Date: Saturday, June 6, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 5:30PM AEST
Referee: Ben Cummins
Head-to-head (including Northern Eagles): Played 147, Parramatta 58, Manly 85, Drawn 4
Odds: Eels $1.67, Sea Eagles $2.20
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Eels 32 d Sea Eagles 16, Bankwest Stadium, R25 2019
Sea Eagles 36 d Eels 24, Brookvale Oval, R18 2019
Eels 44 d Sea Eagles 10, ANZ Stadium, R7 2018
Sea Eagles 54 d Eels 0, Brookvale Oval, R2 2018
In recent times it hasn’t been a good thing for the Eels when boffins start digging through record books, but the start of the 2020 season has seen the blue and gold set some impressive marks. Fewer points conceded in the first three games than any team in 31 years, undefeated after three games for the first time in 27 years. Mitchell Moses has scored more points himself than three other teams, and as many as the Melbourne Storm. Holding Brisbane to the second lowest possession rate of the NRL era, bettered only by the elimination final last year. Season 2020 has lived up to the high hopes of Parramatta fans so far, but the biggest test of this infant season stands ahead of us this week.
Manly also hit the ground running post the COVID-19 break, running up the score on a Bulldogs team that the Eels barely scraped by back in round one. Before that the Sea Eagles were impressive in a win against the defending premier Roosters, but stumbled out of the blocks against Melbourne in a game that felt like neither team wanted to win.
Manly was incredibly efficient in winning against the Roosters and Bulldogs, completing at 87% and 82% in those respective clashes. Defensively their numbers don’t look as flash as the Eels “best in 31 years” 14 points conceded, but it doesn’t seem likely that Manly will fall apart under Parramatta pressure like the Titans and Broncos did before them. It promises to be a cracking game, another big test of Parramatta’s premiership credentials, and victory will bode well for the winners premiership odds come Monday.
The Manly/Parramatta rivalry is too rich to do justice here, even with the liberty to ramble that TCT gives me. If Manly isn’t Parramatta’s greatest rival, it is only because we don’t want to give them that satisfaction.
Though both clubs entered the competition in the same year, the rivalry between the peninsula and Parramatta River only properly kicked into gear in the 70s. Manly had a habit of foiling the Eels on big stages in that decade, despite the Blue and Gold outplaying the Sea Eagles in many of those games. In some cases they were helped along by what many of us believed was the undisguised bias of referee Greg Hartley, while the (comparatively for the era) “good boy” nature of the Eels squads of the 70s was at odds with the “bash em and beat em” style of football that Manly and the Dragons got away with on many occasions. If you ever worry Ray Price copped too many head knocks in his football career you can blame those Manly teams of the late 70s for most of the damage.
The Eels got their revenge in the 80s, beating Manly in back-to-back grand finals, both times in convincing fashion and both after Manly bested Parramatta earlier in the finals series. That ‘82 grand final is particularly special to me, as the timing matches up pretty closely to exactly nine months before my birth.
Since those glorious days it is rare that the Eels and Sea Eagles have peaked together. It is a testament to how strong the feelings were between these clubs in the 70s and 80s that nary a big time premiership match has been played between the two in 35 years yet every contest has felt meaningful.
Manly’s dominant mid 90s run coincided with an eternal Eels rebuild, while the Brian Smith era of Parramatta success overlapped with the disastrous Northern Eagles merger and the lean years preceding it. The most recent finals clash between the two sides came in 2005 where the Eels demolished Manly in a preliminary final 46-22, a game the Eels led 28-0 at halftime and one I best remember for former Eel Michael Witt over-celebrating a try that narrowed the margin to 34-10.
