Date: Friday, July 3, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 7:55PM AEST
Referee: Ben Cummins
Head-to-head: Played 41, Eels 20, Cowboys 20, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $1.40 Cowboys $2.97
Broadcast: Channel Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Cowboys 17 d Eels 10, Townsville, R10 2019
Cowboys 44 d Eels 6, Townsville, R24 2018
Eels 20 d Cowboys 14, Darwin, R14 2018
Cowboys 24 d Eels 16, Stadium Australia, Semi Final 2017
After a month of tough football and “heart in mouth” moments watching from the stands, Eels fans could be forgiven for wanting a break from the drama of grandstand finishes. Alas it is unlikely to come this week, as the tour of Parramatta bogey teams continues with a clash against the North Queensland Cowboys.
The Cowboys played like they had tickets on Paul Green as second coach sacked two weeks ago when beaten soundly by the Tigers, but you are only as good as your last game and last weekend North Queensland became the first team of the “rest” to beat one of the “best” as they dispatched of Newcastle in impressive fashion, bringing the bottom nine teams record against the top seven to 1 win, 21 losses (since then Cronulla has also beaten Manly to make it 2-21).
That gap in quality between the contenders and pretenders counts little here, as the Cowboys always play the Eels tough and now get to do so with a makeshift Eels halves pairing. The Cowboys win 50% of their matches against the Eels, which may not seem like a great record but it does include the decade that North Queensland were easybeats and in their history the Cowboys have a better win percentage against only one team: the hapless Titans.
The Cowboys hold an 11-4 advantage over the last 15 contests, but last week proved that history doesn’t mean much when you were a dumpster fire for most of the last decade. Parramatta has proved its premiership credentials in the last month, now the Eels need to consolidate their place among the NRL elite by winning the games that they should.
Sadly for Eels fans, most of the history between these two clubs goes in the Cowboys favour. They’ve won the only two finals contests between the sides, both times to eliminate the Eels from the competition. The first was a shock 29-0 victory in the 2005 grand final qualifier, denying Parramatta a shot at the Tigers for the title. Eels fans lament 2001 as the greatest opportunity for the club to win a premiership since 1986, but in 2005 Parramatta were dominant, the Tigers had already taken care of the premiership favourite Dragons, it was all there for them and they bottled it. My defining memory of that game is Daniel Wagon shooting off the line to put a hit on Matt Bowen, who sidestepped him like he was a toddler charging towards him with muddy hands in the air and then strolled over untouched.
2017 will be more familiar to Eels fans, after a tough clash against Melbourne Parramatta just didn’t have it against the Cowboys, bowing out of the postseason in straight sets in a year now known as Parramatta’s false dawn.
Cowboys coach Paul Green is a former Eel in the most technical definition of the term; he played 7 matches for Parramatta back in 2003 and was completely forgettable during his time in blue and gold. Glenn Morrison is the biggest name to come from the far north down to Parramatta, his two year stint in 2005-06 was high quality and I always lament his fleeing to England to finish his career back in the days when that was a profitable move and not what reserve graders do to get game time.
The talented Jason Smith finished his career up in Townsville, and Ashley Graham went from utility back at Parramatta to a pretty good first grader up at the Cowboys. Sideshow Matt Petersen and flying winger Scott Donald came the other way, and more forgettable players to wear both club’s colours include Carl Webb (thanks for the reminder), John Williams, Willie Tonga, Chris Muckert, Shane Muspratt and Dean Schifilliti.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
The pain of the punt was felt again last week after we correctly tipped over 16.5 first half points, but incorrectly nominated the Eels to cover 1.5 points start to the Raiders. With my Blue and Gold tipster eyes I’m declaring that the Raiders try should not have been awarded and that the Eels were unlucky not to be awarded three tries. That’s footy.
So without being deterred I’m again venturing into the first half points territory, but this time it’s the pick your own total market.
