To win an NRL game you mostly need the ensure the following: possession, completion, discipline and field position. Never were these age old messages more true than tonight at ANZ Stadium as the Eels and Bulldogs squared off and played two opposite halves of Rugby League. With the Eels eventually getting away winners 28-20 after being down 20-0 at half time.
The Bulldogs started superbly. Full of confidence and aggression, they were like caged animals as they pushed the Eels back in defence and made metres without the ball. Sonny Bill Williams back to his damaging best as he put on hits and caused nightmares from his first touch.
The plan was working. Steve Folkes must have be elated as months of frustration was unleashed and the Bulldogs forced the Eels to consistently turnover ball. After only a few minutes, the Dogs went into score through Lee Te Maari after a bad read from Joel Reddy and the Eels failing to number up on their left edge. Te Marri benefiting from a superb Ben Roberts passed that was laid on nicely from out 5-7 metres out.
The Bulldogs continued to look the goods, keeping the momentum going and forcing the Eels to drop ball on virtually every occasion, it was simply astounding how much ball the Eels put down – it happened on early tackles in front of goal posts and everywhere else in their half.
The Dogs took full advantage, their 2008 halves combination of Daniel Holdsworth and Ben Roberts looking good, with Roberts in particular pushing some nice short balls and creating plenty for outside runners. New buy and former Eel Justin Tsoulos was keen to impress against his old club, getting his workrate right up but probably being guilty of overdoing things as he gave away a stack of penalties to the Eels – one in particular a coach killer when he failed to play the ball correctly.
The majority of the first half was played in the Eels territory, the Bulldogs kicking accurately and forcing Parramatta to work it out from their line most sets. The pressure told again on Parra when debutant Taulima Tautai spilled a ball in front of the posts and the Bulldogs pounced to send Willie Tonga in on the next play. Tonga and the Dogs exposing the problems with the Eels right hand edge, with Eric Grothe and others sometimes tending to race up out of the line too early.
Just when things could get any worse for Parramatta, when they finally did receive a penalty they failed to find touch. It simply didn’t look like the Eels team from 2007 and with the likes of Tim Smith, Ben Smith, Jarryd Hayne and Chad Robinson all missing from the lineup there were new faces everywhere. Things might be the same next week, as exciting outside back Kris Inu seemed to cop an ankle injury early in the game and continued on albeit restricted, during the match.
As the Eels fought to find completions to their sets, the Bulldogs worked another nice play in the 35 min and used Sonny Bill Williams as a dummy runner to attract two defenders which allowed Hazem El Masri to score untouched right in the corner as Eels rookie Taulima Tautai was caught in two minds. The Bulldogs had sharpened their defence for this season too, even when the Eels managed a rare line break the scrambling defence from the Dogs quickly shutdown any raids – putting them in good stead for the season ahead. Every tackle from the Dogs had venom. Notably Lee Te Maari and Ben Roberts led the way here, showing how it’s done as they chased down kicks and pressure the Eels at every occasion. Forcing the ball loose several times.
The Dogs were feeding off the momentum. As substitutions began to take the field late in the first half, a rejuvenated Kane Cleal was running the ball hard for the Bulldogs – making massive metres and sending the Eels skittling on impact. On the flip side, when Eels new buy Joe Galuvao took the field at the same time – he could only manage a drop ball from his first touch.
As the teams checked in for half time, the vision from the dressing rooms told the same story. The Dogs anxious to get back on to the paddock and in the Eels sheds, the players didn’t really seem interested. First half stats reading the Bulldogs completing 19/27 sets and the Eels 10/19.
The Eels aren’t known for comebacks, their biggest ever was against the Raiders in 1989 when at Parramatta Stadium the Eels fought back from 22 points down. Their was zero evidence this was happen tonight against a new born and fiercely agressive Bulldogs side.
