Date: Friday, September 11, 2020
Venue: Penrith Stadium
Kick Off: 7:55PM AEST
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Head-to-head: Played 99, Parramatta 58, Penrith 40, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $3.20 Panthers $1.35
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Eels 16 d Panthers 10, Bankwest Stadium, R5 2020
Panthers 16 d Eels 10, Bankwest Stadium, R11 2019
Eels 20 d Panthers 12, Penrith Stadium, R1 2019
Panthers 12 d Eels 6, ANZ Stadium, R5 2018
Regular season games don’t come much bigger than this. Local rivals duking it out in a top of the table clash, weeks out from the finals. For both teams it will be the last real test before postseason football, where it is looking increasingly likely they will be facing the battle hardened, “been there, done that” Storm and Roosters. If you want to know you can handle the heat of finals footy, this is the game you need to stand up and make count.
You might have missed it because nobody is really talking about it, but Penrith are sitting at the top of the ladder. Riding a 12 match winning streak that began in round 6, the Panthers are the darlings of the NRL in 2020, the feel good story, everyone’s third favourite team (after the Warriors, of course). They’re playing great footy, Nathan Cleary is Dally M favourite despite his Tik Tok shenanigans, and they’ve already pulled a jeweller into their bubble to size up players for premiership rings.
The last (and only) team to beat the Panthers in 2020? The mighty Parramatta Eels. Since that cold Friday night all the way back in June the Eels haven’t exactly looked like premiership material, particularly for the last two months as uninspiring wins were punctuated with inexcusable performances against the Dragons, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles. We’ve been waiting for a long time for the real Eels to show up, to shake us all out of this malaise and start their march to the title. Another win against Penrith this Friday would not only wipe away the last two months of mediocrity, it would give them a huge psychological boost over a fellow contender.
The odds are against the Eels, likely to be missing half of their spine, playing in enemy territory against the hottest team in the comp. A win, or even better a big win, and suddenly people will be talking about Parramatta once more, and I’ll be starting to mark myself as busy through the weekends in October.
The 100th Battle of the West should be one of the best. Get excited Eels fans, finals footy is coming three weeks early!
What happened last time
The previous clash between the Eels and the Panthers rates up there among the games of the season, played at frenetic pace with great intensity. Only Dylan Edwards was missing from either side’s best lineup at the time, and Penrith broke through after an early arm wrestle, exploiting what are now familiar deficiencies in the edge defence. It felt a bit tough on the Eels to be going into the sheds down 10-0, but the Panthers had the ascendency at the break.
Enter Waqa Blake. First the maligned centre stood up and pushed away Panthers wunderkind Stephen Crichton at close range, undoubtedly leaving many Penrith fans with a taste of “why did we let him go to keep this guy?” before they watched Crichton blossom into one of the form players of the competition and Blake take a mighty stab at the title of “worst defensive centre in the NRL” and “biggest ball hog”. Then minutes later he benefited from fast inside work to once again get Crichton on his own, stepping through the line and finding Clint Gutherson to tie the match.
The matchwinner came from sustained Eels pressure as much as anything else, with a Mitch Moses kick turning like a Shane Warne leg break to leave Caleb Aekins stuck to his crease like Mike Gatting as Ryan Mattersron rushed through to claim the loose ball and score. It was cruel luck for the fullback, but a just reward for the control that Parramatta had wrestled from Penrith in the second half.
Parramatta did a great job to shut down Viliame Kikau, who was notably quiet (and still managed to make the run that set up one try then had to be held up over the line for another), as well as keeping Api Koroisau and Nathan Cleary in check. The scramble defence was exceptional, the offloads were plentiful (and effective), and Mitch Moses played the type of controlled game the Eels have missed this year, with three forced dropouts. The Eels mainly kicked high in this one, trusting their outside men had an edge on their opposites, a plan that showed some promise even if it didn’t reap any rewards on the night. You could easily make a case that the Eels haven’t played as well as that since.
Sixties’ Lucre Quest (Quoted markets are NSW TAB)
Last week should have been an easy punting result. The turning point which prevented the tip romping in was definitely Kane Evans not converting a relatively awkward chance under the posts. Had he jagged that, I believe that the Eels would have run away with a huge win.
As it was, a miracle Warriors try against the run of play sparked a second soon after, and the match suddenly became a grind. Goodbye any wager on a big Parra margin.
