Well we finally did it Eels fans! We returned to the winners circle last week – and in style. A 44-10 victory over bitter rivals, the Manly-Warringah Sea-Eagles got us on the board for 2018. We saw the return of our disciplined forward pack, who worked as a unit all afternoon, while our halves played with patience and control for the first time this year.
The question now becomes – can we repeat this performance?
Last week was by no means any fluke, but rather the culmination of a couple of things. When a side has been playing the way our boys had in the opening 6-weeks of the competition, you know at some point the penny is going to drop and that elusive win will take place. Additionally, Manly were amidst a world of internal turmoil and drama, which rarely bodes well for on-field performance – it was, in many ways, a classic rugby league story. We had made some personal changes, the appointment of a new captain, media criticism – all the perfect ingredients for a “We’ll show you” type performance.
Now that’s all well and good when you come up against a side like Manly at an opportunist time (just as Manly did to us in Round 2), but we have to back that performance up against the high-flying fourth placed Tigers this afternoon.
I said it in the lead up to our Easter Monday clash, and I’ll say it again here – 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 – and prior to last week’s loss to the Newcastle Knights, there didn’t look like there were many chinks in the Wests Tigers armour.
However, the Knights showed me a couple of things last week that lead me to believe a belief I’ve held all along about the Wests Tigers – and that’s that they’re only one performance away from falling off the wagon (bus).
The Tigers have built their early season dominance on the back of tradesman like defence. They’ve dominated in the middle (either side of the ball) and have scored just enough points (when they’ve needed too, sometimes very fortuitously). They were performances that very much mirrored the likes of St. George Illawarra’s start to last year. Aside from one isolated attacking spree, they have ultimately struggled to get points on the board, but played with enough control and field position, along with a resolute defensive line, that it’s negated the need to score points.
But herein lies the problem…
If your attack doesn’t evolve on the back of those performances, if you can’t start to score the points that come with the dominant stats the Tigers have produced over the opening six-weeks of the competition, your strengths slowly start to fade – and why? Because the defensive performances of the Tigers are not replicable across the whole year. That cover defence that was ever so present, starts to slowly fade; players start dropping off tackles with a little more regularity; and some of the discipline starts to go out the window.
Let’s face it, the NRL is a very tough demanding sporting competition and you only have to be slightly off for it to count against you on the scoreboard and in the win-loss columns, and even though they only lost by two-points last week, the Tigers started to show some signs of that. They missed 52 tackles, conceded 9 penalties and had their line broken 6 times – some very different stats, from those compared across the opening 6-weeks.
Obviously they’ll take some solace in having only lost by two-points to the Knights in producing some of those stats, but to me it was an indication of some things that might come, and if you’re our boys, you want to be in position to take advantage of that.
Now, when you’re on the high of a big 13+ point victory, you’ve scored some tries and gotten some confidence, and you see your opposition has missed 52 tackles and had their line broken 6 times in the previous week, one word comes to mind ‘opportunity’.
We’re going to have to create some and take some today, Eels fans, but before we can break down how we do, let’s have a quick look at the Tigers main threats today.
Corey Thompson: Corey Thompson has such a great turn of speed and has really made the fullback his position his own, even when Tuimoala Lolohea has been available to play. However, despite his excellent form to open this year, I think having Thompson playing in the number one jersey, only bodes well for us this afternoon – it gives us a smaller player in the back three to target. If we turn him around and force him to chase the ball, we have the opportunity to meet a smaller player in the defensive line to smash, while conversely, his lack of experience in the position aides us in the fluidity (or lack thereof) in the Tigers attack. The Tigers looked sharp against us in our previous encounter this year with Tui chiming in and supporting his halves, while Corey has looked less so in his games this year. The best way for us to take him out of the game is to 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: Both of these guys are great finishers and who have the ability to make good metres out of the back end, but have also had their fair share of trouble under the high-ball, and it’s within our best interest to ensure that continues. David Nofoaluma still has some defensive deficiencies in his game that we can, particularly when it comes to creating numbers down his edge, it’s something he just doesn’t defend all that well against, and has the potential to produce try-scoring opportunities for us. If we can straighten our attack on our left edge, the same way we did against Manly in the second half last week, we could exploit the likes of Nofoaluma.
