but having also racked up the 10th best defensive start to a season since 2001, with only 59 points conceded over the last five weeks. With what may be the game’s second best stable of big men after the Bulldogs (and possibly the Warriors), they’ve got a lot of potential, and it’s pretty crazy to think that if those last ten minutes had gone a different way – or the bunker had made a different call – they might now be sitting up there with the Broncos and the Storm. Although the NRL season is long enough to accommodate multiple peaks and troughs, it definitely feels as if the Eels are at a critical make-or-break moment. If they get stronger with possession – they only got their hands on two of the last nine sets – they’ll be a force to be reckoned with, and it’s going to be great to see whether they’ll follow in the Bulldogs’ steps with a victory over Canberra when they return to Pirtek this weekend.

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