Date: Saturday, June 27, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 7:35PM AEST
Referee: Ashley Klein
Head-to-head: Played 58, Eels 27, Raiders 31
Odds: Eels $1.66 Raiders $2.20
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Eels 22 d Raiders 16, Darwin, R15 2019
Raiders 19 d Eels 0, Canberra Stadium, R5 2019
Raiders 18 d Eels 2, Canberra Stadium, R6 2018
Raiders 22 d Eels 16, ANZ Stadium, R11 2017
While the Eels relinquished their undefeated title last weekend, it feels like the premiership chances of the blue and gold are being talked up more than ever in the wake of their loss to the defending champion Roosters. Such was the quality of the contest, but the room for improvement in this Parramatta squad also inspires hope in long-suffering fans. The Eels weren’t at their best against the Roosters, but still gave them one heck of a battle. Let’s hope we see a rematch down the line.
Now the Eels face the other half of the 2019 grand final quinella in the Canberra Raiders. The milkmen made a bold statement upon return from the COVID-19 break, going to Melbourne and beating the Storm, but since then only have a grinding win over the Tigers to go with losses to Manly and Newcastle. Those losses are even worse on closer inspection, the Knights played over the top of them the whole way, while Manly beat the Raiders despite losing two backs in the very early stages of the game in Dylan Walker and Brad Parker, then star fullback Tom Trbojevic shortly after halftime.
Despite patchy form the Raiders are still a very real threat, boasting one of the toughest defensive lines in the NRL and featuring strike players across the park from Jack Wighton and Josh Hodgson to Jordan Rapana and Josh Papalii. They have been a bogey side for Parramatta for the last decade, holding an 11-3 advantage over the Eels since 2010, but a five game losing streak was broken last year in Darwin, and Eels football in 2020 has not looked anything like the Eels of the last decade. No premiership contender wants to face back-to-back losses, so stakes are high in what shapes up as the Eels fourth “match of the round” in a row.
The Raiders and Eels don’t share much in terms of on-field history, but they do share a common trajectory as clubs over the last three decades. Both had a period of glory that evoked the term “dynasty”, winning multiple premierships and boasting some of the all-time greats of the sport. Those glorious days for both teams have been followed by long stretches of mediocrity, punctuated by fleeting success that teased the start of a new dynasty but ultimately never delivered. The Raiders are hoping their finals yoyo has stopped bouncing in 2020, while Parramatta are daring to hope after false starts in 2009 and 2017.
Both teams are looking through open premiership windows. The Raiders jimmied theirs open last year, blocked from a premiership by a greedy Sydney Roosters team reaching back for another trophy. The Eels are forcing a wedge into their own premiership woodwork with their electric start to 2020, but fans have had their fingers squashed far too many times before to be reaching in for grand final tickets just yet. The breeze of contendership coming through sure is refreshing though.
While Parramatta and Canberra fans have been brethren in suffering, feeling runs deep between the two clubs thanks to several incidents of personnel movement (or lack thereof) in the last decade. Raiders coach Ricky Stuart famously burned the Parramatta squad to the ground via overhead projector in 2013, signing up for a tear down and rebuild project but fleeing in the night like a dodgy contractor who ripped out the shower and toilet then stole all your copper pipes and left a flooded mess behind. Despite the understandable personal reasons for abandoning the Eels one year into his deal, Stuart did not leave behind many friends in the Parramatta fanbase after gutting the roster, busting the salary cap and fleeing down the Hume Highway.
Around the same time, back in the days where players had months to renege on signed contracts, Josh Papalii did exactly that to the Eels in a time where marquee signings were few and far between. The young Raiders enforcer talked a big game about being happy to come to the Eels and that nothing was changing, right up until he changed his mind and stayed. An endless whispering campaign and a shame session at the front of the team bus are just some of the techniques rumoured to have been used by the Raiders to retain their star forward. I’d like to say this was the ridiculous backflip that changed those insane rules, but Canberra copped their own backflip from James Tedesco a year later before Daly Cherry-Evans stabbing the Titans in the heart finally forced a change in the system.
The Raiders don’t boast any former Eels players right now, though Ricky Stuart is more than enough to draw the ire of Parramatta fans. On the other side, Eels winger Blake Ferguson made his NRL debut for the Raiders a lifetime (and a half-dozen atrocities) ago, while Junior Paulo had a stint down in Canberra for a few years after fleeing the Eels when the bright lights and temptations of city living got to be too much.
There haven’t been many big name transfers between Canberra and Parramatta, but a few old favourites have played for both clubs. Those include Ian Hindmarsh, Clinton Schifcofske, Brad Drew and the ol’ chain smoker himself, Jason Smith. Non-favourites to wear both club’s colours include Brett Finch, Adam Mogg, Nathan Barnes, Reece Robinson, Andrew McFadden, Michael Hodgson and David Westley.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
How frustrating is the punt!
Unfortunately, with only 34 points scored last week, the tip for over 36.5 total match points fell just short.