Benji Marshall: Benji Marshall continues to defy father-time and has evolved his game to such a point that he’s now being reconsidered for representative duties. When you play with the control that Marshall has exhibited over the opening 6-weeks of the competition, it’s no surprise that your team has a positive record, and it’s that confidence that has also lent itself to some vintage Marshall runs as well. His long kicking game has been exemplary and it’s ultimately the thing we’re going to have to control/pressure, when it comes to establishing field position this afternoon. If we can continue to meet him with our speed of line and not leave any gaps for that deft step to expose, we’ll keep Benji under control.
Luke Brooks: Who would have thought that Luke Brooks would be involved in Origin selection discussions coming into this season? A very controlled short kicking game and patience has led to not only the Tigers great form to start the year, but his name being thrown into the ring as a State of Origin hopeful. Those once rash, off-the-cuff decisions that seemed to dictate his attacking play, are now replaced with more measured decision-making, and 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. So just like Benji, the greater the line-speed we can bring to a player like Brooks, and force him into some of those bad habits out of him (they’re still there), the better placed we are at winning the field position battle.
Ben Matulino & Matt Eisenhuth: A lot of pressure will fall onto Ben Matulino and Matt Eisenhuth this afternoon. Russell Packer has been the leader of the Tigers pack so far in 2018, and many of the great runs Tigers players have made this year have come on the back of a Packer charge. His out is a huge positive for us and puts a lot more pressure on their two other big men, Matulino and Eisenhuth. Eisenhuth last week missed 7 tackles, Matulino 2, Jacob Liddle 4 and Elijah Taylor 2, so there’s opportunity to exploit the Tigers middle defensively without the presence of Packer. It’s one we should take with two hands – I’m looking at you, Kaysa Pritchard – bring that beautiful running game that we all got to enjoy last week.
Jacob Liddle: Jacob Liddle showed in our previous encounter this year that he has the ability to carve up a side through the middle, all he needs is a quick play-the-ball and he’s off. Blinding acceleration and good game sense, one gets the feeling Liddle will continue to develop into one of the competitions better hookers as his career progress, but for now, there’s some defensive weaknesses that we can take advantage of. Keeping him off the ball and the ruck controlled is how we keep him quiet with ball-in-hand, just as isolating him and Matt Eisenhuth in the defensive line, is how we keep him busy off the ball.
How’ll They’ll Play It & What We Will Have To Do
As I’ve said before, the St. George Illawarra Dragons have shown in some of their fade-aways 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 six-weeks, so the key for us is to meet that with defensive enthusiasm. Sure, we kept Manly to just 10-points last week, but it could have been more if some calls went their way (think Kelly and Uate no tries), so there’s definitely some work for us to do on that front.
That being said however, one does get the feeling we’ve found a bit of confidence and the Manly game will serve as a launch pad for a better performance this week, and as good as the Tigers defence has been to start 2018, that our attack found it’s mojo again. The Knights may have put 22-points on the Tigers last week, but give the Eels in an attacking mood 52 missed tackles and 6 line breaks to work with, and they’ll find a few more points to score – we showed this in the last 20-minutes of the Easter Monday clash and were able to pick up some pretty cheap points as a result, so the Tigers will want to bring their defensive A-game this afternoon.
For us it’s just about replicating and building on last week’s performance. The Tigers will aim for high completions and their 2018 stats dictate that they’ll complete at 85% or higher, so we have to go set-for-set with them in this department. We showed in the first half of the Easter Monday clash that failing to do that will result in the Tigers being able to jag a try or two, so the completion rates in the opening 20-30 minutes is particularly important. If we win this part of the game, we will win the game.
There will be opportunities available to us if we 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 could prove too much for the Tigers to overcome. 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 – and if Mitchell Moses brings the same kicking boots he brought last week, we can prevent the Tigers from controlling the match and give ourselves every chance of scoring the points we need to.
One gets the feeling that this game is going to be pivotal in the course of both sides’ seasons.
Parramatta for obvious reasons, we build some momentum and confidence, and it’d be a consecutive victory over a current top 4 team.
For the Tigers will want to put any jitters and questions to bed. Given how they’ve started the year, if they were to come out of this round 5-3, it doesn’t reflect where they probably feel they’re at, particularly if they replicate some of the defensive stats they produced last week.
This game, much like last the Easter Monday clash last year, has the potential to shape our season, for better or worse. Attack will be the best form of defence for the Eels today, provided it’s supported by defence that doesn’t create the opportunity for the Tigers to attack. There’s an opportunity available to both sides today and one gets the feeling the victor will move onto bigger and better things this year.
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.