Three tries could easily have been six last week, so I’m tipping a very busy first half. Take over 22.5 points total, which is returning $2.60.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Jai Field 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Marata Niukore. 14. Ray Stone 15. David Gower 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Brad Takairangi. 18. Stefano Utoikamanu 19. Daniel Alvaro 20. George Jennings 21. Will Smith.
Jai Field has won the halfback role in place of the injured Mitch Moses, full analysis of that move in the game preview. David Gower takes the bench prop spot from Daniel Alvaro after Polar got a measly 7 minutes last week thanks to an HIA, and Stefano Utoikamanu creeps one more spot up the depth chart to the extended bench alongside Alvaro. Kane Evans remains sidelined with a calf injury and nobody is any the wiser as to the whereabouts of Peni Terepo; reserve grade or the casualty ward.
1. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Tom Opacic 4. Esan Marsters 5. Justin O’Neill 6. Scott Drinkwater 7. Jake Clifford 8. Josh McGuire 9. Reece Robson 10. Jordan McLean 11. Shane Wright 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo. 14 Ben Hampton 15. Gavin Cooper 16. Peter Hola 17. Francis Molo. 18. Reuben Cotter 19. Valentine Holmes 20. Corey Jensen 21. Jake Granville.
Valentine Holmes looms large on the extended bench for North Queensland, his return would force a reshuffle should the Cowboys want to keep excitement machine Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in the side, Tom Opacic would likely be dropped by way of Justin O’Neill moving to centre. Cowboys half Michael Morgan remains injured, while Shane Wright continues to keep Gavin Cooper out of the starting pack. Jake Granville is another name of note on the extended bench.
The biggest intangible in the Eels favour is Friday being the first time they will play in front of more than just corporate sponsors and friends in the crowd. Some 7,500 football starved Parramatta members will pour into Bankwest Stadium on Friday, undoubtedly in full voice. If the cardboard cutouts can get under the skin of Canberra back rower Corey Horsburgh, imagine what 7,500 fans can do to the Cowboys.
The Cowboys won four away games in 2019, not a bad record considering they won only nine games total but one of those was against the Roosters during Origin, two others were against the lowly Titans and Warriors. We all know how good Parramatta has been in front of crowds at Bankwest, and the Eels will benefit from a full home crowd advantage for only the second time this season.
The Bankwest playing surface was the talk of the rugby league world last weekend thanks to two non-contact ACL injuries occurring in a single game and three other leg injuries taking out players across the round. While the level of involvement the playing surface had in those injuries is questionable, the bad press was enough to accelerate a scheduled resurfacing of the Bankwest turf, meaning the Eels and Cowboys will be playing on a fresh pitch. I doubt new grass will make a Friday night game at Bankwest any less slippery, though temperatures are predicted to be a little warmer than usual for a Parramatta winter.
Ben Cummins will officiate his third Eels game of the season, he was most recently in charge of the Roosters clash that won him few blue and gold fans and he appears to have struggled more than some officials to adjust to the new six-again rules. He will be in the middle for a Cowboys clash for the first time this year, and North Queensland had a 1-1 record with him last season. If he doesn’t award a player a penalty for punching someone in the tackle he will be doing better than what the Eels had to deal with last week, an admittedly low bar to clear.
Cummins will have yet another new edict to enforce with an extension of the six-again rule to cover markers breaking early or not standing square. This has long been a pain point of the game and, if enforced strictly, could result in games that look like the days of unlimited tackle football. We’ll see on Thursday night how serious the referees are about this new interpretation, but it could be a significant factor in this contest.
What happens without Moses?
Let’s take a departure from the usual analysis here and talk about what the Eels will look like sans Mitchell Moses, as how Parramatta handle the absence of their halfback will be the biggest determining factor in the result this weekend.
