After such a decisive victory against the Bulldogs at Belmore last Monday night, you’d think that the Raiders would have gathered a bit of momentum, but Saturday’s match against the Eels was a reminder that the Green Machine are still one of the most inconsistent teams in the competition. After such an incredible performance from Jarrod Croker the week before – possibly the most solid display of captaincy this season – the Raiders were in a bit of a sorry state at Pirtek, only coming up with a single try and conversion in answer to the Eels’ 36 points. While it wasn’t exactly a turnaround for the blue and gold – they’ve had a couple of really good weeks, even with their loss against the Panthers – it did feel a bit like Josh Mansour and Bryce Cartwright’s final fifteen-minute dash hadn’t really happened.
In a season that’s been marred by messy games and rampant penalties, the Eels once again distinguished themselves with a neat, tight, efficient performance, continuing their amazing defensive record to only let in one try, keeping Canberra scoreless for the first sixty-three minutes of the game. While Parra haven’t been so strong on the attack – they’ve only scored 70 points in 5 games – you wouldn’t know it from Saturday’s effort, which was not only their largest win margin of the season so far but the greatest number of points that they have scored in any single game. With two tries from Michael Jennings in the first fifteen minutes alone, and subsequent tries from Kieran Foran (26 min), Beau Scott (31 min), Kenny Edwards (57 min) and Brad Takairangi (75 min), it felt like the Eels were glimpsing the consummate teamship that distinguishes the Cowboys, with no player – not even Jennings – stealing the spotlight from the squad as a whole.
That teamship may be what brings Parra to the finals this year, since despite a variety of big buys and dramatic transitions – Foran, Jenning, Watmough – the Eels have already gelled into a single unit, thanks in part to the variety of hot shots – Peats, Norman, Radrada – who have come into their own at Pirtek rather than being blooded and poached from elsewhere. If the Eels do have a Cowboys-like disdain for celebrity, then Michael Gordon is their Johnathan Thurston. While he’s obviously not in J.T.’s class – nobody is – he’s got an assurance with the boot that manages to ground and focus the whole team without ever feeling showy or flashy, and if there was any common thread between Parra’s six tries on Saturday night it was Gordo’s six conversions, each of which managed to give the team just that little bit more confidence and assurance on the field.
Sure, this may have been the first game in a couple of weeks in which Gordon failed to score a try or a penalty goal – but, then again, his kicking game was so on point that he didn’t really need to go that extra distance. It was clear, too that Gordo’s consistency irked the Raiders, especially since Jarrod Croker’s equally consistent kicking game had no outlet or opportunity to shine over the course of the match, with the exception of his final conversion of Blake Austin’s solitary try. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Shaun Fensom would have attempted such a foolish lifting-tackle on Gordon in the second half had the Parra kicker not managed to outshine Croker so consistently, turning the game into a real lesson on how consummate calmness – Thurston-like calmness – can unsettle the opposing team more than any amount of niggle or grubbiness.
More than calmness, though, it was Parramatta’s consistency that undermined the Raiders. In a footy season that’s been marked by such dramatic differences between first and second halves, it was a real tribute to Brad Arthur’s vision to see how evenly tries were spread across the game, with the blue and gold averaging six points roughly every twenty minutes. That’s quality football, and the Green Machine knew it, with Blake Austin and Aiden Sezer seeming to dissolve in the face of Corey Norman and Kieran Foran. At the same time, the Raiders barely seemed to even have a right flank, with Joe Leilua, in particular, no match for Pirtek’s big men. With Josh Hodgson off for most of the game with a thumb injury, Frank-Paul Nu’ausaula given a warning, and Iosioa Soliola sidelined since Belmore, there was a sense that the Raiders were firing blanks, perhaps explaining why Fensom seemed on the verge of losing his cool every couple of sets.
If the Canberra halves were underwhelming, Parra’s halves shone. Indeed, this felt like the first time Foran and Norman have really showed us what they can do as a halves unit, coming off as the perfect combination of experience and vigour. Not only did Norman set up Jennings’ opening double, but Foran’s try was probably the best of the game, featuring a sweet sidestep around Jack Wighton that put any doubts to rest about whether the ex-Eagle’s hamstring is going to be up to the task over the next couple of weeks. All in all, it was probably the best performance from Foran this year as well, perhaps in anticipation of his standoff against the Sea Eagles this Thursday at Brookvale.
At the same time, I can’t believe that Foran’s game against the Sea Eagles will be anything like a grudge match. Not only do Manly probably still resent DCE more than his former halves partner, but Foran is one of the game’s consummate professionals – a no-nonsense hard man who slots in wherever his team needs him to be, which is why he’s never felt like a “celebrity” purchase, as well as why he’s managed to contribute so much to Parramatta already. Next weekend, then, is going to be a test of Parra’s professionalism at Brookvale, a venue that has turned far more rational and organised teams into chaos and disarray. On the other side of the Steeden, it’s going to be interesting to see whether the Raiders bounce back against the Sharks for their first home game in a couple of weeks, in which has to be an emotional return home for Ricky Stuart and the boys in green.