Date: Friday, June 12, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 7:55PM AEST
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Head-to-head: Played 98, Parramatta 57, Penrith 40, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $1.45, Panthers $2.75
Broadcast: Channel Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Panthers 16 d Eels 10, Bankwest Stadium, R11 2019
Eels 20 d Panthers 12, Panthers Stadium, R1 2019
Panthers 12 d Eels 6, ANZ Stadium, R5 2018
Panthers 24 d Eels 14, Panthers Stadium, R1 2018
Here we are in round five, where the “battle of the west” is also a top of the table battle of two undefeated teams. The Eels sit atop the ladder all on their lonesome after four rounds, a nice feat but ultimately one that means as much as a troubled coach having the full support of the board. Let’s see where we stand in round 20. Penrith holds three wins and a draw in season 2020, and sure they’ve beaten the Dragons and Warriors but undefeated is undefeated and it sets up a blockbuster Friday Night Footy clash.
Forward pass controversies overshadowed the Eels victory over Manly, where despite the kerfuffle the result ultimately went to the better side on the night. A worry for Parramatta will be some lapses in discipline, both defensively (particularly on the right edge) and with ball-handling and penalties, several times giving the ball back to Manly with basic handling errors or a gift penalty to get them out of trouble. It would be impossible to be as perfect as the Eels had been against the Titans and Broncos for an entire season, but Brad Arthur will be expecting better from his squad this Friday.
Penrith come to Bankwest as the only team holding a victory over the Eels at their fortress that has not been avenged by the blue and gold. That first loss at Bankwest in round 11 last year was up there for the worst game of the season and capped a string of poor performances for the Eels. It doesn’t hold much weight as a guide for how this game will go, but Penrith has a history of dragging the Eels down to their level in recent times and it would be nice for Parramatta to sock them hard in the mouth in this one to break the streak.
The Panthers form has been tough to judge. An impressive first round win over the defending premier Roosters was followed up with a lucky escape against a Dragons side that we now know are disgruntled wooden spoon contenders. Since the break Penrith escaped with a 90-minute draw against a Newcastle side with three quarters of its spine injured during the game or suspended beforehand (and it was the good three-quarters, with only Kurt Mann remaining) then a comfortable win over the Warriors who turned back into pumpkins after one week of high effort football. This is a real test game for the mountain men and they should be fired up for the occasion.
Penrith complete above 80% and make good metres in the middle of the ground, but their attack just hasn’t been productive. Maybe that changes this week with the return of Nathan Cleary, but the Panthers 2020 gameplan has been very similar to the Eels; win in the forwards, but without the strike power outside to play off of that forward dominance.
The battle of the west also marks the only time the entirety of the Penrith salary cap will be on the field at the same time in 2020, and we should thank our western rivals for their significant contributions to the salaries of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Waqa Blake.
The Penrith/Parramatta rivalry has mostly been geographic, and as the better looking, more popular and more successful older sibling in this relationship, Eels fans don’t quite see why their little brother is so angry at us.
There have only been two Eels/Panthers finals clashes, both won by the Eels in 1985 and 2000. I’ve not seen the 38-6 1985 game, I’m sure it was a cracker, but the 2000 semi final led to one of my favourite rugby league moments.
A come from behind but ultimately convincing 28-10 win saw Eels star Jim Dymock in some trouble for a lifting tackle on Ryan Girdler. As players did back in the day, Girdler went in to bat for Dymock at the judiciary, claiming he jumped in the tackle to exaggerate the lifting motion. When asked by the panel if diving head first into the ground was something he did often, Girdler replied “only in semi finals”.
It was more convincing than Dymocks own testimony, where he claimed that he knew he was in trouble in the tackle when he “felt testicles” and pulled out at that moment. Somehow Dymock was cleared of the tackle and took his place against Brisbane in the qualifier, ultimately his final game in the blue and gold.
There are plenty of former Panthers in the Eels ranks right now, largely thanks to some rapid-fire reversals made by the Penrith recruitment and retention team in an effort to undo the damage caused by Gus’s famous “Five Year Plan”. For the next few years Penrith are paying Parramatta to retain the services of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Waqa Blake, while they couldn’t find a way to keep Maika Sivo in their ranks after a breakout Canterbury Cup season in 2018 and let him flee to the Eels for a song, where he became the 2019 NRL top tryscorer, scoring 21 more tries than Panthers winger Josh Mansour. Will Smith is also a Penrith refugee, as is George Jennings.
Then we have the slippery silverfox himself, Michael Jennings. Back in 2011 Jenko made himself public enemy numero one when, before a trial match of all things, he said “I don’t hate Parramatta players, just the team they represent.” Sometimes a rivalry is born from somebody else hating you to the point that you hate them too, and such has it been against Penrith.
History shows that two years later Jennings left his junior club in unceremonious circumstances, won a premiership at the Roosters and eventually made his way to the club he claimed to hate where he is now one of the longest serving Eels in the first grade squad.
