After falling to 0-4 in the opening month of the competition, I don’t think there were many experts or Eels fans who would have anticipated this start to the 2018 campaign.
The blue and gold looked to have taken two steps back, one step forward against the Wests Tigers, after they seemed to regain the defensive resolve they have become known for in their narrow round-three loss to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, going down 30-20 in the annual Easter Monday clash.
The last 20-minutes of that match however provided some signs of life and as Eels Five-Eighth, Corey Norman said throughout the week “It felt like Parramatta again”
The challenge now becomes this – bring the defensive resolve of the Cronulla performance and the attack of the last 20-minutes against the Wests Tigers into one eighty-minute performance, and our boys will start to re-announce themselves as title contenders.
Easy in principle, but the time has come for action – and that starts with a win against the Penrith Panthers today. Simply put, no matter how, we need a result this afternoon, Eels fans.
We find ourselves in the precarious and odd position (as many other NRL teams do), playing an opponent for the second time, within the opening 5 rounds of the NRL competition, but that is a discussion for another day.
Both teams head into todays clash in stark contrast to the season opener. The Eels had all the hype of a top-4 finish in 2017, followed by an uninterrupted pre-season, trial dismantling of the Newcastle Knights and were strongly backed to be a contender for the premiership. The Panthers had a disrupted pre-season, where rumours around their playing and coaching personnel dogged the team throughout the summer months, and some indifferent trial form had plenty of people asking questions. So, when they were 14-0 down against Parramatta in their first 30-minutes of the season, one would have excused the punter for jumping on the “Anthony Griffin first coach to be sacked in 2018” betting market (they actually, for real, no joke, have a betting market to see whether someone remains employed at an organisation these days?)
Fast forward five-weeks and the narrative has completely flipped – in fact, fast forward to the 35th minute of our round-one encounter with the Panthers, when Waqa Blake scored a momentum-swinging try that launched the Panthers to victory. Our season hasn’t had the same level of promise it had, prior to the scoring of that try and so it is somewhat poetic (annoyingly and frustratingly so), that we come up against our round one adversary’s, as we attempt to get on the board for the first time in 2018.
They’re not going to be easy Eels fans, but there’s some weaknesses that we can exploit and take advantage of, if we’re willing to play smart, controlled football against a Panthers pack that dominated the North Queensland Cowboys last week.
Dylan Edwards: The Panthers speedster is great in broken field play, but is still finding his feet in many ways in the top grade. Rightly or wrongly, there seemed to be a mid-field bomb tactic in the round one encounter (as has been the theme with much of our kicking game in 2018), that just did not trouble Edwards. Granted that both the Panthers wingers are big, metre-eating men, we should be looking to kick in behind Edwards and force him to be the one to return the ball against a united defensive line. When you isolate smaller fullbacks with kicks in behind-the-line, and remove the luxury of them handing it off to bigger-bodied outside backs, you give your defensive line the opportunity to not only established field position, but the opportunity for repeat sets – something we have failed at in 2018. The more we force Edwards to chase our own kicks, the better poised we will be at winning this game.
Josh Mansour: We all know how valuable he is at rucking the ball out of the Penrith red zone – he starts the Panthers sets off on the right-foot before the middle men come in to finish off their sets – so it’s vitally important that we limit his ability to do this. How so? By kicking the ball out. It’s much harder for Mansour to make metres against a set defensive line of a scrum, 10-metres out from his own line, then it is for him to return against potentially staggered defensive line on a kick return. Additionally, if we are looking to utilize the bomb at any stage, this man should be our target! At worse he should be fielding the ball on his own goal-line, removing him from the play of a hit-up, at best, we’re exposing an understated weakness in his game – George Jennings should be the target for some shall bombs or cross-field kicks against Mansour – we could find plenty of success this way.
Waqa Blake: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I really like Waqa Blake as an outside back. His long, loping strides and underrated speed see him move gracefully across the field. Couple this with his ability to break tackles, Blake poses a threat from any part of the field. Hitting-and-sticking is imperative on a player like Blake, because if he breaks free of one tackle, he generally breaks free of another – and we learnt this the hard win in round 1 – as we have on other occasions as well. He is, however, the type of player we can isolate in the defensive line as well. Direct play against the grain has isolated Waqa in the past, but we have to have bodies in motion either side of his shoulders.
Tyrone Peachey: Finds himself in the unfamiliar position of five-eighth for our second clash of the year, and despite last weeks performance against the Cowboys – it is to our advantage. The weakness to expose in Peachey’s game today is not so much a deficiency in his own game, it is more the pressure he places on other players by playing in the halves. We now know that outside our own defensive 20-metre zone that only James Maloney and Peter Wallace are likely to assume any long kicking responsibilities. Sure, Peachey will chime in with some grubber kicks (which he is surprisingly, very effective at), but when it comes to clearing the ball, we know we can place all the pressure on Maloney and Wallace – this will aide us in our quest to win the field-position battle this afternoon.
James Maloney: Had one of the performances of his career against the Cowboys last week, showing just why the Panthers bought him. Kicked the team all-around the park and came up with the clutch plays when his team needed him too. Limiting this man’s impact will need to be one of the primary focuses of our defensive line this afternoon. How do you do so? Well firstly by limiting the amount of possession the Panthers have, and secondly the time he personally has in possession. If he has to regularly kick from his own side of halfway, we will pick him off all-day, however, if he is afforded the same time on the ball the Cowboys provided him in their match last week, he’ll produce a similar man-of-the-match performance. Similarly, we should be looking to work him over in defence, particularly when Kenny Edwards is on – let’s take some juice out of him by forcing him to make tackles on bigger, aggressive men, and let’s do so, by having some possession ourselves.