But it’s a new week and the TAB has presented us with 100 different punting markets on this match alone. It’s like an all you can eat buffet experience, except the buffet may well be consigned to history in the post COVID world.
I’m looking at the 1st half line/over under double which is showing $3.20 for Parra at -1.5 coupled with over 16.5 total points. The 16.5 points is less than three converted tries.
This is a real toss of the coin selection. Three of Canberra’s six games this season have seen total match points of greater than 16.5, whereas only two of Parra’s games have seen total points above that line.
I just have the feeling that this match will buck the trend with early points featuring.
For those who want to bet outside of tipping the winner or total points, there’s a special market of CNK or Gutho to score the first, second or third try @$3.25.
1. Clint 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. Nathan Brown. 14. Ray Stone 15. Marata Niukore 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Brad Takairangi. 18. David Gower 19. Daniel Alvaro 20. George Jennings 21. Jai Field.
Brad Arthur has ripped off the bandaid and dropped Peni Terepo after he was thoroughly shown up last weekend by Oregon Kaufusi (though word is Terepo could be injured). Marata Niukore also earns a return to the starting side as Nathan Brown sits for two more weeks after a ridiculous grading on a high tackle charge. The NRL judiciary, where precedent is a dirty word and the only thing worse than an eye gouge is hitting a man lightly on the chin when he is falling.
Kane Evans remains absent despite his suspension finishing, he has a calf injury of unknown severity. All of this sees Brad Takairangi return to the utility role in the squad, and Daniel Alvaro comes in to the 21 as cover. No word yet as to who fills the final bench spot, either Polar returns to the good books and plays his first game of 2020, or old Mr. Reliable for the Eels (emphasis on “old”) David Gower makes his 99th appearance in the blue and gold. Alvaro is another big body that would match up well with the Raiders bench, but Gower is a high effort player who doesn’t let the team down when called upon.
1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Jordan Rapana 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Curtis Scott 5. Nick Cotric 6. Jack Wighton 7. George Williams 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Iosia Soliola 11. Joseph Tapine 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Corey Horsburgh. 14. Siliva Havili 15. Emre Guler 16. Ryan Sutton 17. Hudson Young. 18. Bailey Simonsson 19. Dunamis Lui 20. Matt Frawley 21. Tom
No changes for Ricky Stuart’s Raiders despite a loss to Manly, with only John Bateman absent from their regular first grade squad. While Siliva Havili is best known as a hooker, every game his build shifts more to a smaller version of Josh Papalii and he offers some punch in the middle of the field. It’s a big Canberra bench and without Evans the Eels notably lack bench size, but when Junior and RCG can easily play 55-60 minutes you don’t need much size behind them.
It’s another winter night game at Bankwest, it will be slippery and cold but both teams should be well used to those conditions. Early forecast is fine but you’d need a fairly decent downpour to match the dew cover that builds up on Bankwest.
Ashley Klein is the referee and the Eels had a 3-1 record with him in the middle last season. He also referees a disproportionate number of Eels/Broncos games, in his last nine games in charge of Parramatta, four times their opponent was Brisbane. That doesn’t make a lick of difference here, I just notice these things.
The Raiders were 4-2 under Klein last year, including their huge semi final win over Melbourne, and 0-1 this season. Klein has been on the low end of the scale for using six-again calls but blows more penalties than average. With the Raiders being top four for most penalties conceded and the Eels conceding the second least, this could work to Parramatta’s advantage.
How we win
Canberra’s defence is tough to crack, and while the Eels have put on some impressive backline movements (and flashes of individual brilliance) their close range attack could use some refinement. The Raiders scramble well, make good contact and maintain their line well against repeat sets, so the Parramatta halves need to show some patience but also execute well. Finding wingers flat footed or simply passing along the line won’t be good enough to crack Canberra.
That said, there are some chances for that individual brilliance to shine. Curtis Scott was bamboozled last weekend by Tom Trbojevic, showing little communication with his outside man and making poor choices for when to rush or hold back. The silky footwork of Michael Jennings was on full display against the Roosters, especially when setting up Maika Sivo for his cratering of James Tedesco. Jenko must get the chance to do that to Scott in space.
Brad Arthur also needs to adapt his “neutralise the biggest threat” gameplan to deal with a side without one dominant attacking star. Jack Wighton is the closest the Raiders have to that player, but the hard running five-eighth will be difficult to gameplan around, preferring to pop up in support or turn nothing into something with a sudden burst of strength and speed close to the line. Perhaps the Eels will relish a chance to run a more traditional gameplan and defence rather than adjust to targeting a particular player, but it can’t be a chance for Parramatta defenders to relax because there isn’t one major threat they need to contain.
