BANKWEST STADIUM -- The opening clash between the long-term bitter rivals promised to be a sell-out at Parramatta's Bankwest Stadium, but as the fireworks fizzled out and the whistle blew to start another NRL season, many of the grey seats remained empty.
Despite coronavirus filling almost every minute of the news, no official warning had been issued to NRL fans, yet many seemed to be playing it safe. In the lead up to the first game, players had been asked by the NRL not to shake hands or engage physically with fans, but in a world where major leagues have been postponed, while others play in empty stadiums, the NRL forged on in front of the 21,363 people brave enough to turn up.
Those that were there were in full voice, greeting the enemy with suitable disdain before welcoming their blue and gold clad heroes with a typical ear-rattling roar. When Blake Ferguson appeared to shake off a wall of Bulldogs defenders to cross for a try after four minutes, the stadium shook. A raised touch judge flag ended the celebrations, but the Eels were on top early and their fans were willing them forward.
The pre-recorded "Parra, Parra" chant blared over the PA system as the Bulldogs rallied from deep inside their own half. It may have been short of a sell-out crowd, but the atmosphere was still rich for this battle.
With back-to-back penalties and all the momentum the Bulldogs mounted an early attacking onslaught, but the lackluster ball-play which has plagued them for years, clearly hadn't improved over the Christmas holidays. Despite plenty of opportunities, they could manage just two points for the entire 80 minutes.
Nineteen minutes into the game, Eels captain Clint Gutherson became the first in NRL history to use the captain's challenge, when he questioned a dropped ball call on the enthusiastic advice of the perpetrator prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Listening to a prop tell you he didn't drop the ball is akin to letting a fast bowler tell you he has trapped a batsman plumb in front. Gutherson paid the price and went into the history books as the first captain to get it wrong, losing the right to any further challenges on the night.
The teams exchanged blows like two ring-rusty heavyweight boxers, with the Bulldogs frustrating their fans with several soul-draining Aiden Tolman charges on late tackles near the Eels line. There were many more ugly moments with the ball, but the defences of both teams were at their scrambling best.
Late in the first half Eels flyer Maiko Sivo made a break, beating several players with his powerful chest caving fends. There used to be an unwritten rugby league law which allowed any player catching a winger under those circumstances to wipe such a run from his memory. A frustrated Christian Crichton must have thought the law still applied, taking an unhealthy shot at Sivo's head. Sivo stayed down, the home crowd roared, the video referee watched enough replays to see what had happened and the Eels were awarded a penalty, with Crichton placed on report. A dazed Sivo was allowed to stay on the field leaving many to wonder whether HIA had taken a back seat in a world filled with coronavirus concerns.
The Bulldogs defence somehow held firm, leaving the halftime score at a very A-League-like 2-2. During the break it was announced in the media centre that the usual post-match interviews with players would no longer be conducted within the confines of the dressing rooms. Instead players would be brought outside to meet the media, in what was another coronavirus inspired measure.
Two minutes into the second half and Josh Jackson made the historic second ever captain's challenge, which was also unsuccessful in overturning a dropped ball 20 metres out from the Eels line.
It seemed only a matter of time before the more potent Eels breached the stoic Bulldogs defence. Bulldogs lock Adam Elliott came closest to scoring a try, charging towards the Eels line from close range, only to spill the ball short of the chalk. The game was starting to look like the great 1986 grand final between the two clubs. That was the last time Parramatta won the premiership and it was a grinding and try-free 4-2 victory.
The Eels threw everything at the Bulldogs line in the second half, then came the morale-sapping, match-turning moment. With the Eels on the attack again, a desperate Blake Ferguson put up a centering bomb, which Raymond Faitala-Mariner only had to catch on his chest inside the in-goal area to diffuse. Instead he spilt it over the dead ball line and the Eels were gifted another set of attacking tackles. They scored the first try of the season, 65 minutes into the game, from that set of tackles, after Lachlan Lewis fumbled a grubber kick near the posts. It was enough to win them the game.
We had all witnessed another brave, but losing, effort from the Bulldogs who came into this game at the end of a week where coronavirus was the least of their worries. Their season opener was marred by the suspension of two players following an inappropriate off season dalliance with some school girls from the Port Macquarie region. The Bulldogs were robbed of one of their best forwards in Corey Harawira-Naera and no doubt wearied by another week of endless scrutiny.
"I was so proud of them, we've had a difficult week, the boys who turned up tonight really showed a lot of spirit, a lot of heart, they care about the place, it's important," Bulldogs coach Dean Pay said.
"You can't get away from it, it's in your face all the time... we need to make sure we keep doing what we are here to do, which is to keep playing the best footy that we can."
As for coronavirus concerns, Eels coach Brad Arthur best summed up the futility of any measures so far introduced by the NRL.
"I started off fist bumping the first three players who came in after the game, then Fergo came in and gave me a big hug," Arthur said.
"If one of them has it, we all have it."
With the number of cases still relatively low in Australia, it remains to be seen whether any of the major sporting codes feel the need to play in empty stadiums or postpone their competitions. The Australian Grand Prix is going ahead this weekend and tomorrow night the Raiders will host the Titans and the Cowboys will take on the Broncos. It is business as usual for the NRL, even if some fans might choose to take the safer option of watching from home.