Parramatta believed in fairytales, until they ran into these unstoppable Panthers
The feeling was real.
It might not seem that way in the cold light of day when the sun rises on a world ruled by the ravenous, unstoppable Panthers, but as the beginning of the grand final drew closer and closer what Parramatta fans felt was real.
Stadium Australia was an Eels place. They had Penrith dead to rights when it came to the size and sound of the blue and gold army.
Even if the most cynical Parra person had tempered their expectations all week in the face of the challenge ahead, in the moments before kick-off it was impossible not to believe the Eels were in with a shot of winning their first grand final since 1986.
The long wait could be over, the torment ended at last. We would have called it a fairytale and in the end it was, because fairytales aren’t real, some dreams don’t come true and even if bad times don’t last the Panthers sure do.
It took about 10 minutes for worry to sink in, which quickly turned to fear and by the time the siren went on Penrith’s 28-12 victory, which secured back-to-back premierships for the Panthers, the result was a long time coming.
Parramatta were in the fight for the opening stages. The two teams went back and forth without an error or stoppage for almost seven minutes to begin the game and the Eels held their own.
But it proved to be their downfall even as they competed hard and willingly.
Penrith are a team that is built for the set-for-set grind. They have discovered a way to find joy in the struggle and it plays to all their strengths – like their athletic ball-carriers, intimidating defence and Nathan Cleary’s kicking game.
If any team in the NRL tries and plays them that way, they will lose. Parramatta are no exception. That’s not a slight, it’s just the truth. God has yet to invent a team who can beat Penrith in the grind.
The Eels game, when they’re at their best, is wild and shimmering like light on rough waters. It has offloads and ball movement and the footy zips from side to side so quickly it stretches the opposition until the split apart.
When Parra played the Panthers in the first week of the finals, they didn’t play that way and were punished for it and the exact same thing happened on Sunday night. There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake but repeating it is a sin. Despite Penrith’s cruel tutorage, the Eels did not learn.
What was happening only sank in when Brian To’o crossed for his first try midway through the first half. It only made the score 10-0, but the Eels seemed shell-shocked. They shouldn’t have been, because this assault was always coming.
There are no secrets as to what Penrith want to do or how they want to play. We have seen it too many times over the past three years for there to be any mystery left.
Once on top, Penrith turned the screws like they always do and by half-time the Eels resembled a smouldering pile of blue and gold wreckage. Parramatta did not cross the Penrith 40 metre line until the 33rd minute and when they finally did they gave away a penalty two tackles later.
It took until the 39th minute for them to get a play the ball in Penrith’s 20 metre zone. For Scott Sorensen’s try, Clint Gutherson was caught so badly out of position he was not visible on the television replay.
Penrith’s defence was brutalising as ever, but the Eels barely tested them. The only attacking moment that stood out was a Dylan Brown kick for Mitchell Moses early in the tackle count – at the time it felt like a bold move, something unorthodox to keep Penrith on their toes, but then nothing else followed.
The Eels did what they could in the second half but the nightmare was unrelenting. The only solace was Penrith slowing down just a little and Gutherson and Jakob Arthur getting on the board in the final minutes so Parramatta could avoid the further humiliation of suffering the worst loss in grand final history, which did feel possible for a second there.
As Penrith celebrate and Parramatta try to pick up the pieces, that’s left is that feeling from before the game. What has already happened cannot change, but what felt so true and powerful must now feel a little hollow.
It will haunt Parramatta all through the summer. Those can feel very long after losing a game like this. But the wait since 1986 is, of course, a whole lot longer.