The Eels points conceded might still be on record pace if not for the continued lack of trust between Waqa Blake and Blake Ferguson. For three weeks now this has been a major problem, with four of the nine tries Parramatta has conceded in 2020 directly attributed to either a miscommunication between the two or most notably, Ferguson lacking faith that Waqa will complete the tackle on his man and rushing in, creating a saloon passage to the line if the ball carrier can slip a pass. The right side and edge of the Eels defensive line is responsible for seven of the nine tries conceded, with the two tries the left side has let through coming from bouncing passes. If the Eels can right the right they will be on the way to the best defence in the NRL.
Ferguson on the whole has had a disappointing start to 2020. He is still playing high-effort football and is unlucky to be tryless for the season, but his recent play has a bit of “trying too hard” about it. His frustration has resulted in penalties for tackles in the air or taking out defenders, and in choices like trying to take on two Roosters defenders close to the line and being bundled into touch. Ferguson should be a weapon in the air with the new rules, and he remains an elite “cornerpost” finisher, but he needs to be given better chances and to retain his composure. He is also well overdue for another air swing when defending a kick, something to watch out for.
I’ve barely touched on the battle in the middle of the park, we know Canberra is a tough, fit side that will be hard to get on top of, but there are a few opportunities to exploit. Josh Hodgson is worst among starting NRL hookers in effective tackle percentage and bench props Emre Guler and Ryan Sutton are both at the bottom end of prop rankings in that same stat. It will be bad news for the Raiders if the Eels can get their offload game going, Parramatta holds a significant lead in total offloads over the rest of the NRL (30% more than second best), with nearly half our offloads coming against the Broncos and Roosters. Combined with the pack’s elite fitness it explains the Eels usual dominance of the last 20 minutes of games, Roosters contest excluded.
The Parramatta middle defence close to the line has not been broken yet in 2020, but Josh Papalii and Josh Hodgson represent the biggest threats to that streak. Papalii is a wrecking ball close to the line and needs to be marked with a big body whenever the Eels defend inside the 20. He doesn’t need to pick out the smallest man to barrel his way over the line, but we should avoid him lining up Mitchell Moses at all costs. I’d back Dylan Brown to grass him.
Hodgson is one of the premier dummy half runners in the game, not in a traditional “Damien Cook” sense but in his ability to draw the ruck defenders and markers before making his passing choice close to the line. It is how big men like Papalii, Elliott Whitehead and the absent John Bateman can rack up so many tries, Hodgson is a master at creating one-on-one opportunities for them. Trust in the inside man is crucial to defending against him. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get a chance to run at Waqa Blake and Fergo.
George Williams has been responsible for most of the Raiders attack in 2020, with six try assists (Hodgson and Wighton each have two, no other player has more than one). He loves a retreating defensive line and the time that buys, something the Eels have done a good job denying opponents this season. The Parramatta line speed must remain lightning fast, even without its leader Nathan Brown. Wighton is much less a creator and more a disruptive force close to the line, he’s hard to tackle and picks his moments well. Parramatta has scrambled well in 2020 and will need to keep that up to contain Wighton in broken play. If you can frustrate Wighton he is more than capable of brain fades and errors, he single handedly won Parramatta the 2019 clash in Darwin, but let him build confidence and it will be a long night.
The Raiders biggest threat is simply their determination. They defend doggedly and frustrate then choke their opponent out of the match. Their game control in their opening clash with the Eels in 2019, a dominant 19-0 win, was first class and drove the Eels to beat themselves when they finally got attacking opportunities. Parramatta has been a patient side this year and showed last week they can capitalise even when given limited opportunities, but they need to hold strong in the face of adversity against a team that will give them very little.
How it goes
A lot of experts are tipping the Raiders here, but I’m not seeing it. The lack of creativity in the Canberra attack and the solid steel Eels defence for most of 2020 makes a poor combination for the Milk, and the incredible game management of the Eels halves and Reed Mahoney, especially in the face of adversity in the last two weeks, gives me confidence that they can handle the Raiders pythonesque squeeze should this turn into an arm wrestle.
The Eels right edge remains the biggest concern. You don’t need to be a form attacking team to run a basic draw and pass on Waqa Blake, knowing Ferguson is likely to bite and leave the winger unmarked. If that obvious weakness can be corrected, it is hard to see where the Raiders points come from. Papalii and Hodgson will need to break an inside defence that hasn’t conceded a try in 2020, Wighton and Williams won’t find much in the way of broken play to exploit and will need to be creators.
Canberra are absolutely a threat, and it wouldn’t surprise to see them once again frustrate the Eels out of the contest by dominating field position and grinding their way through the line with pressure, but recent form from both teams suggests that is unlikely. Even the Raiders win against the Storm has lost a bit of shine now that the Melbourne attack has continued to sputter in 2020, and Canberra haven’t been anywhere near that impressive in the last three games.
This is a big chance for Parramatta to make a statement, to separate from the pack and put themselves up as the 1B to the Roosters 1A. I expect the team to be fired up and to be too much for the Raiders to handle. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Eels 22 Raiders 6
Man of the Match: Michael Jennings
Images courtesy of NRL, ABC, Fergo’s Instagram