Jai Field has been named as Moses’ replacement, a late train-and-trial signing in the summer pre-season who impressed enough to earn a development contract and a place in the Eels’ post-COVID NRL bubble. He was a hyped St George-Illawarra junior that never got much of a chance after the Dragons signed first Ben Hunt and then Corey Norman, playing 11 first grade games over three years, all but four of them from the bench in a textbook “good enough for grade, but don’t have a place for him” compromise by Mary McGregor.
The Cliff Notes on Field read: runs fast, can’t tackle. He has great pace off the mark and at the top end, great footwork, and loves running support lines through the middle, a result of the time he has spent at fullback. He has that supreme confidence of a man faster than anybody on the field when he meets a defender one-on-one, happy to take them on and knowing when to back himself. If we can get him in space he will cause no end of problems for the Cowboys defenders.
His passing game seems solid too from admittedly limited viewing. He has quick, soft hands and can throw a reasonable cutout and short ball. He wasn’t trusted with much kicking in his time in first grade, but his Canterbury Cup highlights include a few towering bombs. He’s put on 32 try assists in 52 NSW Cup games, and scored 28 himself.
Then we have the defence. There is a reason he hasn’t played much first grade and was unsigned before his trial with Parramatta in February. Field has an effective tackling rate of 81% at the NSW Cup level. His time at NRL is about the same. That would comfortably be worst in the NRL of regular halves this year.
He actually defends a lot like Mitchell Moses of a few years ago, with similar effectiveness. Reflexive arm tackles, ineffective second or third man contact that only takes a defender out of the line, but reasonable levels of effort and scramble. Moses overcame these issues with improvements in technique, strength and decisiveness in making contact, but that is a lot for a player to learn in the space of a few months. I wouldn’t expect big improvements from Field in this regard.
The tape from last season shows plenty of flaws in his positional defence as well. He made poor rush/wait choices and was beaten both inside and out when numbers were sent his way. Unfortunately for Parramatta he will slot in to a right side defence that already has significant trust issues.
Field will likely play a support role to Dylan Brown as the primary playmaker. There shouldn’t be too many worries about the ability of Brown to handle this step up, he plays with confidence and poise, and will have able assistance from Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney in the kicking game. Parramatta will miss the controlled short kicking game of Moses and his guidance in general play, but Field more than replicates the danger of his running game. Where you’ll notice Moses gone is in the Eels organisation around the ruck and structured attack close to the line. Hopefully the spark of Brown, a dominant forward pack and some individual brilliance gives Parramatta enough momentum to not miss the composure of Moses too much. If this turns into an arm wrestle, well the nerves can’t take much more after golden point last week.
How we win
The gameplans you would steal from Stephen Kearney could be written on the back of a discarded doubles ticket, but that one little “Home 8, Opposition 10” card would have “make Taumalolo tackle” scrawled over the tomato sauce stains. The Warriors upset win over the Cowboys this year was also the quietest the big man has been in years, largely thanks to his making 50 tackles compared to the usual 20 or so.
The other route you could take is to simply let Taumalolo get his, knowing that North Queensland have often not converted huge individual performances from their star lock into tries and wins. Taumalolo is a metre eater, a player who sets up attack with big charges and post contact metres, but he doesn’t have ball playing ability to make you fear him slipping a pass and for the amount of runs he takes, his offload counts are subpar. He has two try assists total since 2018. Taumalolo isn’t a particularly notable threat close to the line either, scoring 12 tries since 2017 (Viliame Kikau has 17 tries in 20 less games over that period, Jake Trbojevic 18, Angus Crichton 16 and Josh Papalii 17).
I’m not saying that the Eels should take Taumalolo lightly or treat him as any other player, just that he has played plenty of huge games that resulted in 2 Dally M points and a 16-point Cowboys loss. Shutting him down isn’t the be-all and end-all for beating North Queensland.
There are plenty of tantalising targets in this Cowboys defensive line. Esan Marsters is a walking defensive misread, every bit as exploitable without the ball as he is explosive with it. Scott Drinkwater doesn’t mind falling off of a tackle either, the only halves with a worse effective tackling percentage this year are Dylan Walker, Anthony Milford and Benji Marshall. There is a reason the Cowboys have conceded the most points of non-atrocious teams this season; they leak across the park.
