Match Report – Parramatta v Penrith First Grade – Merrylands RSL Rugby Park

Another flawless day for Rugby – as yet, there’s been no really trying weather during the 2017 season.

The results in the lower grades were no indication of what was to come. Against the depleted Penrith lineup of lower grades, Second Grade won 62-5, Seconds Colts 33-10, and First Grade Colts an impressive 69-0. For Firsts Colts, this was more or less a training run: tries flowing freely, and drying up only because of stiffened Penrith resistance in the first portion of the second half. The scoreline was achieved despite patchy goal-kicking, the highlight of which was an attempt which never actually reached the posts, but with an intense left-hand spin on the ball which propelled it back toward the kicker when it hit the ground.

The question was whether First Grade could prevail against the Penrith First Grade side, a physical outfit which has given a few good teams a fright thus far in the 2017 season. The X factor was however Sampson the Swiss Shepherd, with whom regular readers of these match reports will be acquainted since his debut at Chatswood Oval. But more of this later.

Parramatta kick off, regain, spread the ball wide, and Robert Duff scores in the south-east corner with less than five minutes on the clock. The conversion attempt from the sideline is however  unsuccessful. Parra 5-0.

A few minutes after the restart, Penrith win the lineout following a Waldo Wessels clearing kick and, with plenty of pace and ball movement, score in the north-eastern corner. Another conversion attempt from the sideline fails, so the scores are level with less than 10 min gone. The excitement is too much the Sampson, who breaks free from his owner, but is recaptured while heading for the fence.

From the restart, Parra put the pressure on through a number of phases, but the Penrith defence holds solid. With about fifteen minutes gone, however, a Penrith play gets a yellow card, their defence finally cracks, and Tyrone Viiga barges over for a try. This time the conversion attempt is successful, with Parra moving out to a 12-5 lead.

Parra’s scrum is performing well. However not so much its ball control. And, with about 20 minutes gone, play is stopped because of a Penrith player on the ground. This would not normally be worth a mention in a match report, except that it signalled the start of series of stoppages, which pushed the total match time out to well over ten minutes longer than usual. Stoppages of this kind have the effect of disrupting the flow of the opposing team and, while the match was undoubtedly a physical contest, none of the stoppages involved Parramatta player. Go figure, as the Americans say. (Although it must be conceded that one of the stoppages was caused by Sampson, who doubtless counts as belonging to Parramatta.)

The play seesaws, both sides putting together numbers of attacking phases, but in Parra’s case handling errors repeatedly mean that promising moves break down. However eventually the boys put it together, and, with about 30 minutes gone, Hayden Cole dives over for a try in the corner. Although the kick is not an easy one, Jonathan Malo slots the conversion, and it’s 19 to 5 in favour of Parramatta.

But any hopes that the floodgates might open do not come to fruition. Penrith looks certain for a try which is averted by a skilful Niko Malo steal. However a couple of minutes before halftime, Penrith penetrate the Parramatta defence, and score a converted try. 17-12 to Parra at half-time.

Second half: Penrith kick off, and almost immediately get a penalty in front of the posts. The goal is kicked, and the gap narrows to 17-15. The mood in the Polota-Nau Pavilion gets a bit dark. However Sampson, perhaps feeling that he should have provided the half-time entertainment, breaks free from owner Tony Musico, and bursts onto the field. For about two minutes he then defies all efforts to catch him, with Tony in futile pursuit. Not only has Sampson got the speed, he’s got the sidestep. Eventually he is collared and led off.

Parra now mounts a number of attacking raids, all of which break down by turning the ball over. Some cases this is the product of robust Penrith defence, but others are, as they say in tennis, unforced errors. Most disappointingly, a couple of these have followed penalties is awarded to Parramatta from which they have got good attacking field positions – but – no cigar.

Just how this happened is not clear, but suddenly Sampson is loose again, with another keystone cops chase sequence as a result. Eventually he is tackled, fairly certainly by Adrian Musico. Sampson will probably have to front the judiciary. And, shortly after Sampson’s second removal, Penrith go in again for a try. Mercifully, the try isn’t converted. However Parra has lost the lead: 19-20, with about 25 minutes still to go.

There is of course plenty of time left in the match, but Parra’s turnover woes are continuing, and the mood in the Polota-Nau Pavilion darkens further. President Brian’s sideline instructions to the boys have got steadily louder, and as yet another attack comes to nothing through poor ball control, Brian’s roar of  “HOLD THE FRIGGIN’ BALL!” triggers airbags in three passing cars.

Meanwhile, stoppages have increased in frequency, with Penrith players going to ground every few minutes. A vocal Penrith crowd, sensing blood, is whooping and hollering, although balanced by an equally vocal Parra crowd in the grandstand, and a somewhat unruly mob on the scoreboard hill.

It’s not that Parramatta are not moving the ball around and trying. The scrum continues to be good, and at least there seems to be less tendency to kick the ball away in attack, rather than keeping it in hand. But, as has been said, keeping it in hand is the problem. The boys have lost composure. And we are one point behind.

However, for once the Rugby gods are on our side. With five minutes left to go, Jonathon Malo goes in for a try in the north eastern corner. The conversion is difficult, and unsuccessful: 24-20. A successful conversion would have least have given us a buffer against a full-time Penrith try, provided of course that it wasn’t converted. Nightmare visions of a last-ditch Penrith try, leading to a one-point loss, swam before our eyes. Especially given Parramatta’s well-established track record of losing after the final whistle.

However for once there was merciful release by the referee, who blew full-time couple of minutes before it seemed due – although the contributions of Sampson, and the sudden outbreak of the dreaded Collapso Dubioso Syndrome among the Penrith players, had made accurate timekeeping difficult.

The mood in the Polota-Nau Pavilion is muted. We have stared into the abyss.

So? All grades won and all, including Firsts, with a bonus point.

Looking at Firsts, improvement is needed in some aspects of the boys’ game. However, a win is a win, as they say.  Penrith Firsts are not to be trifled with, and it’s quite possible that, given it was the local derby and Penrith had more than a sniff of winning, they lifted.

Hopefully the breaking of the drought will put some wind in the Two Blues’ sails. It’ll be needed when we travel to the coast next week to take on the Rats. But we can do it.

The Apprentice