There isn’t much blue and gold out Penrith way, though Parramatta life member and long time Eels trainer Craig Catterick is now on the Panthers staff. Famous names to play for both clubs include Brad Drew, Joe Galuvao, Matt Adamson, Andrew Leeds, David Woods, Neville Glover, Kevin Kingston, Frank Pritchard, Geoff Gerard (back-to-back appearances in this list), Lee Hopkins and Tom Humble (famous for the wrong reasons). Joel Clinton was another common name in the “we lose our juniors” debate, conveniently ignoring the all-international Eels front row that was in front of him at the time.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
Four weeks of punting tips, four weeks of coming up frustratingly close. Two weeks ago, Mitch Moses missed conversion left us half a point short, this week, a disallowed Kaufusi try next to the posts deprived me of featuring on the punting winners list.
Unfortunately the TAB doesn’t pay out on near enough, so it might be time to change up the market. I’m also less confident about the Eels covering any points start this week, so it’s time to look outside of punting on the win.
Therefore, I’m going to remove the Eels from the tip and restrict the punt to the total points over/under market. The odds aren’t huge, but I’m trusting that history will be repeated with fewer than 36.5 points scored. Indeed, the total match points from the last 3 Eels vs Panthers clashes has not exceeded 32.
You’ll get just under evens, with odds currently at $1.90.
1. Clint Gutherson (c) 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. Nathan Brown. 14. Ray Stone 15. Marata Niukore 16. Kane Evans 17. Peni Terepo. 18. Brad Takairangi 19. Oregon Kaufusi 20. George Jennings 21. Will Smith.
The Eels welcome back Nathan Brown just in time for a fiery local battle, he returns to the starting side in place of Marata Niukore. Brad Takairangi has been pushed from the bench in a rare Brad Arthur winning team tinkering, but Taka hasn’t been used in two of four games thus far and only gets token minutes as a back rower when we don’t suffer injury or HIA. His absence all but guarantees one of our outside backs limps off the field this week.
In place of the Cook Island Control Tower is Ray Stone, back from illness, while Niukore’s return to the bench demotes Oregon Kaufusi back to reserves despite a solid 2020 debut last weekend. The entire team screams that Brad Arthur expects a tough battle through the middle of the park.
1. Caleb Aekins 2. Josh Mansour 3. Dean Whare 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou (c) 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Matt Burton 15. Zane Tetevano 16. Moses Leota 17. Liam Martin. 18. Mitch Kenny 19. Billy Burns 20. Jack Hetherington 21. Dylan Edwards.
The return of Nathan Cleary put a hard choice on his father and coach Ivan, who has elected to stick with Jarome Luai in the halves ahead of Matt Burton, the two try hero from last week taking the place of Mitch Kenny for bench impact. Billy Burns also makes way for Liam Martin in the coveted “20 minute bench back rower” role.
Dylan Edwards had been tipped to return this week, but is named on the reserves. Caleb Aekins has been a solid replacement, so Edwards may need to earn his way back into the side.
Gerard Sutton will referee his second Eels game in three weeks, though Penrith won’t be feeling too bad about the appointment having won four of five under Sutton going back to 2018. Sutton hasn’t stood out for his use of the set restart over two rounds, but Penrith gave away a few last weekend and Parramatta have had the better of the restart count in both matches thus far so it is a possible advantage for the Eels.
Rain should stay away from Bankwest on Friday night, but it will undoubtedly be a slick, slippery surface. There were more errors from Parramatta in last weekend’s game than we have been accustomed to over the first three rounds, some of which could be attributed to the conditions. Penrith also had a twilight game at a chilly Campbelltown last weekend, so both teams will be better for a run in winter-football conditions.
How we win
The Panthers haven’t given us a lot to go by since the resumption, playing a freakish 90 minute game against a short-handed Newcastle which had to set a record for total running metres and missed field goal attempts, then cruising past the patchwork Warriors last weekend. Neither the Knights or Warriors threw much at the Penrith outside defenders, who will need to be up to the challenge the Eels world class backline presents.
Kick or pass, choose your weapon just make sure it is aimed at Josh Mansour. The one time representative winger is a shell of his former self, beatable in the air, along the ground and through the hands. He’s the man to get a set started with a powerful charge, but let’s see how he handles an aerial contest with Blake Ferguson. I predict Fergo breaks his duck this weekend. Bombs to both sides of the field should be a key weapon, with the Eels wingers possessing aerial advantages over their Penrith counterparts.
For all the threat Viliame Kikau poses with the ball, he needs to be targeted in defence. Not so much to tire him out, he has an endless motor with the ball in hand, but he is ahead of only Bryce Cartwright in effective tackle percentage for back rowers after four rounds. Mitch Moses and Waqa Blake will punish any lazy attempts down their side of the field, while we’ve already seen what Ryan Matterson can do when he gets an arm free from an ineffective tackle.
It is to the Eels’ benefit that Manly matched them in the middle and forced them to adapt, as Penrith shares a similar gameplan to the Sea Eagles. The Panthers have relied on high completion rates and a strong middle game, and are unlikely to be steamrolled like Brisbane or Gold Coast were. Against Manly there were too many backline movements that hit the final man flat footed, either shifting too quickly or with a looping pass that gave the defenders time to recover. The Parramatta halves have shown a lot of patience and a steady hand when faced with frustration this year, but this weekend would be a good time for that close range attack to find top gear.