I now approach the away match against the Panthers with much trepidation. I’m steering away from tipping any win result because I could only tip the Panthers – and in hoping that Parra prove me wrong, I refuse to suggest punting against our Blue and Gold battlers.
But there is a special TAB market which has caught my eye.
The tempting odds of $4.50 are on offer for both Brian To’o and Maika Sivo to score a try at any time in the game. That looks like it’s worth putting some coin on.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Jai Field 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Ray Stone 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown. 20. Will Smith 15. Andrew Davey 16. Kane Evans 17. Oregon Kaufusi. 18. Haze Dunster 19. Stefano Utoikamanu. 21. Samuel Hughes
Reed Mahoney has been named at hooker despite an AC Joint injury, he is long odds to play and will likely be replaced by Ray Stone. If that is the case, expect to see Will Smith promoted to the bench from reserves to give him a spell. Having not forgiven Smith for his terrible kicks and general lack of composure in a critical game against the Dragons back in 2018, seeing him in the side for such a big match won’t fill me with confidence. Ray Stone has improved his dummy half service dramatically this season, but he is still a step down from Reed. If he can just keep his game mistake free I won’t be too upset if he leaves the darts to Gutho and Smith.
Marata Niukore is the other change, he’ll miss at least a week with a rib injury. Andrew Davey comes in for him. On the reserves we see Brad Takairangi dropped from the 21 in favour of Sam Hughes, a promising young prop recently promoted to the top squad who is probably just getting a chance to be around match day preparations at the moment. Haze Dunster remains in the 21 as well but Maika Sivo and Waqa Blake both earned a reprieve with good performances against the Warriors.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Brent Naden 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Tyrone May 15. Spencer Leniu 16. Moses Leota 17. Zane Tetevano. 18. Mitch Kenny 19. Kurt Capewell 20. Matt Burton 21. Charlie Staines.
The Panthers are officially full strength, just in time for the finals run. Good for them. The bench has been playing above their weight and needs to be matched, especially with Marata Niukore out and Kane Evans playing last week like he was already wearing a Warriors jersey. Expect Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard to play big minutes to match up with them.
Crichton will be itching to make up for his performance against Waqa Blake last go around, hopefully this means he overplays his hand a bit. Dylan Edwards has been strong when he’s been on the park, and is especially dangerous when coming into the attacking line.
Friday night should be clear out at Penrith, though it should still be cold enough to ensure a dewey, slippery surface. Both teams will be plenty used to that. Penrith has no excuse for not packing the ground with as many members as they are allowed, so while it won’t be as hostile an environment for the Eels as a full stadium it will likely be the loudest crowd they have played in front of all season.
Parramatta continues its run of getting the top line referees, with Gerard Sutton officiating his sixth Eels game of the season. The Eels are 4-1 under Sutton, with the most recent game being the embarrassing loss to Souths. Penrith are 3-1 under Sutton in 2020, meaning he was in charge of the round 5 Bankwest game. The bigger wildcard will be the bunker, with a lot of pressure on the video referees following some interesting interpretations in recent weeks. In a game where it would be nice to win but the result ultimately matters little to ladder placement, how the Eels play is much more important than if they get a fair rub with the officials.
There were better signs for the Eels attack last weekend, particularly when running hard and exploiting the edge of the ruck. Clint Gutherson and Mitchell Moses found half and full breaks on the fringes, and this is somewhere I hope to see Jai Field popping up in the coming weeks as the Eels fastest support player, and after the last Panthers game I hope he is running down that right side off the inside shoulder of Waqa Blake.
There has been plenty of talk about the Parramatta offload game, and how it hasn’t translated to much attack. Many Eels offloads come late in the tackle, Junior turning under the attention of defenders and throwing an offload to flat footed players behind him (usually Reed Mahoney), plays that are good for gaining extra metres and perhaps a quick play the ball against a retreating defence, but don’t often lead to line breaks or tries. The numbers back this up, the Eels are leading the NRL in metres gained, but there aren’t nearly as many Parramatta offloads hitting support players in stride.
This is the speciality of Ryan Matterson and Shaun Lane, who will be hoping to isolate defenders on the edge and spin the ball back inside. Matterson has a couple of nice try assists from this exact play through the season, but both have looked close but not quite there in timing offloads to their support runners. Once this clicks, Parramatta becomes a much more dangerous side on the edges.
The Eels also need to scrub the silly mistakes from their game. The best way to cover for a shaky edge defence is not give the opposition opportunity to exploit it. Nathan Brown had a killer early mistake that led to a Warriors try last week, while Oregon Kaufusi has unfortunately inherited Terepo Hands in recent games and has had some awful dropped balls that put the team under pressure.
