Finals weekend capped off with thriller
Sudden-death football has a way of creating edge-of-your-seat contests. In an absorbing match that should have been put to bed early, this one went down to the wire.
There was drama from the start.
After the kick-off from Clint Gutherson almost sailed into the Rockhampton suburbs, the Eels were immediately on the backfoot. The Knights, with their "worst attack in the competition", easily scored off the ensuing set.
Lucky Gutho has the James Maloney approach to errors. You treat them like you’re a clownfish. He didn’t falter after that.
The Eels soon settled into their rhythm and had the wealth of possession in the first twenty minutes. At the ten-minute mark, the Eels moved the ball quickly to the left edge to produce a try for Waqa Blake, and Parramatta hit the lead.
They maintained the pressure with pin-point kicks into the Knights in-goal by Mitchell Moses, and a solid Eels defence that had Newcastle mostly trapped in their 30-metre zone.
But in the ensuing plays, they failed to trouble the Newcastle defensive line.
Parramatta has struggled with their attack in the red zone this year. An insight into the reason may have been provided by their next few sets. There was plenty of ball movement side to side, but little threat to the Knights line.
To add insult, with Parramatta in control, Marate Niukore was penalised and placed on report. The gift brought Newcastle back into scoring range, and they regained the lead to make it 10-6.
It would seem logical that the more passes you throw, the more chance there is of a dropped ball. Parramatta continued to spread the ball through numerous sets of hands when pressing the Newcastle line, and Nathan Brown was the one who failed to defy logic.
You had the impression that if the Eels were going to score further points, they would have to do it from longer range.
Step-up Mitchell Moses.
The playmaker is often criticised for not producing his best in the big games. On this occasion, he had realised that what they were doing wasn’t working. With five minutes till the break, he changed it up. He ran rather than pass and produced the individual try of the finals to date.
His speed is deceptive. He looked like a hare being pursued by the hounds, and he outran five of them on his charge to the line.
Half-time couldn’t come quick enough for Newcastle. The Eels were buoyed enough to score almost from the kick-off, launching a slick raid down the right side, after having focused most of their attack down the left. A deft flick pass from Will Penisini after superb lead-up work put Blake Ferguson over in the corner. The Eels went into the break with an important six-point lead.
Parramatta started the second half full of running and were clearly on top. A case in point was when Newcastle’s powerhouse centre Bradman Best took on the Parramatta defence. The player with the worst (or is it the best?) mullet in the competition was man-handled into touch, with Ferguson leading the push.
Soon after, a Moses harbour bridge pass landed flush on the chest of Ferguson, who scored in the corner. Moses, kicking with a stiff wind, landed the conversion from the side-line. It was looking like Parramatta, at 22-10, would not be troubled from there.
Enter luck and chance. And one or two penalties against the run of play. With Newcastle pegged in their 40-metre zone, a Parramatta charge-down was regained by the Knights. The next five minutes saw Newcastle score back-to-back tries and somehow bring the score back to 22-20. Ponga’s "anything you can do" cut-out pass for Enari Tuala was at least as good as Moses’ effort for Ferguson.
For a while, it then changed into a forward battle, and for much of the final twenty minutes, the Knights had the better field position. Campbell-Gillard and Paulo traded blows with the Saifiti brothers, Klemmer, and Mitch Barnett, whose hit on Campbell-Gillard was the best of the match.
In the final ten minutes, the intensity of an end-to-end contest seemed to lift even further, and it was anyone’s game. Something special was needed, and for Parramatta fans, it would be no surprise it came from Clint Gutherson. With the Eels still clinging to a two-point lead, the King caught a difficult high ball, carried it solidly past the Knights defensive line, and forced a repeat set.
It was a typical play for the fullback who hadn’t shied away from solid contact against bigger bodies all match. He took a battering for his trouble that had him limping midway through the second half. But tell Gutho he was being hit hard. He didn’t seem to notice.
With less than eight minutes left, Moses put a clever kick into the in-goal, backing himself after an earlier kick was too heavily weighted. On the very next play, he produced a Johnathan Thurston-like kick toward the posts, that sat up perfectly for Bryce Cartwright to all but score under the posts.
Yet as they had done all day, Newcastle hung on. They returned serve to have Gutherson fielding a ball on his try-line. Again, “commeth the man!” The King cleverly planted his foot in goal a fraction before the catch to gift his team seven tackles. The officials, players and commentators weren’t sure. But that meant nothing. Gutho was sure.
With five minutes left it proved to be the winning play.
A controversial penalty try soon after to Penisini will be talked about, but there was no question the Eels were the better team.
Incredibly, the Knights were still a chance with two minutes on the clock. But a copycat Ponga cut-out pass was anticipated by Ferguson with a minute left.
For Newcastle fans, that was the end of their season.
For Parramatta, who have Paulo, Blake and Niukore all on report, it will be a difficult assignment next week against a Penrith side with plenty to prove.
There were impressive performances from players on both sides of this thrilling contest. Importantly, Mitchell Moses had a whale of a game. He answered some of the questions about his ability in big contests.
And a good judge in Greg Alexander, commentating for Fox Sports, called it Mitchell's best game of the year. Few would argue.