Round 4 Drink Of Choice – Old St Andrews
Parramatta continued their flawless start to 2020 as they fought off a resilient Manly outfit in the post-COVID return to Bankwest Stadium. The 19-16 victory will be more widely remembered for its controversial finish in which a crucial forward pass call denied the visitors a last-gasp chance at victory but Parramatta will gladly accept the win nonetheless…and perhaps more importantly the invaluable lessons to come from Saturday night.
The better team let it come down to one play
The game may have finished in controversy but it shouldn’t be a controversial take to say that the Eels were the better team throughout the majority of the contest. Parramatta controlled the ruck better than Manly, both in possession and without, applied greater defensive pressure and executed an outstanding long-kicking game that consistently pinned the Sea-Eagles’ back three deep in their red zone.
In spite of all this, a handful of lapses – especially by the right-edge – opened the door for Manly to mount a comeback and they duly obliged. Parramatta’s 18-2 lead should never have been challenged the way it was and while I give our arch-rivals credit for never going away, this game holds important teaching tape for our budding contenders for how to shut the door on good teams.
Parramatta ceded quick play-the-balls during crucial moments in the second half and these were the few times that Manly looked genuinely threatening against the Blue & Gold defensive wall. The Eels likely would have been better served playing for a slow 6-again call or even escalating it to a full penalty and resetting their defensive line.
Waqa Blake has been ferocious on defence this season but inside his own red zone he will need to learn to temper his aggression ever so slightly in order to make more consistent contact. Across the ballpark Parramatta will need to improve their focus with the ball in hand. A swathe of unforced errors gave Manly possession and position they did not earn and denied Parramatta a chance to put the game well beyond reach.
As negative as all the above sounds, the Eels still played plenty of solid footy and executed a well-thought out game-plan pioneered by Brad Arthur and his offsiders. They wouldn’t have been in a position to win otherwise. Still, this game should be an important milestone for the Eels. One they can use to elevate the consistency of their level of play as they continue to build to the postseason.
BA cuts the nitrous oxide
Tom Trbojevic, aka Tommy Turbo, is one the the NRL’s premier attacking talents and he regularly eviscerates defences across the competition. Against the Eels however he has been a non-factor by and large with Brad Arthur consistently finding ways to scheme him out of games. Trbrojevic has scored just a single try against the Eels in 7 games and the only clubs he sports worse strike rates against are the Melbourne Storm (1 try in 8 games) and shockingly the Wests Tigers against whom he has failed to score against in 7 attempts.
Last night it was Parramatta’s exemplary long-kicking efforts that took Manly’s most dangerous player out of the game. Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown and Reed Mahoney might as well have MacGyvered laser sights to their kicking boots with the accuracy of their kicks as they dissected the Manly backfield. Parramatta’s relentless kick chase ensured that maximum advantage was gained from these incisive kicks and almost completely blunted Trbojevic’s influence on the game.
A single incorrect call is a tragedy, two dozen missed calls are a statistic (wait, no they aren’t damn it!)
Okay, so Stalin’s famous quote doesn’t translate perfectly here because currently, as far as I am aware, there are no advanced metrics tracking missed calls through the course of a game. Still, as the furore over the final play of the game continues to bubble away in the general public it is worth reminding everyone that Danny Levi was playing American football out there for the entire 80 minutes.
I was stunned throughout the contest that Manly were not pulled up for a gaggle of forward passes right up until that fateful moment and the frustrations of the Parramatta players were captured perfectly on the sideline microphones. The ebb and flow of Saturday night’s pulsating encounter could have changed dramatically if any of those forward passes was called – but they weren’t.
The Eels had to roll with the punches and make do with what the officials gave them (including a horrible non-call late in the second half when Lachlan Croker blatantly slowed down a Clinton Gutherson play-the-ball from a line break) and for over a decade they haven’t been good enough to overcome that.
Amusingly, now we sit on the other side of the ledger where the Eels go about their business and opposition teams howl wildly about the calls that cost them.
Parramatta’s new play-Maika
The hulking monstrosity lurking on Parramatta’s left-edge more commonly known as Maika Sivo has earned a reputation for bull-dozing opposition flankers en route to scoring and occasionally banishing poor souls to the shadow realm with his trademark fend. Last night shone a new light on his growing skillset as he nabbed a pair of try assists and was deployed in a new role for a set play.
Sivo lined up as a pseudo centre/backrower on the left edge in the dying moments of the first half as the Eels hurriedly set a scrum. From there Michael Jennings fed him early ball and the Fijian tour de force split the defensive line on a crash line and popped a gilded offload to Dylan Brown to give Parramatta the perfect result before half time.
Before Semi Radradra’s untimely departure from the club Brad Arthur was exploring exciting ways to further integrate his superstar winger’s terrifying arsenal of skills into Parramatta’s offence. Now it seems like Sivo is ready to follow in the footsteps of his forerunner in what could a substantial boost to one of the game’s most devastating backlines.
Taka’s tricky fit
For the second time in 2020 Brad Arthur failed to find a way for veteran utility Brad Takairangi to take to the field. Against the Bulldogs and now the Sea-Eagles the game-state simply hasn’t opened a path for Takairangi to earn playing time. With the return of Nathan Brown upon us it poses an interesting question for BA to tackle – what is his optimal bench rotation?
Kane Evans has been dominant – arguably the game’s best interchange prop – working in the second rotation while Marata Niukore has quickly become an invaluable cog in the forward pack. These two are indisputably automatic inclusions in Parramatta’s top roster leaving a fierce battle for the final two spots. Peni Terepo has been tasked with greater link-play responsibilities recently but how will that mesh with the return of the Eels’ premier lock forward?
Oregon Kaufusi produced one error in an otherwise solid if unspectacular return to first grade last night while Ray Stone, the man that made for him due to illness, has flashed intriguing potential as a bench utility in his limited opportunities.
With Shaun Laune and Ryan Matterson locked in for 80 minutes on either edge and given that Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard entrusted with massive stints for big men in the middle the question becomes – what bench configuration holds the most value for the Eels?
Do we want greater versatility in the form of Takairangi or Stone to cover for a wide array of negative scenarios at the risk of dead minutes or would we prefer to get the guaranteed value that Terepo or Kaufusi can provide in small bursts to augment the Eels Big 3 prop rotation?
The Final Word
Parramatta’s 4-0 start has all sorts of historical implications (last time it happened was ’89, ’86 and ’83 in reverse chronological order) but most importantly the win over Manly keeps the Eels ahead of the chasing pack as they enter a gruelling gauntlet in their draw. Starting with last night’s victory over Manly, Parramatta will duke it out with the Panthers, Roosters, Raiders, Cowboys and Knights before the return fixture against the Sea Eagles in Round 10.
That disgusting stretch features every team inside the current 2020 (mid Round 4) Top 8 barring the Melbourne Storm, most of which double as either premiership contenders or favourites. Parramatta has shown they have all the assets and tools to hang with the heavy weights but they aren’t the finish product yet. Just as last night highlighted that they have the ability to dominate a good team, it also showed that they can still let the foot off the throat.
Brad Arthur’s big challenge now is to take the tape against Manly, distill the good and bad from it and drill that killer instinct into his charges so that Parramatta can forge ahead of the competition in the coming weeks.