One big cause of the Cowboys defensive issues is their inconsistent line speed. Their outside men will often shoot up or over-commit, leaving a staggered line ripe for exploitation. The support play of Clint Gutherson, Brown and Field will be crucial, while Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson will find joy with their offloads. It should create some space out wide for Sivo and Ferguson, who is a great shot to finally break his duck for 2020.
In the pack Coen Hess has given away the most penalties of any back rower in the NRL this year, he’s playing with a bit more ticker than last season but at a cost of discipline. Target him off quick play-the-balls and see what happens, we might find the Cowboys down to 12 men. Josh McGuire is another walking penalty, a well-known grub who gives as good as he gets in the niggle department.
I’m not going to dwell on the Eels right side defense yet again, we know there are massive issues that will only be exacerbated by adding Jai Field into the mix in place of Mitchell Moses. Justin O’Neill, Tom Opacic (or Hamiso) don’t present the most threatening matchup to the maligned right, but until we see the trust issues fixed then a Ryan Morgan/Etu Uaisele combination would be dangerous opposite them, let alone real NRL players.
You can’t teach speed, and players with elite pace have often caused the Eels heartbreak. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is as green as a Raiders home jersey but if he gets in space or, Sterlo-forbid, gets a chance one-on-one with Clint Gutherson, it won’t end well for the blue and gold. Test him plenty, but don’t overcommit on him and make sure the scramble is there quickly if he gets some space before the line. Neither Fergo nor Sivo have great turning speed (wingers built like forwards rarely do) so the chip and chase or midfield cross kick will be in play for the speed machine, the Eels must be careful from scrums.
Esan Marsters and Kyle Feldt are working up a nice combination, Marsters loves an offload and is tough to put down, and he has form against the Eels previously. Feldt is the NRL’s leading try-scorer, a prototypical finisher and near unstoppable when chasing down high kicks. Maika Sivo can find lead in his boots at times, so Parramatta need to protect him and get some (legal) bodies in the way of Feldt and the high ball.
While he hasn’t been as high impact as Cowboys fans may have hoped, Reece Robson is rounding into form and will cause havoc off a quick play-the-ball. Parramatta has been tight around the ruck this year but there have been a few lazy arms thrown around late in halves, our big men need to be vigilant when defending behind the ruck.
How it goes
It’s hard not to see an Eels victory here, but I also see yet another tough game for the blue and gold. The absence of Mitchell Moses will be felt most in an arm wrestle, so a fast start and forcing the Cowboys to play from behind will be crucial. On that front, it is hard to see North Queensland matching the Eels starting pack, even with Jason Taumalolo doing his thing. Hess and Wright are shadows of Lane and Matterson, while the Eels prop pairing of RCG and Junior Paulo sit at the opposite end of the form gauge to Jordan McLean and Josh McGuire.
On the back of forward dominance, Parramatta have too many points in them for a questionable North Queensland defence. If they are controlling the game and can ease Jai Field back into first grade, he is a confidence player who will cause havoc around lazy ruck defenders. Dylan Brown will relish the responsibility of being chief playmaker, but he needs to make sure that doesn’t turn into relying solely on his running game.
On the other side of the ball the Eels need to watch out for the undefendable plays. Finding Hamiso in open space, Kyle Feldt in a one-on-one aerial matchup, Taumalolo and Hess running at Field without support. Success will come from limiting those opportunities, particularly winning the field position battle to avoid defending the line and shutting down opportunities for second phase play.
The home ground advantage, the superiority of the Eels pack and the hard edge developed from a month of grinding contests against the best teams in the competition will be too much for the Cowboys to overcome. If Parramatta are for real in 2020, this is a game they should win and I expect them to do so.
Prediction: Eels 28 North Queensland 18
Man of the Match: Dylan Brown