Those silly mistakes extend to pass choices at midfield. Moses and Brown have both been guilty of throwing hospital passes as they try to make something happen down the right edge, this week they might be better off putting those plays on ice and just winning the field position battle. The Panthers are a well oiled machine right now, and they also possess the best close range weapon in the game in Viliame Kikau, let’s just keep this game between the 20s and trust the chances will come.
One player who you would hope finds form here is Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Not just playing against his old club, but one that he didn’t exactly leave in friendly circumstances. The war of words has been mild this week, but big Reg has been down for a while after putting the team on his back in the first month after the COVID break. Now would be a great time for him to go all ‘destroyer of worlds’ leading into a finals charge.
Last go around the Eels did a great job to contain Cleary and Kikau, but efforts will need to be doubled against the sharpest chin in rugby league as he is playing with a scary level of confidence. Prevention is the best medicine of course, but when Penrith do get close to the line, putting pressure on Cleary’s kicking game will be critical. Just stop throwing stray legs out at grubber kicks (looking at your Shaun Lane), chances are the near certain six again is a worse result than what would happen if the kick went through.
Kikau is more traditionally contained, just run at him. He’s not exactly a defensive liability but he can fall off a tackle, tire him out without the ball and make sure to get two shoulders in front of him when close to the line. The pinpoint kicking game of Cleary can often find him on the edge one-on-one contesting a chip, defenders need to be aware if they see the kick go up and challenge his path to the ball. Those kicks might hold Clint Gutherson closer to the ruck than he’d otherwise want to be, but the Eels outside men can handle high kicks themselves and frankly, Gutho hasn’t been much help in cover anyway when the opposition has broken through out wide. That’s not on the King, really, but he’ll need to be in position to put his body on the line against Kikau.
Api Koroisau also deserves special mention. He times his darts from dummy half well, and the Panthers pack have been great at getting him good play the balls to work from. The Eels do well to reverse momentum if the opposition do get a roll going, but Api will cause all sorts of problems in the Eels half if he gets a sniff. There are some Parramatta defenders that can get a little lazy around the ruck and when play moves past them, Kane Evans and Shaun Lane come to mind, everybody has to be on the ball for this one.
Parramatta also shouldn’t be overawed here. Penrith are a confidence team, and have been absolutely lights out defensively early in games. They’ve also built up one of the cruisiest 12 game winning streaks in memory, beating only three legitimate contenders in that run, two of them to start the streak in Melbourne and Souths. Beating up on the Sharks, Tigers and Broncos and scrapping past the Warriors, Titans and Cowboys is doing what needs to be done, but this isn’t some world beating squad like Melbourne or the Roosters have looked like in recent years. This is a good, disciplined team beating what is in front of them. They’re not the 94 Raiders, as much as the media beat up wants them to be. If the Eels can stay in the contest early and keep the pressure up, the chances will be there.
How it goes
Look, this is an Eels site, so it takes some real stacked odds for me to tip against Parramatta. I don’t see those odds here. Parramatta hasn’t played great football for a while now, and they were run over the last time they played reasonable competition only two weeks ago, but this feels like the game they’ve been waiting for. The pressure is all on Penrith to keep their streak alive, secure the minor premiership and live up to the hype. I think the Eels have a great chance to play spoiler.
It will come down to the individual matchups. I’d back Junior and Reg against any prop combo in the game, Fisher-Harris and Tamou certainly included. Moses v Cleary was at one point a battle for an Origin jersey, now Mitch is a representative afterthought and Cleary the next Andrew Johns. Neither should be the case. Gutherson v Edwards, Waqa v Crichton, Ferguson v Mansour, those are all close matchups that I would favour the Eels player based on talent (Ferguson), performance (Gutho) and past experience (Waqa).
As long as the Eels play well, I won’t be too disappointed with a loss. Chances are good that these two meet down the line in a much bigger game, and both are just about locked in to their finishing positions bar a crazy collapse (Penrith are basically assured the minor premiership even with a loss, if the Eels don’t finish 3rd or 4th it will mean at least one catastrophic loss in the next three weeks). This game is about shaking away the last two months of footy and reminding the NRL of the Eels’ quality. If that happens, Parramatta fans should be pleased regardless of the result.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 18 Penrith Panthers 12
Man of the Match: Reagan Campbell-Gillard