Friday the 13th was an appropriate date for one of the darkest and most emotional matches this year. Not only were Parramatta playing their first game – and their first home game – without Nathan Peats, but they were playing the team that sold him to them in the first place. With both sides of the Steeden haunted by Peatsy’s absence, blue and gold supporters rose for a show of solidarity at the ninth minute in one of the best and most moving tributes to a player I’ve ever seen. Never in my memory has there been such a disconnect between club members and club management, with the standing ovation feeling like a very public middle finger to Parramatta’s “gang of five” as much as a gesture of support for Peats himself.
Of course, this was also a suspenseful game for the Bunnies, who were facing the prospect of losing five games in a row and probably would have done so had it now been for the inspired orchestration of Greg Inglis and Luke Keary, which may just be what the Rabbitohs need to shake things up and return to their glory days of 2014. While Inglis was more than competent at five-eighth, it was only when Luke Keary was brought in off the bench and G.I. moved to centre that the sparks really flew.
With Keary fit and firing as a first-half five-eighth in the final twenty minutes and Inglis channelling the ferocity of his days at the Storm, the odd couple managed to level the score by setting up tries for Bryson Goodwin at the 72nd minute and Keary himself at the 78th. With an Adam Reynolds penalty goal at the 18th minute having introduced a differential of two between the opposing teams, Reyno made good again at the final siren with a beautifully placed conversion that was an object lesson in grace under pressure, especially since the game’s favourite halfback had only managed two out of four so far.
Given that the Eels had to win 12/15 to make losing Peats (and Watmough and Morgan) worth it, it was fairly disheartening to see them lose their first game back playing for competition points, especially since it seemed as if they had it before the Inglis-Keary machine kicked in. Still, Semi Radradra more than made up for his gaffe during the early minutes of the Trans-Tasman Test with a hat trick of tries that, coming in at the 27th, 36th and 43rd minutes, ended up representing 3/5 of all points scored by the blue and gold, with only Vai Toutai bringing in another four-pointer on the half-time siren and Michael Gordon only managing two out of four conversions
Still Souths seemed to sense that the Eels were vulnerable, pummelling them until they were only down to one man on the bench, with Danny Wicks, Isaac de Gois, Beau Scott and David Gower all sent off for head checks at one point or another. Kenny Edwards was also off for good after an elbow to the head from G.I., and while it wasn’t intentional it felt like an indication that Inglis was back in form, since he tends to produce that kind of collateral damage when he’s playing at his peak.
While it can’t be doubted that the Eels put in a sterling effort, the combination of Peats’ departure with the shock of Inglis and Keary meant that the defeat probably felt more drastic than it actually was. With the blue and gold now needing to win around 12 out of 14 of their remaining games to even have a crack at the semis, they’re going to need more than Semi to get the job done. In a weird way, though, it feels as if the weekend isn’t yet over for the blue and gold, since Peatsy’ performance for the Titans on Monday – if he plays – is going to inflect last night’s match as well. Bookended by an Eels outfit devoid of Peats in Friday and Peats’ debut with Gold Coast on Monday, no other round this season is going to be as dramatically and traumatically identified with the salary crisis, or with the plight of Eels fans and players as a whole than the coming weekend.