Date: Thursday, July 23, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium
Kick Off: 7:50PM AEST
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Head-to-head: Played 39, Parramatta 23, West 15, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $1.35 Tigers $3.25
Broadcast:Channel Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Eels 30 d Tigers 18, Bankwest Stadium, R17 2019
Eels 51 d Tigers 6, Bankwest Stadium, R6 2019
Eels 24 d Tigers 22, Stadium Australia, R8 2018
Tigers 30 d Eels 20, Stadium Australia, R4 2018
That wasn’t much fun. A Blue & Gold army that had started to let its guard down and enjoy season 2020 were treated to an ice cold slap in the face reminding them that the Parramatta Eels are still a work in progress, and regression to the bad old days is only a few injuries or a first touch knock-on away.
The nature of the Manly loss (and don’t kid yourself, it was an absolute disaster) makes this match against the West Tigers a must win. The Eels need to rebound quickly and show fans, doubters and themselves that the capitulation against the Sea Eagles was a one off affair, a bad night in an otherwise excellent season.
At the halfway point of said season, don’t let one bad night ruin what has been an incredible 2020 campaign. It is a credit to how good the Eels are going that we expected to beat Manly (and comfortably) away from home and missing three of our best players (including our halfback), plus starting two guys off the bench who combined hadn’t played a single minute of first grade football. That said, if the Eels put forward a similar effort this week as they did against Manly, well, I’ll be staying off social media for a while and checking how the Wanderers are going.
Wests sit comfortably in the “best of the rest” range of teams in season 2020, dropping games to the contenders (Newcastle, Canberra, Penrith) but, aside from an inexplicable loss to the Titans, beating the also-rans. They come in full of confidence after a demolition job on the pitiful Broncos, but a lack of faith in the team to compete with the top sides was betrayed by a pathetic attempt to fire them up when officials leaked false quotes from Ryan Matterson about his reasons for leaving Wests at the end of last season. It was a small time move from the Tigers to manufacture “locker room wall material” in a game they shouldn’t need external motivation to fire up for. It is another example of small club mentality from a team that has struggled to pull themselves together on and off the field for the better part of a decade.
Since the days post Super League when Balmain turned down overtures from the Eels to instead merge with a more equal partner in Western Suburbs, there has been a fair bit of bad feeling from the Wests Tigers towards Parramatta. The arrogance of Denis Fitzgerald rubbed plenty of teams the wrong way (remember when he’d give Melbourne locker room material every time we played them by saying the city doesn’t deserve a team?) but he was particularly critical of the Wests Tigers merger after being snubbed by Balmain and denied that lucrative Tiger name and mascot. That ill feeling grew into a bitter rivalry from the Tigers side, assigning the arrogance of Fitzgerald to an entire Eels fanbase and club that frankly have had little to be arrogant about for nearly 35 years.
That ill will hasn’t always translated to an on field rivalry, with no finals matches ever contested between the merged club and the Eels. Western Suburbs defeated Parramatta in the Eels first ever finals match back in 1962, and both the Tigers and Magpies played out a few finals games in that early era of Eels success. A 32-4 hiding of Balmain in the 1985 finals series is the last post-season meeting between any Tigers or Magpies side and Parramatta.
Parramatta and the Tigers have claimed the Easter Monday rivalry match for themselves in recent years, competing in some very ordinary games in front of huge public holiday crowds at Stadium Australia before the famous Bankwest opening last season. The lockdown denied a chance to continue that tradition this year, but it was nice for the Eels to be able to claim one of these arbitrary public holiday bonanzas after years of having to watch Dragons v Roosters and Storm v Warriors on ANZAC Day or the Bulldogs and Dragons on the Queen’s Birthday.
The most famous regular season match between these sides would be their round 24, 2009 battle, dubbed as the battle of Benji v Jarryd. Wests carried a six game winning streak into the match, the Eels a five match streak, the two hottest teams in the NRL both making a late charge for a finals berth after ordinary starts to the year. Ultimately Hayne prevailed over Marshall with an incredible individual performance, and the Eels took the eighth and final spot in the post-season by one point from the Tigers, riding that wave all the way to the grand final.
More recently, Tigers fans have blamed the Eels for their own inability to retain key players, with both Mitchell Moses and Ryan Matterson leaving Wests mid-contract (with the Tigers blessing) to sign with Parramatta. Moses immediately developed into a more consistent, mature player under the guidance of Brad Arthur, while the Tigers petty treatment of Matterson stretched all the way to denying him their player of the year award after a breakthrough season where he was by far and away their best. That treatment continues to this day with classless Tigers fans wishing injury upon him on social media and the club stirring up false drama in the media this week.
Some of the Tigers dramas are self inflicted, such as an audacious campaign to claim Bankwest Stadium as their home ground, one that belonged to them as much as any other club that uses it. Sure, that is technically true and Bankwest does not strictly belong to the Eels, but it is built in the centre of Parramatta, on the land Parramatta has used for home games since 1947, in consultation primarily with an Eels club that will play all of their home games at the ground rather than a handful of games a year. It is absolutely the Eels home ground first and foremost, and the Tigers trying to claim it as “Their Jungle” only to get beaten handily almost every time they played there, including an embarrassing half century put on them in the grand opening, didn’t do much to improve Tigers fans opinions of the Blue & Gold army.
Tigers fans expecting Parramatta to reciprocate the generosity of Wests in releasing players from their contract also created some friction. When the Tigers signed Eels rookie Stefano Utoikamanu to a sizeable deal their fans took it as a right of the club for the young prop to be released to them early. Parramatta instead upgraded Stefano for his remaining Eels season, promoting him to the first grade squad as depth. This has proven to be a wise move, with the Eels prop ranks down to fumes thanks to injuries and Utoikamanu getting his third first grade game this weekend. It has become far too common for fans to expect a player to be released as soon as they sign a contract elsewhere, and Parramatta holding their ground should not be treated as a selfish or unreasonable move.
There is a fair bit of cross-pollination of the Eels and Tigers ranks at present, with former Eels juniors Josh Aloiai and Alex Twal now regular starters in the Tigers pack. Neither played any first grade for Parramatta, but both have developed into solid first graders for Wests. Matt Eisenhuth is another former Eel in the Tigers ranks that never played first grade in Blue & Gold, being released from the club all the way back in the Ricky Stuart era.
On the Eels side of things, we’ve already talked about Matterson and Moses, but Nathan Brown is also a former Tiger who made his way to Parramatta via South Sydney. David Gower played a solitary game for the Tigers way back in 2009, and I can’t be sure, but that might be long enough ago that he still had hair. New Eels recruit Jordan Rankin also played for the Tigers. Off the field, current Eels general manager of football Mark O’Neill is a Tigers legend and grand final winner.
Past names to play for both clubs are headlined by Tigers grand final heroes Brett Hodgson and Pat Richards, while Jason Moodie, John Morris and Michael Buettner are former Eels grand finalists that wore both sets of colours. Other big names to play for both teams include Jarrod McCracken, Joel Reddy, Wade McKinnon, Paul Whatuira, Jason Cayless and John Simon. Eels grand final halfback Jason Taylor had a coaching stint at Wests that is famous for the wrong reasons. Roosters coach Trent Robinson would almost certainly be in the list below if not for his becoming the best coach in the game following his playing days.
Lesser names are in great supply, but a few blasts from the past to be both an Eel and a Tiger include Troy Wozniak, Tom Humble, Kylie Leuluai, Ben Duckworth, Shayne Dunley and Justin Hunt, who played a solitary game for both clubs.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
Last week was horrible for the Eels and therefore just as ugly for the punt. We opted for Maika Sivo to score two tries, and sadly that feat was achieved by the player who resides one pass inside him, Michael Jennings.
Looking at this week’s market, Parra are the overwhelming favourite. Whilst I’m confident that they’ll bounce back to form, there’s not much value in selecting them, and some of the markets I like recommending show a substantial start to the Tigers.
With that in mind, I’m trying to find value and I reckon I’ve found it in the score a try and win market. I think Mitch Moses can cross the stripe against his old club, so if you couple that anytime try with an Eels win, you’ll get a nice return of $4.75.
Here’s to some better fortune this week. Gamble responsibly.
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. Andrew Davey 15. Marata Niukore 16. Stefano Utoikamanu 17. Brad Takairangi. 18. David Gower 19. George Jennings 20. Daniel Alvaro 21. Jai Field.
The troops are scheduled to return this week with Mitchell Moses, Blake Ferguson and Ryan Matterson coming back from injury, while Maika Sivo and Nathan Brown are named despite taking knocks against Manly. Brown is the one most unlikely to recover in time, he would be ably replaced by Marata Niukore if that was the case, with David Gower likely to come onto the bench. George Jennings would be on standby for Sivo, he was okay after his clanger to start the Manly game, but nothing was going to make up for setting that tone. He’ll be fine, just don’t let him touch the ball inside our own 20. Or let him take the first carry of the game.
Unfortunately the Eels are no closer to getting their bench prop rotation back to normal, with Kane Evans and Peni Terepo still sidelined indefinitely. To make matters worse, Oregon Kaufusi and Ray Stone are both still a few weeks away. Andrew Davey was good in his debut last week, but more will be expected from Stefano Utoikamanu who didn’t do much with his chances against Manly.
1. Adam Doueihi 2. David Nofoaluma 3. Chris Lawrence 4. Moses Mbye 5. Tommy Talau 6. Billy Walters 7. Benji Marshall 8. Josh Aloiai 9. Harry Grant 10. Russell Packer 11. Michael Chee-Kam 12. Luciano Leilua 13. Matthew Eisenhuth. 14. Sam McIntyre 15. Thomas Mikaele 16. Luke Brooks 17. Chris McQueen. 18. Oliver Clark 19. Elijah Taylor 20. Shawn Blore 21. Alex Seyfarth.
The carousel of Tigers halves has stopped this week with the pairing of Walters and Marshall returning after the hiding Wests gave the Broncos last round. The last member of the Tigers “Big Four” in Luke Brooks remains on the bench for impact, though the only impact he had from there last week was stopping the Tigers procession of point scoring.
There are several outs for Wests, most notably workhorse prop Alex Twal. The Tigers pack has done well enough without him the last month, but now will also need to handle the loss of Luke Garner, who is replaced by Michael Chee-Kam (who could be a possible smokescreen for the debut of highly touted Panthers recruit Shawn Blore). Josh Reynolds and Joey Leilua remain suspended, replaced by Walters and Chris Lawrence. Leilua and his brain snaps are unlikely to be missed, but Reynolds had driven a stronger defensive effort from the Tigers and controlled their attack. Neither of those aspects were missing last week against the Broncos, but like the Eels found out against the Cowboys, Queensland teams are not a good barometer for performance against real football teams.
Gerard Sutton referees his fourth Parramatta game of the season this week, with the Eels holding a perfect 3-0 record with him in centre, and 6-1 over the last two years. Sutton also officiated both Eels/Tigers clashes last season, of which the Eels handily won both. The Tigers are winless in six games under Sutton in the last two years. Unless you think any ref is a bad ref, this is a good result.
There is little chance of rain Thursday night, but Bankwest will be its usual, slippery self with a late kickoff. The surface should be in good shape after the turf replacement three weeks ago and teams returning to their home grounds means no matches were played there last week, and only three total since the Eels beat the Cowboys to christen the new turf in round 8.
The Tigers may hold Bankwest as one of their half-dozen home grounds, but in front of crowds their record is a very ordinary one win from seven matches at the ground. Wests did beat Cronulla and Canterbury there this season in front of the cardboard cutouts, but from the first game at the new stadium where the Eels put 50 on them, Bankwest has been an unwelcoming jungle for the Tigers.
How we win
The Tigers have been a much better defensive side in recent weeks, but both edges have been known to leak points this season. David Nofoaluma is having a career year with ball in hand, but he has spent plenty of time in and out of first grade during his career thanks to his defensive deficiencies, and now he has to defend against Maika Sivo and Michael Jennings. He will defend outside Chris Lawrence, who will have his hands full marking Jennings should the evergreen Eels centre get the space to put some footwork on.
We are only two weeks removed from one of the all time defensive edge collapses in the Tigers loss to Souths, where Moses Mbye and rookie Reece Hoffman were lost at sea, rushing, drifting and generally bumbling their way to gifting the Rabbitohs right side attack as much as four on one overlaps and letting try-shy centre Dane Gagai cross for his first career club football hat-trick. Waqa Blake will be licking his lips in anticipation at that matchup with Mbye, but all that should be required by the Eels is a return to executing their “wide four” attack with Moses and Gutherson chiming in to create a numbers advantage that creates the space for Blake and Ferguson to shine.
That attacking structure was completely absent against Manly, with Reed Mahoney having an unhappy game with his pass selections, too often going to the crash line and not getting the Eels wide shifts moving, even when Moses Suli was out there looking like he was nursing broken ribs. The return of Moses will help here, both in directing the Parramatta outside men and in relieving the pressure of playmaking from the shoulders of Clint Gutherson and Dylan Brown. Parramatta haven’t forgotten how to run those attacking shifts and it wasn’t great Manly defence that repelled them last week, against the Sea Eagles the Eels simply didn’t run the plays that have created most of their 2020 success.
In previous battles the Tigers have had no answer for Parramatta up the middle of the park, and that was before the addition of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson. RCG has been immense in recent weeks, including a huge 80 minute performance last weekend. Junior Paulo was quiet against Manly and will need a bounce back game, especially with the absence of established middle forwards on the bench aside from Marata Niukore, who may need to come in to start for Nathan Brown.
Shaun Lane is one player who needs to step up. In the absence of Matterson last week, Lane played like he was dumped by text on the bus to the ground, barely there in attack and walking in defence, including a weak effort on the second Manly try. It isn’t a good sign that a player goes missing exactly when he is needed to stand tall, but Lane can make amends this week against an opponent he has had some happy days against previously.
A special shout out should go to Clint Gutherson, who I only seem to mention as a supporting player in most of these previews but he is quietly up there in Dally M voting (for as little as that award is worth) and the King is the man who makes the Eels attacking structures tick. We know he is a workhorse from the back, but he is also a clever player that snatched Parramatta victories in back-to-back-to-back weeks with his quick tap try assist against Newcastle and the “foot drag” seven tackle set and field goal against Canberra sandwiching a masterclass in fullback playmaking against the Cowboys.
Finally, the return of Mitchell Moses is most welcome for Parramatta. The Eels were lost at sea structurally against Newcastle and Manly, and only in one of those games could the Parramatta defensive line compensate for the lack of attack. Dylan Brown proved he is human over the past two weeks, trying to do too much, running too often and having some crucial kicking misfires and showing at this stage of his career he is better as a secondary playmaker than a primary. Dylan will be better for the return of Mitch.
The Tigers attack runs through three players in 2020: Benji Marshall, Harry Grant and David Nofoaluma. Marshall was briefly dropped for his defensive issues but proved a difference maker coming off the bench and he has now pushed Luke Brooks out of the starting side. Benji makes veteran decisions, finds the right man and still has plenty of footwork to complement his ball skills. He is everywhere and relishes the responsibility placed on his shoulders. He will likely be the target of the patented Brad Arthur defensive focus, though that didn’t stop Daly Cherry-Evans having a field day against the Eels last weekend.
Grant has been very impressive in Tigers victories, so much so that he leads the Dally M voting, but he is relatively untested against quality opposition. He is clever and confident out of dummy half, but his effective tackling rate is in the bottom five of starting hookers and a lot of his hype comes from the story around him. His play has been good, yes, but best in the NRL or an Origin player? That’s a bit much.
Nofoaluma has been a steamroller in 2020, second in the NRL in tries and leading in tackle breaks. He just looks like a hard man to tackle, bulky and built low to the ground, and he knows how to use his shape and strength to bump off defenders. The best way to defend him is to not let him get up to speed, and to avoid situations where he is given a one-on-one contest with space to move. He lines up opposite another big man in Maika Sivo, but the Eels Fijian flier hasn’t always been a sturdy defender and he needs to make sure to get the chance to tackle Nofoaluma head on rather than rushing from the side to overcome an overlap, a situation Nofo will win every time.
More generally, the Tigers have been a high completions, control possession style of team, overcoming a forward pack that lacks impact by being consistent and relentless. Russell Packer provides a bit more spark than they have been used to in recent times, but that comes at the expense of having Russell Packer in your defensive line. They aren’t big on offloads or post contact metres, though fullback Adam Doueihi somewhat surprisingly leads the team in PCM. He needs to be met with a straight defensive line on kick returns, something that hasn’t been much of a problem for the Eels this year.
How it goes
We’ll smash them.
Since that prediction went so well last week, I’m doubling down here. The Eels forwards are a nightmare matchup for the Tigers pack, and both Benji and Grant have proven to be far less effective behind a beaten pack. RCG is in rare touch, putting up Taumalolo-like stats while the actual Taumalolo starts to show signs of mortality. Junior Paulo is built for games like this, and you would hope Ryan Matterson and Shaun Lane are fired up, Matterson in his revenge game and Lane after phoning it in last week. Opposite a makeshift back rower in Chee-Kam and a toiler lacking impact at lock in Eisenhuth, there is no excuse for the Parramatta middle doing anything other than dominating this clash.
Parramatta absolutely must get their structured attack firing again after two ordinary weeks. Mitchell Moses should help this, but it is a concern that the structures didn’t miss a beat against the Cowboys sans Moses, Gutherson laying on try after try for Maika Sivo off similar plays, then they disappeared against Newcastle and Manly. Moses isn’t running the lines, he can only direct the play, and if the problem extends further than just lacking organisation then the Eels are looking at having to beat Tigers defenders one-on-one to score points.
This is also a massive test of the Eels mental toughness. Noted curmudgeon Phil Gould has done plenty of ill-informed bleating about the Parramatta mentality in recent weeks, but it will be tough to defend the Eels mental strength if they can’t come out of the rooms firing in this game. There is personal motivation in the Matterson and Moses sagas, there is an opposition that irrationally hates them and they’ve lost the top spot on the ladder after nine rounds heading the pack. On top of it all, they played like strangers last weekend after weeks of strong football. Pride should dictate they come out on fire in this one. If they don’t, everything they have achieved so far this season counts for little.
I believe last week was an aberration after months of tough footy and a team hit hard by injuries and a lack of playing time for the guys who replaced them. Now we are looking at fielding a full strength starting side (pending Browny) against a team with its own key outs that, let’s be honest, hasn’t presented much of a challenge to the Eels in recent clashes. I expect Parramatta to be fired up for this one, and for the result to reflect that accordingly.
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 40 West Tigers 12
Man of the Match: Ryan Matterson