Opportunist Eels down scrappy Dogs
Gutted by the alleged boorish behaviour of two players, underdogs Canterbury dug into their rich and courageous history in a bold ambush attempt against rivals Parramatta - but fell agonisingly short.
After three days of horror headlines, the Bulldogs, drained after an off-field scandal which engulfed their preparation, came within just one try of toppling the glamour Eels, who were hot favourites.
In fact, the scores were locked 2-all after 65 minutes before a Parramatta try through a fumble gifted Parramatta a try and deflated Canterbury.
The season's first try came after 234 runs, 1182 run metres, 487 tackles and 32 tackle busts. Some thought it may never arrive.
By full time, the Eels had secured a gritty 8-2 win.
While Parramatta deserve plaudits, most admitted Canterbury durability and resilience after the club was thrown into disarray this week through the behaviour of star players Jayden Okunbor and Core Harawira-Naera.
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"I'm so proud of them," said Bulldogs coach, Dean Pay. "We've had a difficult week. You can't get away from it (the incident. It's in your face all the time.
"The boys tonight showed a lot of spirit and heart. They care about the place. They showed guts, heart and ticker. They're devastated (at the loss)."
There were plenty of mistakes but it was the night rugby league needed after this week's humiliating headlines. We even heard a raucous "bullshit, bullshit" chant from Parramatta fans.
Rugby league was back, thankfully.
The only try came to Eels hooker Reed Mahoney who pounced on a loose ball after a Lachlan Lewis fumble. One innocuous error, that's all it took to split the sides.
Canterbury winger Christian Crichton was placed for a shoulder charge on Parramatta's Mika Sivo late in the first half.
Sivo appeared to have received a head knock but the sideline television monitor used by medical staff to determine concussion was, unbelievably, not working.
Players were told pre-game to avoid interaction form fans including selfies, handshakes, high fives and autographs.
Media representatives were banned from entering the dressing rooms after the game with players taken to a special area to be interviewed. Fringe officials from both were also not permitted into the sheds.
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Parramatta lost a challenge midway through the first half when skipper Clint Gutherson questioned a decision where prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard was ruled to have dropped the ball.
Replays were inconclusive, the decision stayed and Parramatta was left without a further challenge for the game. It was an unusual challenge from Gutherson.
Bulldogs skipper Josh Jackson unsuccessfully challenged knock-on early in the second half. It also seemed a frivolous challenge.
Score line: Refs 2, captains 0.
"'Reg' was pretty adamant that he wanted 'Gutho' to challenge it so I just back the boys," Arthur said.
The Eels were anything but spectacular but they did what they had to do - win. Good sides win tight games in round one. Their defence was stellar.
"We kept turning up in defence - that's how you win early season games," said Eels skipper Clint Gutherson.
Arthur added: "I thought we'd be better with the ball but I was really happy with the defence, attitude and effort. It's round one"
It was a high pressure, high-collision start although more mistakes crept in the longer the first half progressed.
There was, pleasingly, little wrestle in the first half. It meant the game was quick and clean albeit littered with mistakes, which was to be expected in round one. The atmosphere was great, the passion was real.
Canterbury missed 20 tackles, Parramatta only 13.
Eels winger Blake Ferguson crossed after four minutes and completed a flamboyant backflip - only for the try to be disallowed because the big Eel put his foot on the sideline.
Don't ever tell Bulldogs players they can't win. There's no doubt Canterbury was impacted by the suspension of Okunbor and Harawira-Naera.
But the players showed spirit and steel to push Parramatta for 80 physically demanding minutes. They didn't win but the Digs again showed they thrive on adversity.
"They dragged us into a real dog fight," Arthur said.
Canterbury remains without a major sponsor but played with a new sternum sponsor - Sydney tools. Despite the off-field incidents, loyal Bulldogs fans were there last night, refusing to let two players ruin their night.
The Daily Telegraph caught up briefly with Andrew Hill near the level media boxes, the Bulldogs CEO trying to stay positive and upbeat. Despite all the criticism, Hill still shook hands with members of the media.
It was touted as a 30,000 sell-out. Even officials believed the crowd would at least be 25,000, more likely around 27,000 to 28,000.
But Parramatta officials were left disappointed at a modest crowd of 21,363 - a direct result of coronavirus.
It is understood virtually no tickets were bought on game day - Parramatta had hoped for a strong walk-up - and many fans who purchased seats simply didn't attend. It was a deeply concerning outcome for the NRL and its clubs.
"If one of them has got it, we've all got it," Arthur said. "I came in with the fist pump and 'Fergo' (Blake Ferguson) walked in and gave me a big hug."
Big crowds are expected at most other matches this round with sellouts expected to North Queensland Stadium, Brookvale Oval and Panthers Stadium.
But, after this, officials at North Queensland, Manly and Penrith must be worried The Bankwest Stadium playing surface was generally good after a recent Elton John concert.
PARRAMATTA 8 (R Mahoney try M Moses 2 goals) CANTERBURY 2 (B Wakeham goal) at Bankwest Stadium. Referee: Grant Atkins, Peter Gough. Crowd: 21,363.