Rising from the dead on Easter Monday, the Wests Tigers have dealt the Parramatta Eels a brutal reality check on their quest to keep pace with the big guns of the NRL.
After rejecting a shot at field goal three separate times in the last ten minutes, Jackson Hastings finally stepped up to the plate as the siren sounded and drilled a field goal from just inside 40.
It sailed over the black dot (just) to seal an early contender for upset of the season, 21-20.
The Eels came into the round six encounter with a chance to break a game clear in third and crash Penrith and Melbourne’s party at the top of the ladder.
They would’ve liked their chances; the Eels had won four of their last five Easter Monday clashes with the Tigers, who were the only team yet to win a game in 2022.
But the Tigers weren’t about to give the chocolates up so easily this time around, not when pressure on Michael Maguire and Luke Brooks was approaching critical mass.
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In front of a packed house of their home fans, Parramatta was ambushed by a side with everything to prove.
“Our concentration around the detail of the game wasn’t good enough,” said Eels coach Brad Arthur at full time.
Perhaps spurred on by the return of his halves partner Jackson Hastings, Brooks was the Tigers’ first-half saviour after a week of intense scrutiny around his position in the side.
He sent a pearler of a pass to Luciano Leilua for the Tigers’ first try and then found David Nofoaluma with a cutout pass for their second.
The Eels had ample chances of their own; on three occasions in the first half, they were given free passes into enemy territory through penalties.
But you don’t win games of footy when you make nearly twice as many errors as your opponent, not even when you’ve got Mitch Moses sending grubbers to the in-goal for Clint Gutherson to pounce on.
“When you complete like that and you’re not prepared to build pressure, there’s a lack of respect for yourselves and the opposition,” Arthur said.
Down 14-10 at the break, Parramatta needed to shake off the errors that hampered their first stanza.
But unfortunately for the home side, the hungry Tigers could smell blood in the water and came out of the sheds bolder than ever. After losing a captain’s challenge early in the half, the Tigers backed themselves to push the Eels in a scrum and allow Brooks to retrieve the loose footy.
It was the confident kind of play that had been completely absent from the joint venture’s game this season.
The Eels, in turn, fluffed their lines. It took Daine Laurie failing to catch a bomb for Parramatta to finally level the scores late; Marata Niukore was the recipient of an especially lucky bounce and fell over for a try.
When the Tigers rejected three chances to take a shot for field goal, their fans would’ve been watching through their fingers.
But Moses kicked the Eels’ only shot wide and it proved fourth time lucky for Hastings, who finally chose to kick.
On the most chocolatey weekend of the year, nothing will be sweeter for the Tigers than this win.
“I’m really pleased with my players. It’s really nice to see a smile in the change room,” Maguire said.
“We’ve obviously faced a fair bit over the last five weeks and to see the smiles, the togetherness that they had. It was pretty special.”
In the wars
Tigers hooker Jake Simpkin fell to the turf in agony contesting a line drop-out in the second half and needed to be carted from the field with an ankle injury. In his absence, Brooks shifted to dummy half.
Less than 10 minutes later, Ken Maumalo required attention for a knee injury and was subbed off. Still, the Tigers soldiered on.
Maguire said early indications were that Simpkin and Maumalo could line up against the Rabbitohs next weekend.
The Eels weren’t without injury concerns of their own; Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tom Opacic left the field with ankle and neck injuries, respectively. Niukore also came off with leg tightness.
Arthur said the players would need further assessment before a call could be made on their ability to line up in next week‘s clash with Newcastle.