There is plenty of cross-pollination in the ranks of both rosters, from the days where a clash with coach Terry Fearnley saw hardman and captain Ray Higgs move to the peninsula, to the betrayal of Judas Lyon and most recently Sea Eagle converts in the Eels lineup David Gower, Shaun Lane and Eels captain “King” Clint Gutherson. This has extended beyond the field, with Eels coach Brad Arthur spending a year as assistant to Geoff Toovey at Manly after his 2012 caretaker period at Parramatta and before his current appointment. Famed talent spotter Noel Cleal spent a productive decade filling (and often housing) the Eels junior ranks after making his name as a player at Manly, and then moving back to Brookvale in 2004.
Manly has picked from the bones of Eels discards for a fair while now, especially through a partnership with Blacktown at Canterbury Cup level. If you ever wondered what happened to a moderately promising Eels junior from five years ago, he ended up at Manly. Some of those names include Abbas Miski, Sean Keppie, Dane Aukafolau, John Folau, Zach Dockar-Clay and Denzal Tonise. Who says we always lose our best kids? Ethan Parry is odds on to be in maroon and white by July.
More famous names to play for both clubs include Kieran Foran (remember that? I try not to), Geoff Gerard, Scott Donald, Will Hopoate, Tony Williams and Anthony Watmough, while current Manly winger Jorge Taufua was a Parramatta junior and a common example used in the eternal “but we lose all our good juniors” debate.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
Let’s start with the good news. TAB branches are now open, but I’ll stay true to my word and not sabotage my tips by weighing them down with the burden of Sixties coin.
The bad news from last week was that any followers of my betting suggestion were left to rue the half point attached to the betting line. We needed the total match points to exceed 40.5 points and the final tally was 40 points.
I still like that Head to Head/OverUnder market, and the Parramatta/over 40.5 total match points selection is paying $3.20.
The Eels are favoured to win and I’m confident they’ll deliver. Furthermore, the four most recent clashes have been high scoring affairs with 54, 54, 60 and 48 total match points.
Let’s hope the footy gods are kind and that the half point doesn’t feature!
You will, of course, bet responsibly.
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Marata Niukore. 14. Brad Takairangi 15. Ray Stone 16. Kane Evans 17. Peni Terepo. 18. Oregon Kaufusi 19. George Jennings 20. Will Smith 21. David Gower.
As expected, the Eels are unchanged bar Jaeman Salmon vacating the extended bench for Will Smith. I guess BA was unhappy with his efforts as a ball boy last Thursday. Nathan Brown remains on the sideline through suspension for one more week.
I know I am picking on him, but Peni Terepo dropped yet another ball cold last week and even worse, the only forwards in the NRL with a lower effective tackling percentage are Bryce Cartwright and Viliame Kikau. Terepo ranks last among props in making only 84% of his tackles. It is only a matter of time before that costs us more than a half-break.
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Jorge Taufua 3. Brad Parker 4. Moses Suli 5. Reuben Garrick 6. Dylan Walker 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Addin Fonua-Blake 9. Danny Levi 10. Martin Taupau 11. Joel Thompson 12. Curtis Sironen 13. Jake Trbojevic. 14. Lachlan Croker 15. Corey Waddell 16. Sean Keppie 17. Taniela Paseka. 18. Morgan Boyle 19. Jack Gosiewski 20. Tevita Funa 21. Brendan Elliot.
Manly are also unchanged after a cracking win over the Bulldogs, their only player unavailable is hooker Manase Fainu, with the double whammy of long term shoulder injury and a no-fault stand down.
COVID-19 might be the best thing that has happened to Parramatta’s 2020 chances. Reed Mahoney got all the time he needed to recover from an injury that would have cost us 9 weeks and surely a couple of defeats, and our troubling away form of 2019 is rendered moot by the lack of crowds. Now we face the next test, playing at our beloved Bankwest in front of cardboard cutouts. It won’t be the fortress of 2019 without the blue and gold army, but hopefully the familiarity and fond memories of Bankwest give us some slight advantage.
Ben Cummins is the referee, another experienced head that gives us the quinella of 2019 grand final referees in back-to-back weeks. Cummins oversaw the Eels only once in the 2019 regular season but was in the middle for both finals matches, with the Storm capitulation being the only one of those three games the Eels lost. Manly will be less thrilled to see Cummins in charge, losing four from four under him last year but winning their only game with him this year, against the Roosters.