Peter Wallace: Is the only other real play-making option in the Panthers side this afternoon. The Panthers can rely on this being the case (with Nathan Cleary’s injury), because of how easily their forward pack has been rolling through the middle in recent weeks. Limit this option or remove it completely, and the pressure on the likes of Maloney and Wallace starts to grow. Our markers must be careful, as he will try to expose us through the middle – it will be a huge test of how much we’ve learned from the referee’s interpretation of the 10-metre rule this year, but pass that test, and we can cause Wallace some headaches with our aggressive line speed.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard: Big RCG has developed into the forward-leader out Penrith way, which is impressive when you consider they have representative players, Trent Merrin and James Tamou in their ranks. His carries help get the Panthers sets on the front foot, and he is a man whose impact we will have to limit. Crowding a player, while wrapping the ball up, like RCG, is paramount to establishing defensive dominance, but we cannot do so at the risk of being penalised, like we have been previously. There’s a difference between trying to out-aggress our opponents and out-enthuse. We have to out-enthuse, and that means being smart, and willing to concede some metres, for the sake of not giving away a penalty.
Viliame Kikau: He’s had a great opening few weeks in the NRL, but I still believe the defensive jury is out on Viliame Kikau. It’s all well-and-good to be a dominant player when your team has the ball most of the time you’re on the field. It’s another to do so when your energy gets sapped making a heap of tackles. The answer to handling Kikau? Get him tackling, so he’s not running. We’ve all seen how damaging he can be hitting the ball up on the edge, let’s remove the energy for him to do so. Turn the Panthers team around early in our sets with long kicks for space, get him making consecutive tackles. You’d be amazed at how quickly we could find some space in and around him playing direct footy with bodies in motion afterwards.
Isaah Yeo: Continues to be one of the most improved and underrated backrowers in the game, Issah Yeo is as much a running threat when he hits the line, as he is a defensive talisman – a threat that will only improve with the acquisition of James Maloney. Our right edge must stay focused as Maloney will like to pass and kick in behind the line for Yeo all-day. Ass-to-grass and under the rib-cage, boys.
James Fisher-Harris: Wow. How damaging has this guy been in recent weeks? Just an absolute beast – but the same rules apply to a middle man when trying to prevent their effectiveness. Get off your line quickly, crowd them, prevent the offload, roll them on their back and repeat. Then, turn them around and force them to run back onside with early kicks in your sets. The heavy they breathe, the quicker they fall. Our middle will have their work cut out for them today, but they have no choice.
Trent Merrin: His jersey number may have changed, but his role will remain the same – make some metres, look to hit-and-spin and offload. Much like RCG, crowding Trent Merrin is a must. His ability to generate second—phase play has the ability to drain our energy stocks, so first up contact is important. Do that, and prevent the Panthers roll on.
How’ll They’ll Play It & What We Will Have To Do
The Panthers will continue along as they have done the previous couple of weeks, and why not? It’s been super effective for them. They’ll look to roll through the middle and have Maloney and Wallace play on the back of quick play-the-balls. If they’re afforded this luxury, they’ll take a mile and our chances of victory with them.
It’s why defensively, we will have to bring the same game we played against the Sharks, the more we’re forcing Maloney and Wallace to kick within their own halves on 5th tackle, the more our chances of winning will improve. This, along with no offside penalties, should be the sole focus of our defensive line. As I said before, get off our line quickly, crowd them, prevent the offload, roll them on their back and repeat – then, when we have the ball, turn them around and force them to chase it and work it out of their own line.
So, what should our focus with the ball be?
Firstly, 50% possession or more. We’ve had no ball in the opening month, and a lot of it is our own fault. Complete our sets and finish off by kicking for space. Only when a try is on, should we be kicking for a contest. The rest of the time we should be kicking in behind the wingers and fullback on tackles 3 and 4 (when we have quick play-the-balls) and rolling the ball into the in-goal when we’re inside the Panthers red zone and an immediate try-scoring option isn’t presenting itself.
Starve the Panthers of possession, and we will win. Starve ourselves of possession and we will lose.
Our kicking game will be the easiest way for us to fatigue and control the Panthers pack. The easiest way to do that is to generate repeat defensive efforts and force them to chase the ball as much as possible. Both Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses must roll the ball in behind the line as much as possible throughout the opening 50-60 minutes. Only then will we be able to generate the pressure we need to win, and the only way we will be able to generate the ability for them to kick the ball into these spaces, is by creating quick play-the-balls by using our edge forwards the way we did last year. Playing through our edges (as we showed against the Tigers in the last 20-minutes on Easter Monday), is how we will allow these other things to fall into place. For whatever reason, we have moved away from utilizing our edge runners in 2018, and it’s made our attack boring and predictable. Supporting runners and bodies in motion either side of the ball-carrier will create the space we need, which will create the flow on effect we require to produce ascendency.
50% or more possession, kick to space, play through the edges, don’t give away offside or play-the-ball penalties. Those are what we require for victory today – and victory is a must. They’re the basics and they’re what we need to get back to.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.