History was at stake when the Parramatta Eels lined up against the Newcastle Knights in the grand final qualifier of the Tarsha Gale Cup at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Saturday evening.
Parramatta had placed second on the ladder after the regular rounds, whereas Newcastle had finished third. Victory for the Eels would mean their first appearance in the Cup decider.
Unfortunately, the match did not begin well for Parra.
Attacking near the Knights quarter line in the second set of the game, Eels halfback Rosemarie Beckett sensed an opportunity on the left wing and fired a cutout pass. Newcastle centre Mia Middleton took the odds on an intercept, and after plucking the ball out of the air, outpaced the Eels cover defence to sprint around 80 metres for the first try.
Critically, Knights goal kicker Sophie Clancy landed a superb conversion from the sideline, and after three minutes of play Newcastle had a six-point lead.
Undeterred by this setback, the Eels immediately returned to their match plan.
Strong carries from Parra’s forwards put them on the front foot as they began to exert their physical superiority through the middle corridor. This was soon rewarded when a Rosemarie Beckett bomb was fumbled by the Knights and Petesa Lio was there to scoop it up and score out wide.
The missed conversion left the Eels only two points adrift but an error from the kick off had them back under pressure. The error was compounded when the Knights received repeat possessions deep in Parra’s quarter. As they had done for most of the season, the Eels defenders stood tall, repelling every question thrown at them before bundling a Knights ball carrier into touch.
Not long after, possession began to flow Parra’s way and the Knights had no answer. A powerful cross-field charge from left winger Tamerah Leati drew a host of Newcastle defenders out of position. From the play the ball, the Eels attack was directed back towards the open spaces on the left and Tahleisha Maeva crashed over for Parra’s second try.
Though the conversion was unsuccessful, the Eels now held a two point lead and were surging.
The metres flowed untapped for Parra in the final minutes of the first half as the forwards took complete control of the middle. With the siren looming, Newcastle’s scramble was tested as the Eels launched wave after wave of attack. Somehow they held on and the teams went to the sheds with the Eels leading 8 to 6.
After absorbing early pressure from the Knights, it was the Eels who were first to score in the second half.
A hair pull on fullback Debbie Doueihi earned Parra a penalty and the Blue and Golds charged into the Knights quarter. A sharp, flat pass from dummy half Kasey Quye provided a passage for captain Ruby Jean Kennard to score under the posts and with Alysha Bell’s conversion the Eels jumped out to an eight point lead.
For the next ten minutes the Knights were stretched from one side of the field to the other but they managed to prevent the Eels from scoring. If there’s one thing that everyone knows about rugby league, it’s the importance of taking advantage of momentum. And for Newcastle, that momentum was about to fall their way.
After gaining possession in Eels territory against the run of play, the Knights looked to have squandered their best opportunity when they lost the ball in a strong tackle. However, the referee determined that Parra’s initial contact was too high and instead of a turnover a penalty was awarded. It proved pivotal for Newcastle as their dummy half Sophie Clancy crashed over from short range and the Knights were right back into the contest with only seven minutes remaining.
The Eels worst defensive set of the season then followed from the kick off as powerhouse Knights prop Mercydes Metcalf broke tackle after tackle in a barnstorming run that laid the platform for the final try.
Now in Parra’s red zone, Newcastle shifted the ball right and their centre Mia Middleton stepped between defenders to dive over in the corner. As the ball bounced free, the match officials determined that she had grounded it and the Knights had a 16-14 lead with just four minutes left on the clock.
The Eels tried everything in their power to regain control, including two one on one strips, but they could not breach the Knights defence.
When the final siren signalled the end to their campaign it was obvious that the Eels were devastated with the loss. They were arguably in the driver’s seat for much of the match, but the scoreboard told the final story.
Nonetheless, this was a season to be proud about. The team played a terrific brand of rugby league and maintained their high standards from their first match to the last. With 12 players from the squad age-eligible to run around again in 2023, the future at the Eels looks bright.
Knights 16 defeated Eels 14 (Tries: Petesa Lio, Tahleisha Maeva, Ruby-Jean Kennard Goals: Alysha Bell)