That left Dean Pay beaming with pride post match.
“I’m so proud of them,” Pay said. “We’ve had a difficult week. The boys that turned up tonight really showed a lot of spirit, a lot of heart. They care about the place. That’s important.”
Parramatta came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, dominating the first 15 minutes of the match. Blake Ferguson thought he had scored four minutes in. He celebrated with his trademark backflip, only to land, turn around and see the touch judge’s flag raised after he put his foot on the sideline in the lead up.
A penalty goal from plucky Bulldogs playmaking debutant Brandon Wakeham settled the nerves and swung the momentum of the game. In the blink of an eye, it was the Eels who were forced to do the bulk of the defending. By half-time, the Dogs had 56 per cent possession.
The scoreboard read 2-all at the end of a fast, physical half which had a notable lack of wrestling in the ruck.
There were no tries in the first half, but the first ever captain’s challenge in a regular-season match came and went in the 20th minute when Eels skipper Clint Gutherson challenged a Reagan Campbell-Gillard knock-on. It was a poor challenge. Canterbury captain Josh Jackson’s challenge of a Will Hopoate fumble early in the second half was arguably worse.
Thankfully for Dogs fans, their actual football was much better than Jackson’s challenge. They set up camp in the Eels’ red zone for most of the first 15 minutes of the second half but could not capitalise on a handful of half chances. With 20 minutes to play, the score was still 2-all.
Finally, Parramatta were able to string some sustained possession together. When they marched into the Dogs’ red zone, they looked dangerous. That was largely because of Mitchell Moses, who was making the right pass at the right time, all of the time.
It was Moses who put the grubber in behind the Bulldogs’ line which eventually produced the first try of the season. The ball could not be mopped up by Lachlan Lewis – who was one of Canterbury’s best – and the ricochet dribbled into the in-goal. Mahoney pinned his ears back and won the race to the ball, breaking the try-scoring drought after 65 minutes. It was decisive in a match that Bulldogs fans will probably take more out of than their Eels counterparts.
Aside from the gritty performance in the most trying of circumstances, there were some shining lights individually.
Lewis looks like the right man to take the club forward in the halves. His passing was on point, kicking top notch and he aimed up in defence, as he always does.
There was plenty of talk about Wakeham’s defence pre-match and the Eels sent plenty of traffic his way. He cut players twice his size down with regularity, though, and looks to have enough spark in attack to keep Jack Cogger out of the team.
For the Eels it was Moses, Gutherson and forward Shaun Lane who impressed in a performance which coach Brad Arthur would have been happy to nab two points from.
Post match, when a reporter pointed out that Eels and Bulldogs players had been handshaking and hugging – rather than back-slapping as new NRL coronavirus protocol suggests – Arthur was matter of fact in his response.
“If one of them’s got it, we’ve all got it,” Arthur said. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I started – I came in with a fist bump – and then Fergo walked in gave me a big hug.
“What do you do? Sorry mate, that’s all I’ve got for you.”
Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.