It’s round 6 Eels fans and we’re still winless – how are you feeling? A little deflated no doubt?
I’m sure like me, you’ve been hoping, praying, for some positive news coming into this week – and it looks like we’ve finally got it – the return of Clint “The King” Gutherson.
Many an article has circulated throughout the week about the importance Gutherson has to our side. This isn’t just the work he does with the ball in hand, but also the work he does off the ball – the type of stuff that lifts a team at the tipping point of a match. His return is welcomed by all and sundry, and it comes at the most crucial part of our season.
Following a narrow six-point loss (with penalty goals the difference, again!) against the Penrith Panthers last week, the Eels head to the nation’s capital in desperate search of a victory. Standing between them and that victory however, is a rejuvenated Canberra Raiders side who disposed of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, despite spending large portion of the game defending inside their own 20-metre line.
Their victory followed a call-to-action from their Coach, Ricky Stuart, in the post-game presser the week before, citing that some of his players were “soft”. It also followed a week marred by controversy, with the revelation of fullback Jack Wighton’s involvement in a pre-season altercation. It was the typical backs-to-the-wall victory a team experiences when a little bit of drama has taken place throughout the week, even accommodating for the Bulldogs lack of bite in this particular game, that usually leads to one of two things happening – it’s either a flash-in-the-pan performance, and the team were reacting to the events throughout the week, or it sets the platform to kick start their season.
Canberra has never been a happy hunting ground for our Eels, in fact we haven’t won there since 2006, so it’s well and truly us who have their backs against the wall this week. We’ll have plenty of threats to contain to come away with victory today, so let’s take a closer look at who we will need to manage.
Jack Wighton: He was an absentee from the Raiders win last week, but his form has been amongst the Raiders best so far this year, averaging 145m per game, and totalling 19 tackle breaks and 2 tries across his 4 games to date, but it will also be his first game back following the revelation of his pre-season altercation. Players react in a variety of ways when off-field controversy surrounds them coming into a match. Some react positively, some fall apart at the seam. It would be worth our while testing Wighton’s confidence and focus throughout the match. Although I’ve been against our tactic of mid-field bombs to date (and still am), I think an exception can be made to see where Wighton’s headspace is. Historically he hasn’t been great under the highball and he is largely a confidence-based player, let’s see where that confidence sits today.
Nick Cotric & Jarrod Croker: Nick Cotric is a big, bustling winger who has made us hurt before (please don’t be one-on-one with anyone today), while Jarrod Croker just continues to score points year after year. Well fortunately, the greatest game of all is played two-way, and defence hasn’t always been the strong suit of these two. With Cotric’s build, his turn and chase is not as effective when having to deal with a pacey winger – enter Bevan French. An opportunity absolutely exists to kick in-behind Cotric today and as we know, Bevan’s pace more often than not gets him there. Look for an early tackle kick to produce some goods. Alternatively, Croker is the type of man, who if you isolate him one-on-one and step back inside him with support runners, you have the opportunity to create space and beat him. This is not just the best way to play Croker, but to play the Raiders.
Joey Leilua & Jordan Rapana: Lei-pana, as they have come to be known, on their day, are the most threatening centre-winger combination in the competition. We’ve learnt this the hard way before, so you’d hope we have taken some things away from this. It is likely that Kirisome Auva’a will be marking up against Leilua, and nothing short of his best defensive effort will be required. We know these guys both like to hit-and-spin and play back on the inside (they rarely take you on down the flank), so it’s important that our inside defenders are supporting the play when we make first contact against these guys. Similarly, it will be important when we have possession, that we attack them with bodies in motion either side of the ball carrier. The likes of Leilua and his inside defenders have been found wanting when you threaten to hit the runner either side of them and have often come up with poor defensive reads as a result. We do this, and again, threaten to throw the back on the inside to expose the cover defenders, we can open them up.
Aidan Sezar: Played close to his best game for the Raiders last week, kicking the Raiders to field position and victory. On his day, Sezar plays with a composure in the ilk of the top line halves, however, he does have the ability to float in and out of games. Prior to last week, his kicking game had been mixed, and the indifferent form of halves partner, Blake Austin, as well as Josh Hodgson’s current injury status, has put a lot more pressure on Sezar. We know in terms of kicking options, Sezar will be the man conducting most of the long-range kicks for the Raiders today and this gives us the opportunity to place plenty of pressure on him.
Junior Paulo & Shannon Boyd: The one-time Eels wrecking ball can still skittle players on his day, and it wasn’t that long ago that Shannon Boyd was an Australian International. I’ve said this before and I will say it again, you starve the Raiders of possession and continue to throw inside balls against these guys, forcing them to complete plenty of cover defence, then you will reap the rewards. They (along with Josh Papalii) are the type of players who if you force to do a lot of defence, lose their effectiveness in attack. They dominate you if you have 55%+ possession every week, but if you fall below 45%, become a liability and will start to fall off tackles and concede cheap metres. Starving them of possession, while turning the ball inside is the only away for us to play this game, and to expect to come away with a win.
Josh Papalii: I have no doubt this man, when he comes on, is excited at the prospect of making Mitchell Moses tackle all day long. It’s also something he will succeed at if we do not play smart. I’ll give you a little hint Eels fans, if we keep this man (and Junior Paulo’s) hit count down in single figures, and have Mitchell Moses complete less than 20 tackles we will be in a position to win the game when it counts. Otherwise, we know what he will do, even putting aside his indifferent form to start the year. The recipe is the same for this man, as it is the other Raiders forwards – play to the edges, look to turn the ball back inside and expose the cover defenders.
How’ll They’ll Play It & What We Will Have To Do
We showed last week that we can defensively handle a big pack and although we will be doing it without our forward talisman in Nathan Brown, that should fill us with plenty of confidence defensively. If we bring that defensive performance this week, it will place us in a very good position to win. Failing to do that, the Raiders will make cheap metres against us, build on their performance against the Bulldogs and continue our 2018 misery.
Recent history has been on the Raiders side and they will fancy their chances against us tonight. They’ll look to roll us through the middle and will back their outside backs to score the necessary points as a result.
For us it’s about continuing to build on our defensive performance from the Panthers match, while learning to play a little smarter with the ball in hand this week. There are always opportunities against the Raiders to turn the ball back inside. As I’ve reiterated throughout this article, this is mainly because their cover defence isn’t the greatest. Their big men struggle to consistently adapt to this style of play and when you have an even run of possession against them, you’ll give yourself every opportunity to score points against them. Even the lacklustre Bulldogs looked threatening the few times they utilized this strategy last week, but it’s up to us to quintessentially exploit it – and that’s where the King comes back into the frame.
As the fittest player in the club, one of the best support players in the game, Clint Gutherson is the type of player who stand to benefit most from this style of defensive line. We know he will back up our forwards on the inside all day long, so too will the likes of Kaysa Pritchard at hooker – there are points to be had if the pass sticks, and Silvia Havili is the defensive weak link in the middle of the Raiders defensive line. The more we can expose him one-on-one, the better our chances.
Replicating the defensive efforts of the Panthers game is a must, as is playing through our edges and looking to expose the Raiders middle men by turning the ball back inside. A simple game with control will see us home, but only on the provision that we continue to turn up defensively and not the let Raiders big men dictate terms to us.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.