REPORT: Harold Matthews Grand Final 2016
The Parramatta Eels are the 2016 Harold Matthews champions following a thrilling 16-14 victory over the Newcastle Knights. In an injury-ridden afair at Penrith, the Eels secured their 20th under-16s title with a fantastic performance.
Entering a smokey Pepper Stadium, the Eels received a pre-game boost with the inclusion of leading tryscorer William Kei in the 23 jersey. It would prove to be integral for the result of the match.
Parramatta kicked us off and nerves looked to have set in for both teams early in the contest; miscommunication for the Knights' left edge saw them bundle the ball into touch off the kick, before a promising run from Kei ended with him being sent over the opposite sideline.
A superb kick from the Knights then saw them apply pressure, but the Eels' defence held strong; the Knights returned the favour in the ensuing minutes, holding out a hard run from Uellington Seve and then a Asaeli Vuicakau dash for the corner.
When the Eels' Matt Doorey put Kei into space they looked to finally get on the board, but once again the Knights' right-side defence was too good and the decider remained scoreless.
It took until the 16th minute for the deadlock to be broken, with Parramatta five-eighth Hyrum Wichmann breaking the line off the back of a number of solid runs for the Eels. He offloaded to second-rower Charbel Taispale who was classy enough to finish the effort. With captain Kyle Schneider slotting the conversion, it was 6-0 to the blue and golds.
Ten minutes later the Knights hit back, with the Knights' Phoenix Crossland putting forward a fantastic individual effort in broken play to score under the posts. Jock Madden converted to lock things up at 6-all with six minutes remaining in the first half.
As the clock wound down, Newcastle's Tom Baker looked certain to give the Knights the edge; the big man broke into space and made a good run for the line, only for the Parramatta cover defence to pull off a miraculous try-saving effort and bring him down just short. The Eels tried to create something in the final stages of the first half to no avail, heading to the break level with the Knights at 6-all.
The Knights came out of the blocks with a bang early in the second stanza as they attacked down their left side, but a Cliff Lea'Aetoa intercept saved the day for the blue and golds. Heads could have dropped in the 34th minute when Newcastle skipper Brock Gardner was helped from the field, but they chose to take a shot at penalty and put the Knights up 8-6 three minutes later.
Gardner's absence, however, soon became clear as the competition's leading tryscorer William Kei pulled off a thrilling individual effort to put his side back in front. With Schneider putting the ball between the uprights the Eels held a 12-8 lead.
When Taispale grabbed his second, thanks to a classy offload from Lea'Aetoa, the Eels looked to have broken the Knights with 12 minutes remaining. The conversion was missed but a 16-8 lead was very promising for a 20th Harold Matthews title.
The red and blue army threw everything at the Eels defence, who absorbed a lot of pressure - but eventually a sliding play to the right saw Timanu Alexander cross for the Knights under the posts. Madden slotted a simple conversion and made it a two-point ball game with just five minutes remaining.
A Cameron Davies error off the ensuing kick-off looked to be costly but the Knights regained possession soon after, then trapping JP Nohra in his in-goal to earn a repeat set. From there, the Newcastle side threw all they had at their opposition and looked very dangerous, only to be bundled in to touch and give Parramatta the final possession. The Eels saw out the game to lock away an inspirational victory after what had been a nightmare week for the club.