Following a much-improved defensive display against the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, our Parramatta Eels boys went some way to restoring the pride in the blue and gold jersey last week. Although it wasn’t enough to secure the two points and victory, it was enough to signal a move in the right direction, and that a win isn’t as far away as it felt the week before.
This brings us to our opponents this weekend, the Wests Tigers.
Even the biggest rugby league expert would be impressively scratching their heads at the turnaround the Tigers have seemingly produced across the course of the off-season. They’ve gone from a “score more points than the opposition, even if we concede 30” mentality, to producing the type of powerhouse defensive displays that kept our fellow 2017 top 4 compares, to scores of one-try, one-try and no tries, over the opening three weeks of the competition proper.
It’s a dichotomy of sorts that presents itself going into the annual Easter Monday clash. You have a team that traditionally scores a lot of points and concede just as many, if not more, that has now started repel just about every attacking raid known to man, but conversely sacrificed their attacking mojo (at least for the short term) in doing so, coming up against an opponent (our boys) who had developed themselves into a team known for its defensive resilience, attitude to its effort areas and stylish set plays that attack the defensive vulnerabilities of rival teams, who have looked a shadow of themselves over the first three rounds of the 2018 season.
At least one of a few things is going to happen in this game Eels fans, because the fact of the matter is, something has to give.
You can’t sustain the incredible low-scoring defensive displays the Tigers have produced because quite frankly, it’s physically not possible. Whether it’s this week, next, or another 6-8 rounds from now, eventually it starts to tire, IF the offense doesn’t start to support it – this spells danger for the blue and golds, because this could be the week that that exact thing happens.
Conversely, it could be the week the Eels get their attacking mojo back, after making headway in reforming the defensive structures that alluded them in the opening two games of the year.
Which one will it be? Well if we want it to be the latter, there’s some Tigers threats that we will have to manage come Monday afternoon. Let’s check out who they’ll be.
Corey Thompson: I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who questioned the Tigers recruitment of former Widnes Vikings winger, Corey Thompson. From what we had previously seen of him in the NRL he seemed a winger who could finish in his time with the Bulldogs, but as though he had found a more suitable home in the European Super League. A diminutive player with a great turn of speed, Thompson has quickly made the Tigers number 1 jersey his own. His lack of experience in the position is probably part of the reason why the Tigers attack isn’t quite clicking yet, but that does not mean he’s not an attacking threat – far from it. Whenever you have a fullback with Thompsons pace, you have to be aware of their positioning on the field at all times throughout the match – regardless of whether you’re attacking or defending. The best way to negate the effect of a fullback like Corey Thompson? Rush him on the sweep plays so he questions his attacking ability, force as many high kicks up between he and the best metre eater of the Tigers back three, and always, always, always, meet him with a straight defensive line.
David Nofoaluma & Malakai Watene-Zelezniak: I feel like both Nofoaluma and Watene-Zelezniak are two of the more underrated wingers in the NRL competition. Both are great finishers and who have the ability to make good metres out of the back end. Both however, have had their fair share of trouble under the high-ball, and it’s within our best interest to ensure that continues. After observing Nofoaluma closely against the Broncos last week, I still believe that there’s some defensive deficiencies that we can exploit there (which is probably part of the reason why he wasn’t originally selected in the top 17 to start the year). If we can straighten the attack on our left edge, we could exploit the likes of Nofoaluma.
Benji Marshall: He’s the playmaker the Tigers need and deserve. When he helped lead Wests to a premiership in 2005, he was all glitz, glamour and flash-plays. Now he’s the cool, calm, controlled half that reads and dictates the pace of the game and re-directs the energy and focus of the team at the exact moment they need to re-compose themselves. His long kicking game has been exemplary, but an ankle injury sustained against the Broncos last week has placed him under somewhat of an injury cloud. Marshall is expected to take his on Easter Monday, and if that’s the case, we should be anything but forgiving. One of the best ways to test out the durability of an ankle injury is to through an attacking formation with multiple runners running different ankles. This tests out the lateral movement of the defender and could be enough to limit or remove his involvement in the game, and in doing that, we could remove some of the composure the Tigers have relied upon.
Luke Brooks: Once labelled a turnstile, Luke Brooks is one of the players who seems to have overhauled his game in the off-season under Ivan Cleary’s tutelage, making better decisions either side of the ball. Brooks is making better first up contact and benefiting from having better defensive players either side of him in the Tigers line. Simultaneously, the rash, off-the-cuff decisions that seemed to dictate his attacking play, are now replaced with more measured decision-making. His deft little kicks in behind the line are creating repeat sets, or at the very least, forcing the opposition to start their sets on their own line. He is playing a key role in dictating field position and it’s contributing largely to the Tigers success thus far. The greater the line-speed we can bring to a player like Brooks, and force him into some of those bad habits, the better placed we are at winning the field position battle.
Russell Packer, Ben Matulino & Matt Eisenhuth: Aaron who? These three have been the cornerstone of the Tigers turnaround. Making consistent metres through the middle and defending with aggression not seen at the Wests Tigers before. They wrestle their forward opponents out of the competition, slowing the play-the-ball down and controlling the ruck with seeming ease. However, as previously stated, this style of play is not sustainable without something giving way. We want to be controlling the weight of possession as much as possible when these three are on the field, even the most skilled defenders can only tackle for so long. If we break down the Tigers middle, we’ll expose them out wide late.
How’ll They’ll Play It & What We Will Have To Do
As the St. George Illawarra Dragons have shown in some of their fadeaways in previous years, having a resolute defensive line isn’t sustainable if your attack doesn’t start to support it – and this is an issue the Tigers will soon face, if their attack doesn’t start to support them either.
The Tigers aren’t going to deviate too much from what they’ve produced in their opening couple of games, and if our performance against the Sharks is anything to go off, our defensive line is somewhat restored – so we find ourselves in a bit of stale mate, and trying to answer one of the two following questions – Who will out defend the other? And whose attack will click?
If we bring the defensive attitude of last week and use it as a launch pad into this week, we will keep ourselves in the game for the full 80-minutes. However, if we bring the same attacking game, we’ll lose in a very boring and mundane way, and the game won’t feature more than 30-points.
You’d think given the position of both teams at the moment, there’s unlikely to be any more than 3-tries per side (and that’s being generous) in this match. So, if one side can manage to jag a try or two, they’ll be well-positioned to hang on and claim the victory.
How do we be this side? Target the Tigers right edge – both Benji and David Nofoaluma are there. If we can straight our attack and bring some quick points to the game in the first half, it might be enough to jag a victory. Conversely, if the Tigers do the same to us, it may be enough to take the wind out of our sails.
Field position will be the ultimate dictator of this match. If we can prevent the Tigers from controlling it the way they have to start the year, we give ourselves every chance of scoring the points we need to.
Attack has been (as you’d assume it to be), a clear focus of the boys this week. With our timing seemingly out in our set plays against Cronulla, we’ll be looking to straighten the point of our plays, and a bench featuring Edwards, Terepo and Williams could be just the thing to provide that attacking spark. If we can do so, we can find just enough points to keep the Tigers at bay, but this is only under the presumption that we bring the defensive attitude of the week before, into this game.
One thing is for sure, this game, much like last year, has the potential to shape our season, for better or worse. Attack will be the best form of defence for the Eels, provided it’s supported by defence that doesn’t create the opportunity for the Tigers to attack.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.