Cummins blew only four set restarts last weekend over 90 minutes in the Knights/Panthers game, but it is too early to say he will keep the whistle in the pocket around this new rule.
Early weather reports are for a clear and mild day, though the 5:30 kickoff could make for slippery conditions. The Bankwest surface started to show some signs of wear by the end of the second game last weekend, but with a week to prepare and this being the first match at the ground this round I wouldn’t expect any dramas on that front.
How We Win
Manly has conceded only five tries this season, four of them from kicks and the final one from a lofting Luke Keary pass that travelled the distance of a cross field chip. We can look at this two ways; as a weakness to be exploited or as a sign of a defense that will be very tough to crack. Both are correct.
Both Manly edges have a habit of rushing in, Moses Suli in particular, while Jorge Taufua hides some ordinary positional play behind bone crunching hits when his rushes come off. Melbourne exploited Taufua by kicking behind him off a set play and a broken play, but I could have found the space behind Taufua on both occasions and I once lost two balls into the Masonic Oval bushland from errant kicks in a supertouch game. If Moses or Dylan can reverse play or move quickly from an offload there is a good chance they catch Taufua creeping in.
Brendan Elliot and Reuben Garrick still bear the imprint of Maika Sivo’s palm in their chest from round 25 last year; only Garrick will be lining up for Manly this week but he will have the unenviable task of marking the smoking Fijian who crossed for three tries that night and set up another. Sivo was muscled around a bit by Brisbane when bringing the ball up to the line, but if he can get up speed close to the line the Manly right edge will be hard-pressed to stop him.
Like last weekend, the centres will prove important in exploiting this weakness. Michael Jennings was in great touch against Brisbane and should get the chance to beat Suli one-on-one if Garrick is focused on avoiding embarrassment against Sivo and overcommits. Brad Parker can be more traditionally exploited with speed and footwork, he’s the type of player you call “honest”. Waqa and Fergo got around him several times in round 25 and I’d expect the same again if they can get space.
This match will also be a test of Brad Arthur, who may need a plan B after so far relying on middle power and discipline translating to field position, opposition fatigue and eventually points. If Manly complete at anywhere near the rate they did last week, Parramatta will need to ask questions of the Sea Eagles from mid field. This isn’t uncharted territory for the blue and gold, with some beautiful long range play highlighting the round 25 victory last year, but it does require chancing the arm and deviating from something that has worked so effectively over three rounds.
The Manly pack are also a different proposition away from Brookvale Oval. The last two visits to Lottoland have been embarrassing for the Eels, a 54-0 drubbing that set the tone for the disastrous season 2018 and a 36-24 hiding last year that was nowhere near as close as that scoreline. Addin Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau are certainly capable of terrorising the Eels pack once more, but the form Parramatta has shown in the first three rounds suggests they should at the very least hold their own, particularly when the inexperienced Manly bench comes into play.
Throughout his career the Eels have rarely felt the full force of Tom Trbojevic, but the Manly attack runs through Turbo Tom, especially close to the line, and if the Eels follow the Bulldogs lead and treat him like any other player they will be punished. He is dangerous in every aspect of the game, an elusive runner and strong passer, but it is his ability to create numbers by sneaking in to backline movements that could cause the Eels trouble. Parramatta will need good lateral movement from the inside out to both avoid the outside defenders making “rush in or not” decisions and to cover gaps that Turbo could exploit should he choose to run.
Tom’s brother Jake is another key cog in the Manly short range attack. If you thought Nathan Brown gets the ball too often inside the 20, wait until you see Jake Trbojevic as the link man between forwards and backs. He isn’t as damaging a runner as he was a couple of years ago, that may be because teams mark him heavily now and could have inspired his second coming as a ballplayer. Still, he needs to be accounted for and, combined with his brother, any defender overcommitting will be found out quickly.
