Brad Arthur reckons the Eels have a “free throw at the stumps” in their daunting week-one finals clash against the Storm juggernaut, claiming his side are a chance of shocking the runaway minor premiers “if we’re allowed to play football”.
Frustrated with a stalled ruck during Parramatta’s nervy top four-sealing win against the patched-up Rabbitohs on Friday night, Arthur already staked a marker for next week’s clash with the ruthlessly efficient Melbourne and cheekily railed for a speedy play-the-ball at AAMI Park.
“We’re playing Melbourne and we’re looking forward to the challenge,” Arthur said after Semi Radradra’s hat-trick inspired an unconvincing 22-16 win over the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium. “No one’s going to give us a chance and it’s a free throw at the stumps. If we’re allowed to play a bit of football we’re a chance.
“They’re the masters at [slowing the ruck], they tackle well and they’ve got great systems. They’re not going to beat themselves. We’ve got to complete and be positive with our ball movement. If you give them opportunities they make you pay.”
Perhaps the gulf between the Storm and Eels can be measured by the plucky Rabbitohs, who copped a 64-6 caning at the hands of the Melbourne before a weakened side pushed the Eels all the way just a week later.
Asked about the Eels’ chances in Melbourne, Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire quipped: “After last week … good luck. They’re running red hot at the moment and unfortunately last week we were on the end of it.
“I think when you come into a finals series it starts next week for the teams. It’s really up to the team that turns up ready to go. It’s a really, really tight competition. If Parramatta turn up they’ll give themselves a chance.”
Maguire made a head-spinning seven positional or personnel changes to Souths’ starting line-up due to illness and injury with captain Sam Burgess, Adam Reynolds, Angus Crichton and Aaron Gray all dropping out of the starting 13 named on Tuesday.
But for large parts the Robbie Farah-led Rabbitohs looked on the brink of one of the upsets of the season, potentially robbing the Eels of their anticipated second chance saloon.
The result condemns premiers Cronulla to either fifth or sixth spot and the prospect of winning four straight games throughout the finals to defend their title.
The indifferent Eels effort will be dissected in detail, one which hardly had the feel of a side ready to go deep into the play-offs. But Arthur will be relieved the NRL’s feel-good story can at least plan to be playing over the next fortnight.
“We’re happy with where we finished,” Arthur said. “As I said to the boys, ‘You don’t win 16 games by fluke’. The performance was patchy tonight, but Souths came out and had a red-hot crack and played for their coach. It was probably exactly what we needed. Two years ago we might have thrown that away in the last three minutes.”
Brothers Michael and Robert Jennings traded tries on opposite sides of the ruck and on the same side of the field in an enthralling opening 15 minutes where it looked anything like a top-four team playing against one who could be holidaying in the Top End next week.
Michael sliced through and stood up fill-in fullback Damien Cook to start what many thought would be an Eels procession, but Robert’s sharp response for the Rabbitohs indicated anything but the one-way traffic it was supposed to have been.
Kyle Turner slid over after some neat work by Cameron Murray and Farah on the first set after Corey Norman’s careless behind-the-back flick pass surrendered possession.
If not for Radradra darting over in the shadows of half-time – giving them a lead they scarcely deserved – the red-faced Eels may have been able to compare notes with the red-cheeked Arthur after a half-time rev-up.
If his side didn’t hear the half-time message properly, they would have heard it loud and clear during the second stanza – Arthur anxiously balancing on the edge of his sideline seat and bouncing out of it for the most part.
Radradra’s second – this time a simple scurry on the end of an inch-perfect Corey Norman floater – couldn’t even calm the coach.
He knew why. Jennings Jnr outdid Jennings Snr when burrowing over in the corner for his second, albeit off a blatant forward pass to keep the rookie Rabbitohs within touching distance.
But Radradra’s late intervention was enough. It usually always is. But will it be enough to stop the Storm?
Parramatta Eels 22 (Semi Radradra 3, Michael Jennings tries; Mitchell Moses 3 goals) defeated South Sydney Rabbitohs 16 (Robert Jennings 2, Kyle Turner tries; Bryson Goodwin 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referees: Gavin Badger, Chris Butler. Crowd: 21,533.