Newly crowned five-eighth Feleti Mateo lit up Parramatta Stadium with some sublime touches to setup a 30-12 victory over Canberra; as the Eels try to lift their current NRL season form.
Former lock Mateo started the game with a monumental defensive mistake but recovered by orchestrating three of the Eels’ five tries to lead Parramatta to a vital win in front of 10,195 fans.
Mateo missed a simple one-on-one tackle that allowed David Milne to stroll over for the opening try in the 14th minute but then set up two tries to Luke Burt and another for Brett Finch as the Eels jumped back into the winners’ circle after successive losses.
Finch added his second try and match-sealer in the 72nd minute and also provided the kick for Joel Reddy’s first-half try in another strong performance at half-back.
But it was the elusive Mateo’s sparkling footwork which proved significant as he confused the Raiders defence to cap his transformation from back-rower to playmaker following half-back Tim Smith’s decision to quit earlier this year.
Former New South Wales coach Wayne Pearce believes the 24-year-old has found his calling in football wearing the No.6 jumper.
“He is probably a five-eighth somewhat by default,” said Pearce.
“I think it is his best position to be honest. He can get wide of the ruck and is dangerous.”
Canberra rallied their way back into the contest when Bronx Goodwin beat Krisnan Inu in the foot-race for Todd Carney’s grubber to reduce the deficit to 22-12 in the 59th minute.
But the Eels held strong with Finch’s second try and the aid of a favourable 9-3 penalty count to ensure the two competition points to keep in touch with the teams battling it out on the fringe of the top eight.
The loss is Canberra’s second in succession and could be compounded further with Adrian Purtell believed to have suffered minor medial ligament damage in his knee and fellow centre Joel Monaghan a strained hamstring.
Canberra prop Scott Logan was also placed on report for a lifting tackle on Burt late in the game.
Eels coach Michael Hagan was impressed with Mateo’s ability to bounce back from his mistakes, adding it was his dropped ball deep in their own end in the second half which gave the Raiders field position for their second try.”(Mateo) was tremendous, he would be disappointed with those couple of parts to his game because he sets himself very high standards,” said Hagan.
“His contribution to the result was extremely good.”
The other standout for the Eels was 19-year-old rookie winger Tony Williams who carried the ball 176m, broke several tackles and produced a try-saver by literally holding opposite Goodwin half a metre above the ground in mid-air over the tryline.
Williams was handed his debut in place of wayward winger Eric Grothe, but the under-20s star thought he’d blown his chances at playing first grade this year when he signed a $150,000 a year deal with rivals Manly last week.
“When I signed with Manly I did not think they were going to put me in first grade,” said Williams.
“I could not tell if I was ever going to play or not.”
At 192cm and 110kg the giant Junior Kangaroo star drew comparison to New Zealand rugby union great Jonah Lomu with his forward charges, but the shy teenager blushed at the comments.
“Being compared to him is an honour,” he said.
Raiders coach Neil Henry lamented the lopsided penalty count but said his side had missed a few second half opportunities while struggling with the mounting injury toll with forward Joe Picker expected to spend the night in hospital with suspected blood poisoning.
“Losing three players effectively after half-time made it difficult but not insurmountable,” said Henry.
“We did run out of troops which has been the story of our year so far.
“We had a couple of opportunities to come back into it at 22-12 but missed out.”