There are a couple of hidden dangers in this Manly team that wouldn’t often be the focus of a preview against the Sea Eagles. Danny Levi owes Parramatta a debt of gratitude for adding an extra zero to his contract when he ran riot against them at Newcastle in round 7 last year. He is the Manly hooker by default at this stage, but he will be full of confidence and will punish Parramatta should the Manly pack get a roll going. Dylan Walker has been deservedly maligned as a five-eighth, but he was very good last weekend and is quietly putting together a strong season. He will have seen some of the arm-grabbing efforts that led to the Brodie Croft try last week or the DWZ break in round one and will be licking his lips at the prospect of finding space against our edge defenders late in both halves.
Then we have the Manly front row. If this game was played at Brookvale then I would be incredibly concerned, such has been the dominance of Taupau and Fonua-Blake against the Eels in front of the Sea Eagles faithful. As it stands I am only mildly concerned, but with a shallow bench Manly rely heavily on AFB and Taupau for big metres and line bending runs, which they usually deliver. When Manly has trounced Parramatta in recent years it has been on the back of forward dominance, and that starts with these two. The Eels will need another quick, aggressive and most importantly, disciplined start to make sure this game isn’t over by the 15 minute mark.
The rest of the Manly attack is garden variety dangerous. Garrick and Taufua are elite finishers, fed the ball by hard running centres and the masterful play of halfback Daly Cherry-Evans. Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen are strong runners that often find a good short line and know their way to the stripe. It adds up to a potent attack with multiple focal points, and it will be a tough challenge for the Eels to defend.
Sometimes you just need to admire a dominant victory, and the numbers from last Thursday are certainly worth another look. Here are some of my favourite facts (numbers are from Champion Data):
- The only Eels starters to not make 100 running metres were Mitchell Moses (87) and Reed Mahoney (25).
- The Eels 23 offloads is their most in a game since Feleti Mateo and Dean Widders were in the squad (possibly not true, but it is the most offloads in a game by an Eels side since at least 2017, and probably much earlier).
- The Eels forced 5 dropouts and conceded only one penalty, leading to a 61/39 share of possession that I’m sure I read somewhere was the second best possession mark of the NRL era, but I couldn’t find the source for that and am a bit questionable about the number.
Colmac’s heat map is also a thing of beauty, you should go and check that out.
How it Goes
The Eels have come out and made statements in the first 15 minutes of all three games this year, and should that attitude carry over to Saturday night I will feel very confident in a fourth Parramatta victory to start 2020. The matchup of the Eels bench against the Manly bench is no contest, and should the arm-wrestle be at a neutral position when Kane Evans and Ray Stone are injected into the game then it should be well in the Eels favour by the time the starters return.
Manly will present the sternest test of the Eels newfound defensive resolve. While the numbers say Parramatta is an all-time defensive team after three rounds, there have certainly been moments of concern and realistically, the Eels had a 60/40 possession advantage in two of those games and the third was against the attack-inept Bulldogs. Any NRL team that can win 60% of possession deserves a lot of credit, especially the way Parramatta did it, but we can’t pretend the Eels are an unbreakable wall just yet. If we can repel a star-studded Manly side then it is time to start getting excited.
With both sides playing disciplined football this year, I expect a battle through the middle of the park, decided by who wins one-on-one battles and who can create chances from mid-field. The Eels dominate the one-on-one matchups in the outside backs, Ferguson, Jennings, Sivo and Blake are all superior players to their counterparts and those players beating their opposites is where I expect the Eels points will come from. They will be helped along by the confidence and form of Dylan Brown and Shaun Lane on the left, and the class of Moses and Matterson on the right. The points will come for Parramatta, as long as the brick wall holds strong then I expect the Eels undefeated start to 2020 to continue. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 22 Manly 18
Man of the Match: Ryan Matterson
Images courtesy of NRL, Parramatta Eels