There are few worries about the Eels holding their own in a battle for field position. The kicking games of Moses, Brown and Mahoney have been sensational, particularly Reed who had some excellent positional kicks to nullify Tom Trbojevic. Mahoney’s kicking game is going to force wingers to retreat just that little bit earlier to account for a driving kick out of dummy half, which could open room down the edges should players like Matterson, Lane, Paulo or Evans get a late offload away or either half decides to chance their arm and run on the last.
Viliame Kikau gets the headlines for his bulldozing charges and try scoring prowess, but his true talent is finding ways to isolate small players on the edge. Mitchell Moses has improved defensively in the last two years, but he prefers to make heavy, early contact and overcompensate for his technique and size with speed and shutting down the opposing player’s momentum, he doesn’t have the strong basics like his halves partner who looks like he’s been cutting down bigger men his whole life. Moses will try and shut down Kikau before he hits stride when he is inevitably targeted inside the 10, which could open him up to looking foolish if the Panthers battering ram brushes him aside. Kikau also manages to be “Vili on the spot” for offloads and broken play, where he suddenly finds himself able to match up one-on-one with an outside back in a situation defenders will rarely win. Shutting down offloads on the Panthers left and killing loose ball play if passes go to ground will be crucial, and something the Eels have often struggled with.
Kikau is far from the only close range threat the Panthers have. Nathan Cleary is a strong runner who hits a gap hard when he decides to run. Making the Penrith halfback beat you with passing and kicking is the best way to shut him down, his close kicking game can be erratic. Issah Yeo has developed into a handy edge runner as well, while Api Koroisau is crafty out of dummy half and defenders at the ruck will need to commit a second longer than they otherwise would to avoid becoming victims of the big dummy and step. This creates room for crash ball footy from Tamou or Fisher-Harris, as well as the running space Cleary so loves.
In general play the Panthers have dominated recent opposition in the metres game, completing well and giving themselves every opportunity to execute their preferred close range attack. James Fisher-Harris is doing a Gallen-esque job of stat accumulation in recent weeks, he isn’t a scary runner like Jason Taumalolo but he similarly gets through two players worth of work in a game and compensates for the poor bench depth of the mountain men.
Ivan Cleary may have his faults as a coach, but there is a good chance he saw the Eels clash with Manly last weekend, and thus a good chance he will be throwing numbers at Blake Ferguson and Waqa Blake come Friday night. Fergo and Waqa were caught out multiple times, Ferguson showing a lack of trust in Waqa to put his opposite to ground, and neither managing to call for inside shifts when they were outnumbered both from a scrum and in general play. They will be tested and need to improve on last week’s effort.
Stephen Crichton has made a big impact in 2020, earning himself a starting role and the chance to show up the man Penrith let walk (and continue to pay) in Blake. Waqa needs to listen to some Enya before the game to calm down and stop trying to knock ball carriers into the cardboard cutouts, he will much better serve the Eels defensive line by simply wrapping up and letting our elite scramble defence clean up any second phase play. Crichton is slippery and talented enough to cause the aggressive Eels centre some problems, and I would feel a whole lot better if it was up to Jenko to put another young buck in his place.
How it goes
Parramatta has usually started strong against Penrith in recent years, but really struggled to put them away. The Panthers stick around, build confidence and drag you back into their world, a worry for an Eels side that nearly let a 16 point lead slip last week and has relied on their own strong finishes to put opponents away. The Eels need to make the most of their chances, put a boot on the Panthers throat early and never let it off.
There will undoubtedly be some fireworks and silly stuff between Reagan Campbell-Gillard and his former packmates, RCG needs to avoid being baited and let his hard running do the talking. The opening exchanges should be brutal to watch, but like last week I expect Parramatta to get on top towards the end of the first half and start converting that dominance into points. Where last week they let Manly back into the game with some questionable play and some bad luck (if Walker scored, Oregon scored) this week is when the Eels attack needs to go up a gear and start creating tries rather than taking them from tired defenders following a war of attrition.
Nathan Cleary should be geared up for a big game, that usually means him running the ball frequently off the back of quick play-the-balls. He needs to be heavily marked, especially late in the half when arm tackles start to replace full shoulder efforts. If Cleary is forced to pass and kick, the Eels chances increase drastically, but Cleary will also kill a few plays trying to run when it isn’t on if the Parramatta defence is stout. His offload is a threat too, so the Eels scramble must continue to be strong while also avoiding the chance for Kikau to isolate an outside back or half.
I see this game coming down to the Parramatta attack. If the Eels close range options are firing, particularly getting Blake Ferguson involved, there are too many points in them for Penrith to chase down. If Penrith hang in the contest and build confidence, the undefeated start to the 2020 season is under severe threat. I expect some early Eels dominance, some class from Mitchell Moses putting his stamp on the game early, and Parramatta holding a comfortable lead the whole way through. At least after last weeks near miss, that is about all my poor heart could handle. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Eels 20 Panthers 6
Man of the Match: Mitchell Moses
Images courtesy of NRL.