Eels on brink of history after manic, engrossing win over Cowboys

How do you pick that apart? A game that ebbed, flowed and ebbed back again. The Cowboys were the better team. They did all the things that you’re supposed to do to win a finals game, but lost and, in the end, looked out of ideas. They knew they had done the things that they were meant to do.

That’s Parra, though. On several occasions – one thinks of the second half in Penrith in Round 9 and the first half against the Roosters in Round 15 – they have proven simply too hot to handle. Kudos to them that, with the season on the line, they found that form. It doesn’t matter that it has gone missing on occasion if it shows up when you need it.

There’s enough in this clash to fill a library, and doubtless on second and third viewing, we’ll find even more. But for now, here’s the big five takeaways from a thriller in Townsville.

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What was that first half?

The first half made no sense. Parramatta scored twice, but pretty much got battered everywhere else.

There was a lot of variance that flew their way: a try off an at-best debatable forward pass and another that was – and I’m being polite to the Cowboys – defendable. North Queensland also played a man short after a piece of bad foul play.

They lost every metric except the two that matter: the scoreline and line breaks, which is a decent proxy for scoreline. Simply put: if Parra came to grind, they didn’t do it very well.

It was like watching South Sydney, not Parramatta. They were lucky to get to the break in the position that they did, and yet could have had more: Isaiah Papali’i could have finished off another try and, twice, good hands close to the line created breaks.

I don’t think this was a failure of strategy, but rather execution. North Queensland were exceptional at negating what the Eels do well, starving them of possession and forcing mistakes.

It was noticeable that, in the second half, when the mistakes were cleaned up and the execution better, Parra came right back into it.

Control the controllables

The time you need to have the most trust in your system is when things aren’t going your way. The Cowboys might have been forgiven for losing their rag that they were, in essence, playing the Eels off the park and getting nothing for it.

The grinding style that Todd Payten has built is predicated on control and patience. They knew that if they kept it up, did what they were doing and didn’t deviate, the results would follow.

Duly, they did. This was a clear win on a tactical level for North Queensland, who proved far more effective in making the game what they wanted it to be and, crucially, continuing in that vein when fortune favoured the Eels.

The issue came when they had to change things up late on. Parra threw back in a manner that North Queensland didn’t expect, and when the chips were down, the Cowboys didn’t have that move of their own.

Chaos reigns

Parramatta, to their credit, knew that the answer to control is chaos. The Cowboys were doing a sterling job in making the game what they needed it to be, but one of the strengths of the Eels is their ability to produce phases that no team can cope with.

The period directly after Murray Taulagi’s try to put North Queensland in front coincided with the withdrawal of Reuben Cotter, a tackling machine, and the return of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, perhaps the most effective Eel on the night.

When the chips were down, Parra began to throw caution to the wind – and it came off. Having made five offloads in the first half, they made seven in 15 minutes. When Parra are on, the offloads flow.

They put more air under the footy, turned the pressure back on the Cowboys and asked them a different question. In the first half, when North Queensland were in the ascendancy, Parra either couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt.

They kept trying to grind out the win when, clearly, they were being dominated. The Cowboys are high-energy and high-effort. Parramatta are built differently, with forwards that favour a top-heavy, chest-first running style designed to generate offloads. When they went back to first principles, it began to pay off.

Like the Cowboys leaning into their grind to wrest control, Parra were able to do the same with their style to take it back.

Parra halves steal the show

We’ve spoken a lot about the forwards, but not enough about the halves. Parra’s were in everything – not always great, given the boot of Mitchell Moses at times – whereas the Cowboys’ playmakers often failed to make the impact.

Perhaps that is just who they are: Chad Townsend is in the upper echelons of NRL halfbacks, but Moses is higher. Tom Dearden is, again, upper level, but Dylan Brown is one of the best five eighths in the world, period. Reed Mahoney and Reece Robson are Origin depth options on level footing.

Clint Gutherson, on this evidence, is levels above Scott Drinkwater. Drinkwater is one of my favourite players in the comp, because he is all attack and flair, but this wasn’t his game.

Parra clearly did their video on how to shut down his moments, when he adds a vital acceleration to the attack, and Gutherson in particular was often on hand to deny Drinkwater.

Without his creativity from the back, the job was left to Townsend, a ball-mover at heart, and Dearden, who is not quite there yet, and Eels were able to repel them.

The defensive resolve showed by Parramatta was exceptional, but it wasn’t the Alamo. The Cowboys forwards got them into position, but hit a closer door. Their halves didn’t have the key to unlock it.

All aboard the Lane Train

Parramatta live for their back-rowers. This was a stranger old game for them, because they lost both Isaiah Papali’I and Shaun Lane at points in the first half with 15-minute HIA breaks, but one almost wonders if that helped them late on.

Parra have struggled to get their interchanges right all year – they only played with 15 tonight, with Makahesi Makatoa and Jakob Arthur unused – but had their hand forced.

The disjointedness in the first half might have been a product of losing two key offensive weapons, but by the time they both returned in the second, they fired. Lane, in particular, was excellent with a raft of offloads. He is a conundrum that few defences have solved.

Papali’i was all action, going close to the top of the metre chart and continually making things happen with ball in hand.

On the other side, Luciano Leilua did score a smart try in the first half, but outside that, he was quiet and Jeremiah Nanai never really got going.

It’s not to say they were bad, but they were not as exceptional as their opponents. At this level, the margins are razor-thin.

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