As the second half got underway an early tackle on Bulldog Sonny Bill Williams changed the course of the game. After 3 to 4 Eels tackled SBW in a regulation tackle the blockbusting backrower gingerly got to his feet and you instantly knew their was a problem. Bravely staying on the field, both his team mates and more importantly the opponents knew he was gone.
That single event seemed to give the Eels hope. All of a sudden sets were completed, Parramatta started to build pressure and for the first time the new look Dogs started to have some old wounds opened. After their first repeat set for the match, the Eels finally got on the scoreboard with Eric Grothe leaping high to take a pinpoint Brett Finch bomb and touch down safely for 4 points.
Halftime and the SBW injury were immediately weighing heavy on the Bulldogs minds. Suddenly penalties and and field position was all favouring the Eels and they had a massive possession swing their way.
Only minutes after the Grothe try, a run to the line by acting half Brett Finch drawing 3 Dogs defenders in – saw the Eels work it through several hands close to the line and as the Dogs couldn’t wrap up the ball the offloads got Parramatta a quickfire try through a diving Mateo. In minutes it went from all Dogs at 20-0 to all Parra and 20-12.
It was the first time the struggling Eels looked like running down the Bulldogs and even the Dogs of war looked nervous.
The interchanging of hookers by both teams proved crucial. Mark Riddell was subbed for rookie Matt Keating and Corey Hughes changed for Michael Sullivan the former Sharks and recent UK Super League rake.
Both contrasting in styles, Sullivan tried hard to get things going but behind a retreating pack and with little ball – he was quickly tiring and was notably blowing at several times. For the Eels; Keating was solid without being brilliant, he played a simple game of service to his runners and this did the trick.
In this period as the Eels got the ascendancy over the Dogs, Brett Finch really came to life. Virtually non-existent in the first half as the Eels had no ball, all of a sudden he was outpointing the previously impressive Roberts and Holdsworth.
The Dogs finally got some possession and rhythm back for a period around the 55th minute mark and really needed to make the most of it. Looking certain to score, the Dogs worked a slick left hand side movement and found the Eels short of numbers yet again. A rampaging Matt Utai taking and inside ball 5m from the line but somehow a floating Brett Finch managed to stop the mini-giant. This single play summed up how the game had changed – simply a massive turn of fortunes on the back of possession and completion.
In the final period of the match it was intense, the Eels always looked like running in stronger but the Dogs weren’t giving up without a fight. The Bulldogs tried the rough stuff and while they copped a few penalties for it – Eel Joel Reddy came off worse for wear with a shocker of a black eye, looking more like Popeye or a Heavyweight Boxer after a title fight. Somehow the partially blind Eel managed to climb up and take not one but two accurate Brett Finch bombs to send the Eels into the lead for the first time.
As the Eels clung to a two point lead with 10 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were digging deep to get some back. Being such an early season game, the majority of players were breathing hard and the 10 man interchange rule simply made this harder.
The Bulldogs looked good whenever they swung the ball to the flanks and the started pushing it to Tonga and El Masri which nearly paid dividends as they found space and nearly scored off a neat El Masri chip. Eel Kris Inu in a similar fashion to SBW remained a passenger and was hobbling for most of the match, but the Dogs simply couldn’t capitalize on this in the 2nd half.
As the Eels tried to run down the clock, a smart move by Brett Finch with only a minute to go saw him fake a field goal and throw a shortball back to Feleti Mateo which rebounded off Mateo’s face after getting a Bulldog touch allowing the Eels to sneak in a late try to seal the game.
Certainly a tale of two halves and one that would have Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes feeling like he is the unluckiest man on earth. The Bulldogs coming out with such focus and controlled aggression but unable to sustain it for the full duration. The Bulldogs seem heavily hinged on Sonny Bill Williams probably more so this year after Willie Mason and Shrek departed. It was almost instantaneous as he went down hurt, the whole game changed.
Eels v Bulldogs Round 1 2008 NRL Game Review Video: