Date: Thursday, August 20, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 7:50PM AEST
Referee: Ben Cummins
Head-to-head: Played 36, Parramatta 13, Melbourne 23
Odds: Eels $1.62 Storm $2.35
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Melbourne 32 d Parramatta 0, AAMI Park, Semi Final 2019
Melbourn 64 d Parramatta 10, Suncorp Stadium, R9 2019
Melbourne 20 d Parramatta 4, AAMI Park, R23 2018
Melbourne 18 d Parramatta 16, AAMI Park, Preliminary Final 2017
Last week’s disgusting loss to the Dragons was about as unpleasant as watching football can get. At least if the Eels are getting done by 50 you can turn off the channel and pretend footy doesn’t exist for a week. A close contest like that one where Parramatta just continue to beat themselves and let an opposition get by them purely on willpower, inept in attack and making dumb mistakes against a very beatable team, those are tough losses to deal with. It was the footballing equivalent of your mum sitting you down and saying “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”.
That was a miserable game, but the epitome of misery for Eels fans for over a decade now has been seeing the Melbourne Storm approaching on the draw. Parramatta hasn’t beaten a Melbourne side with Cameron Smith in it since 2012. The Eels have scratched out the occasional win against the Storm during Origin periods, and gave them a heck of a scare before copping a barrage of ordinary calls in the first week of the 2017 finals, but for the most part the thought of playing a full strength Melbourne side in the decade since they robbed the Eels of the 2009 premiership has given me nightmares.
Luckily for Parramatta, this is another one of those “no Cameron Smith” games, the Storm captain still out through injury. Melbourne will also be missing Cameron Munster, Suliasi Vuivalu, Dale Finucane, Jesse Bromwich and Jahrome Hughes. That is three quarters of the Storm spine out, two representative forwards and a star winger. That’s more than what is usually on the sidelines for an Origin round. If Parramatta is going to beat Melbourne, now is the time to do it.
On the flipside, if Parramatta lose this one I think you can mark the Eels 2020 season down as a pleasant first half stroll to the top of the ladder followed by a second half stumble and trip to a disappointing finals exit. Losing to a literally half strength Melbourne side is as solid a marker of lacking premiership credentials as conceding the half century. That’s a lot of pressure, but we’re hitting the business end of the season and Parramatta are playing their worst footy, with no sign of a turnaround. Pressure needs to be applied.
There is no kind way to put this, Parramatta is to Melbourne what Daryll Cullinan was to Shane Warne, or Karl Malone to Michael Jordan. The Eels’ last five finals campaigns dating back to 2006 have all been ended by the Storm, and their finals record against Melbourne sits at no wins, six losses.
Those losses have ranged from Eels capitulations (1999, 2019) to rorts (2006, 2017) to “well fine, the better team won” (2007) to “a dirty bunch of cap cheats stole a premiership from us, and by the way that wasn’t a strip, and the result would have been different if Joel Reddy (yes, Joel Reddy) didn’t have to go off hurt”.
I don’t particularly feel like reliving the 2009 grand final any more than that, nor these club’s shared history as cap cheats. Without those two events, the history between Parramatta and Melbourne is mainly the Storm beating the Eels and occasionally Denis Fitzgerald saying they don’t deserve to have a team. It is rather bleak.
He may be persona non grata these days, but the Jarryd Hayne/Billy Slater rivalry was one of the greats in the last decade. Slater was always a high effort professional, but the lackadaisical Hayne certainly brought out the prima donna in Billy. Slater was dirty, sooky and spiteful when facing off against Hayne, and while he ultimately won the battle of who was the best modern fullback, Hayne’s highest points definitely eclipsed Slater’s.
Considering the reputation players leaving the Storm generally have, especially forwards, it is probably a good thing there are no former Melbourne players in the Eels squad. While he never played first grade for Parramatta, Tui Kamikamica is a name in the Storm squad that many Parramatta fans will remember from the old NYC teams, mainly because Kamikamica is a very memorable name.
Storm mainstay utility Ryan Hinchcliffe was a Parramatta junior, and right up there with the “most rumoured/most anticipated” signing to come back to the Eels that never materialised. “Worst coach of the modern era” Stephen Kearney earned most of that reputation in the box for the Eels, but he had a much better reputation as a tough second rower at Melbourne before an apprenticeship under Craig Bellamy. Current Eels assistant David Kidwell also wore both the Blue & Gold and the purple pyjamas. Todd Lowrie, Brett Finch, Blake Green and Luke Kelly are other well known names to have solid stints at both clubs.
Henry Perenara makes his third appearance in a row in the “un-notables”, playing 33 games for the Storm. He is joined by the prime examples of the “Melbourne Storm system” making any player competent in Cheyse Blair and Ryan Morgan, while Ben Roberts, Jack Afamasaga and Chris Walker are other names you may be shaking your head at as you remember their performances for the Eels.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
Nobody enjoys losing, whether it’s their favourite footy team or the punt. I’m now beginning to hate wet weather because it plays havoc with both. Though the modern pitches don’t turn into the bogs of yesteryear, damp conditions are often the great leveller. Hopefully any punters took my tip and kept their hard earned in their wallet when the heavens opened up for the second week in a row.
This week, the weather forecast reads much better, so for those inclined to have a punt – it’s on!!!
Strangely enough, I’m feeling quite bullish about an Eels win.
I considered looking at some of the more extravagant markets, but ended up settling on the Head to Head/over under market. Take the Eels with over 36.5 total match points. You’ll get odds of $2.70, which, if you’re greedy, could be the start of a nice multi.
Happy punting, and of course, 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. Ray Stone 15. Marata Niukore 16. Kane Evans 17. Oregon Kaufusi. 18. Andrew Davey 19. Haze Dunster
20. Will Smith 21. Brad Takairangi.
Cut and paste job this week as the Eels avoid the injury curse that has been cast upon the NRL as a whole. The only change is Will Smith joining the extended bench in place of Stefano Utoikamanu, providing cover for fullback and the halves in the unlikely event somebody goes down during the week, and he along with Brad Takairangi have already dropped off the extended bench.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Sandor Earl 3. Brenko Lee 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Ryley Jacks 20. Cooper Johns 10. Christian Welch 9. Brandon Smith 17. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Tino Faasuamaleaui. 14. Nicho Hynes 15. Tom Eisenhuth 16. Albert Vete 21. Darryn Schonig. 18. Marion Seve 19. Chris Lewis.
7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich.
If it wasn’t the Storm you’d feel sorry for them, such is the injury and suspension count that they have racked up in the last few weeks. Cooper Johns will make his NRL debut in place of Jahrome Hughes, while journeyman prop Darryn Schonig makes his second appearance for Melbourne off the bench.
Sadly, Melbourne is as much a system as it is a side, and the well prepared Craig Bellamy will have a gameplan designed to exploit those Eels defensive weaknesses that have become apparent over the last month. As long as Jacks and Johns can pass a ball wide, there is still enough talent in that backline to cause some real issues for the increasingly shaky Sivo and Blake.
That forward pack still looks mighty intimidating too, with the seven time defending “NRL Easter Island Statue Lookalike” winner Nelson Asofa-Solomona punching his way into the pack and Tino Faasuamaleaui and his impressive try scoring record will enjoy the extra gametime he should get at lock. Vete and Schonig won’t scare anybody, and I trust this Eels pack more than most to match up with their opposites, but this is not a team to be taken lightly even when half of it is missing.
My kingdom for a dry game! After two weeks of soaking wet football, Parramatta will be grateful to be playing with only the dewey surface of Bankwest to make things slippery. It will be a fine, sunny day on Thursday, with only heavy winds to worry about. We haven’t really seen how badly heavy winds could impact a game at Bankwest, it is cauldron-like but also has plenty of open spaces straight from road level to the field on the northern and eastern sides. Ryan Papenhuyzen kicked goals for the Storm last week and was solid, but you wouldn’t bet on him in swirling conditions.
Ben Cummins is the referee, notching up his fifth Eels game of the season. We’re 3-1 under him this year. Melbourne are 3-0 under Cummins in 2020, and were 5-2 in 2019. He shouldn’t make any impact on this one.
It was a shame that fortress Bankwest was penetrated by such a mediocre opponent as the Dragons, but it does prove that home field advantage isn’t quite what it was when the stadium could be filled. Having been out there for a few games now this year, it does have a “6000 people watching on a lounge” kind of vibe, there just isn’t as much noise, few chants (despite the best efforts of the ground announcer) and that has to have an impact on the side. That’s what I’m claiming anyway.
I spent some time this week rewatching the edge defence of the Eels, trying to crack what is going wrong out wide. Make no mistake, despite the lofty ranking of our defensive points against this year, a well drilled team could put 30 or 40 points past the Parramatta edges with a bit of decent field position. The Eels are incredibly lucky to have played mediocre attacking teams for the last month, and played in the sopping wet for the one decent attacking side they faced in the Sharks.
The problems are legion, but it boils down to the Eels employing a tight ruck formation in defence that demands a level of play and defensive reading from the outside backs that they often falter at. The first issue is that they are usually facing overlaps, mostly because the Eels defend tight against the ruck to cover crash lines from props and edge back rowers. It is the type of defensive formation that Parramatta exploited with great efficiency early in the season with long passes and Clint Gutherson joining the line, but opposing teams are now adjusting and covering that attack with better lateral movement, sharper number counting and faster line speed.
That tight ruck has worked for the Eels, who have barely conceded a try through the centre of the park, and in the middle of the field are rarely found on the back foot, recovering from fast play the balls with good line speed and strong wrestling in the tackle. Teams are reluctant to shift the ball early in a set or in their own half, so the tight line is usually safe in general play, barring the occasional shift like the Dragons did late in the first half last week. Opposing teams just don’t get many chances to pepper the Eels line, which has alleviated (or hidden) some of the issues they have out wide.
Close to the line, this style of defence means you will often be facing an overlap on the edge as the back rower and even half cheat in to defend the middle. When the opposition shift wide quickly, the inside men need to push out fast if the ball goes out the back, and this is where you’ll often see Dylan Brown or Mitch Moses shooting wide to keep the man-on-man numbers, and a middle and back rower rushing up with them to cover once the crash line has been skipped. This requires great skill and trust from the centre and near telepathic communication with the winger.
The centre has to hold his nerve and trust the inside men, while also identifying when they are not going to be able to cover in time and make a split second decision to rush in. If the centre crashes in, the winger will usually need to come with him to give a second opportunity to shut down quick passes, but he will also need to recognise the position on the field, how much space he has behind him and where his fullback is in cover defence, and in the right circumstances holding back might be the better option. The Ravalawa try down the wing was a great example of when the centre crashes in but the winger is better off staying out, as there is both good depth of space behind Sivo (about 15 metres), a short space to the sideline, and cover coming across in the form of Brown and Gutherson. Instead Sivo crashed in from long range and was committed well before he realised the pass was going over him. The cover got there, but the one defensive weakness Dylan Brown has is cover tackles on the sideline and he went for the hero shove against a bigger, stronger man instead of a grassing tackle.
All of this decision making is hard to comprehend when you have your back turned to the play, as Maika Sivo often does when he half-jogs back into the defensive line. Maybe it is laziness or fatigue, maybe he prefers to defend knowing where his inside men are, but watching games in the extended “Kayo Cam” that shows the view from the grandstand and thus the whole defensive line in most cases, Sivo rarely looks at the attacking shape coming his way until he has to move up with the line. Sure, he only needs to mark up against one man, but if an obvious overlap is developing, the winger can assist by screaming for cover and the line might shift just that bit quicker. Instead, Sivo barely knows what is coming his way until the passes are in the air, hence he suddenly had to rush out at a centre who was never getting the ball last weekend.
Michael Jennings on his inside shows his class in this decision making, almost always timing his rushes perfectly and showing great faith in his inside defenders. Unfortunately Sivo makes too many basic errors with reads and choices, perhaps due to his relative inexperience in league compared to the men he takes the field with. He is a beast with the ball in hand, but perhaps he is not up to the task that the Eels defensive system demands of him.
Then you have our maligned right edge. Here the problem is mostly Waqa Blake. The communication between Waqa and Blake Ferguson is also an issue, but Fergo has combined just fine with other, better defensive centres in his career, so I’m pinning most of the blame of Waqa.
For a start, Waqa has very ordinary tackling technique. He overcommits, rushes past the play and is forced into weak arm grabs. While he has a similar effective tackling percentage to Michael Jennings, when Waqa misses he misses fast, stepped or brushed aside, barely impeding the ball carrier. Jennings will rarely have a costly miss that barely slows the opposition down, but when Blake rushes up, he often misses the tackle and takes himself completely out of the play.
Waqa is also surrounded by trust issues. His tackling technique (and perhaps reputation) has spooked Ferguson, who often rushes in to help Waqa in the tackle, usually when it isn’t required. We haven’t seen as many saloon passages down the right side in recent weeks, but this may be because Waqa is now rushing so far in field that Fergo is struggling to keep up with him. Similarly, Waqa will crash in on situations that would be better handled by keeping the line, even if there is an overlap. An overlap isn’t great, but Blake Ferguson is pretty good at getting a hand on a ball or breaking up a play, and Clint Gutherson is a solid cover defender. Both of those are better options than Waqa rushing himself out of the play. Waqa being so erratic with his rush defence makes it hard for Fergo to move with him, taking away the value of both centre and winger crashing in to shut down quick hands.
So how do the Eels fix this? It is too far into the season to change an otherwise brutally effective defensive formation, so Parramatta need to improve what they have. Having a predictable centre/wing reaction such as “always rush” or “always hold the line” that could be exploited would be a better result than what we are presenting now, and could make things easier for Sivo, who is really struggling with decision making even when he is outside one of the great defensive centres.
Another option could be to cheat the back rowers wide and risk weakening the tight defence when close to the line. Most of the issues arise from how the Eels outside backs deal with overlaps, so take away those overlaps and see if things improve. Dylan Brown has proven more than capable of cutting down bigger men without help, and Mitchell Moses has compensated for his own defensive flaws by rushing up and pressuring the ball carrier, which buys time for the inside cover to assist if he misses the tackle. It might create some confusion to shift defensive strategy when you reach a certain point on the field, but it also might be necessary.
Some of the issues may rest on the shoulders of Clint Gutherson, who needs to direct numbers more effectively when close to the line. It’s a hard job for a fullback, who also needs to position himself to cover kicks and track the opposing fullback when they chime into the line, but the Eels need some help in getting numbers across quickly. We already ask a lot of the King, so what is one more responsibility?
After all of that I haven’t got it in me to cover the Eels attacking woes in recent weeks, especially on a short turnaround. Let’s see how we go against the Storm before declaring an attacking crisis to go with our defensive liabilities.
You know Melbourne. That’s why you are very worried about this game despite them missing most of their spine. It bears repeating from before: Melbourne is a system of football, players are merely interchangeable in the Craig Bellamy machine. That is how he has got good footy out of mediocre talents like Cheyse Blair and Ryan Morgan, how they manage to get through Origin relatively unscathed each year, and why they have been legitimate title threats every year of the last 15 odd. Half the team missing doesn’t matter, if you don’t show up and play good football they will beat you, and handily.
The last time the Eels played good football, the Victorian daily COVID case increases were only in double digits. That’s early July, or seven weeks ago against the Cowboys, for those who want more direct references. If Parramatta plays like they did last week, this Melbourne team will win comfortably.
What Parramatta can rely on is that the Storm attacking structures won’t be as crisp as they usually are. When Melbourne play “badly” it is usually a combination of minor mistakes; they don’t capitulate. Maybe a missed tackle from an inferior outside back, or some bad defensive reads. Maybe the attacking lines aren’t as fast and direct. In games where they have been beaten, such as against the Raiders early in the year, it was that they played a committed defensive line and couldn’t throw enough variety at their opposition to crack it. Unfortunately for the Eels, you don’t need variety to crack their defence.
Ryan Papenhuyzen is still dangerously fast and is coming into his own after flirting with second year syndrome to start the season. Justin Olam, Josh Addo-Carr and Brenko Lee all have more than enough talent ball in hand to create trouble for their opposites. Asofa-Solomona and big Tino are giants that demand attention on every run, particularly close to the line. Brandon Smith will relish the opportunity to lead the side around and deputise for Cam Smith.
But let’s go back to Asofa-Solomona. Ignoring that he is lucky not to be rotting in a Bali prison after his off-season antics, this grub was last seen against the Eels shushing the Blue & Gold away fans, at Melbourne’s home ground, when his team was up by 30 points. It was a classless act in a game they never looked like losing, especially insulting and taunting fans that probably spent a fortune to travel down to Victoria to watch their team get smacked in a semi final. Maybe he was trying to channel Jarryd Hayne, but there is a big difference between crossing for a match-winner in opposition territory as underdogs and giving it to the crowd, as Hayne did, versus taunting a small group of fans that just watched their team get flogged by the minor premiers who were 4:1 favourites.
I am one of many Eels fans who will be hoping to see Ray Stone cut Nelson in half, and if big Junior, RCG and especially Browny gave him a little extra out there in every tackle I wouldn’t be upset. I might even go and sit next to the Storm tunnel just for the chance to shush the bastard myself as he walks off after a big Eels win.
How it goes
That last line there exudes a confidence that I hardly feel going into this game. We have seen six weeks of performances that at best reached ‘average’, capped with a gutless, listless loss to a Dragons team that presented nothing but high effort against them. The form line isn’t great for the Eels, and you can’t continue to make excuses for an average footy side, even accounting for their position on the ladder.
If Parramatta can’t turn it around here, the season is as good as done. Yeah, there will be finals football and they may even win a game or two post season, but no fan could seriously expect the Eels to take a premiership if they can’t beat one of the top contenders at half strength.
At the least, I expect the forwards to match the Storm pack. Last week was a down performance by their standards, and I expect them to stand up and give the outside men every opportunity to take this game by the neck and make it their own. On that front, we need to see more from Mitchell Moses. He should relish the pressure situation after being able to cruise a bit since his return from injury, but he overplayed a lot of the time last week when the game was on the line, he needs to retain composure and really lead this team.
Clint Gutherson is also going to be crucial. As nice as his record breaking running game was last week, I’d much prefer to see the King that creates opportunities by joining the line and in support play. A confident Gutho will help Dylan Brown, who is in a down stretch and again took to running over passing too often last week. Reed’s service and general play was a mile better, but I still get nervous every time he tries to grubber through a forest of legs close to the line. Just give the ball to Mitch, mate.
This has been a largely depressing preview, I apologise, but the horrible realisation that the Eels might not be as good as early season form suggested slowly crept up for five weeks before pouncing on Friday night at Bankwest. It does nobody any good to hide our defensive issues, even if they haven’t resulted in a lot of points being scored against us yet. We can’t sugar coat how pedestrian the attack has been. Maybe all it will take to get the Eels firing is playing a fellow contender for the first time in a month. That’s what I am banking on with this incredibly low confidence prediction. Here’s hoping we are talking up the Eels premiership chances again next week, and not lamenting yet more defensive failures.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 20 Melbourne Storm 12
Man of the Match: Nathan Brown