Date: Thursday, March 18, 2020
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 8:05PM AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
Head-to-head: Played 38, Parramatta 14, Melbourne 24
Odds: Eels $2.45 Storm $1.55
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Melbourne 36 d Parramatta 24, Suncorp Stadium, QF 2020
Parramatta 14 d Melbourne 0, Bankwest Stadium, R15 2020
Melbourne 32 d Parramatta 0, AAMI Park, QF 2019
Melbourne 64 d Parramatta 10, Suncorp Stadium, R9 2019
Phew. After a first half that saw Eels fans digging through drawers for the Bic and methylated spirits, a determined Parramatta effort and a smile from lady luck saw the Blue and Gold escape round one with a victory. Let’s not kid ourselves here, the Eels lucky monkey paw curled a finger to get them home last Friday, and it is very early in the season to be using up our luck allocation for 2021. All wins count the same come round 25, but the questions being asked about the Eels through the preseason did not get satisfactory answers in round one.
While the Eels first 40 minutes of the season was a tyre fire, their round 2 opponents came out of the gates in mid season touch. If both teams replicate their first half form this week they may need to find space for extra digits on the Bankwest scoreboard. In saying that, Melbourne flattened out in the second half and let Souths back into the contest, and if you put the two sides’ second half performances against each other, I’d be confident in an Eels victory.
“Confident in an Eels victory” and the Storm looming on the draw are not often associated, but if you want to hear about Melbourne being the Eels bogey team then go and read, watch or listen to literally any other preview of this match. We’re here for the future, not the past (another saying not often associated with Eels fans) and if Parramatta are to contend for the 2021 premiership they need to contend against the top sides. What better chance to prove they can than against the defending premiers?
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
It feels like déjà vu all over again. By the way, what would Rugby League be without tautology.
After correctly predicting an Eels win in a close match, I took that step too far in trying to link in a Mitch Moses try. Such is the punt.
This week, I’m being more conservative. Six of the last eight matches between the Eels and the Storm have featured total scores of less than 36.5. Throw in the wet conditions and that seems like a predictable outcome. Take total points less than 36.5 and you’ll get odds of $1.85.
There is also value in taking the Eels in the head to head market @$2.50.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the line over/under double market. Keeping the less than 36.5 total points line, you can add in Parra to win getting 3.5 points start, with odds of $3.40.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
How we look
Ball handling and the resulting differential in possession was what hurt the Eels in the first half last weekend. The second half handling was almost as good as the first half was bad, and the stats line for 80 minutes looked much like Parramatta’s previous games against the Broncos. Dominating running metres and possession, turning that into points. The Parramatta blueprint for success in 2021 is much like 2020, win the middle and the points will come.
There are a few new wrinkles to the Parramatta middle attack that we saw against the Broncos. Reed Mahoney continues to advance his game and was good with his pass selection and timing his runs, even late in the game under the fatigue of making 50+ tackles. If he makes defenders think for just that beat longer when passing out of dummy half, that will be all the time Junior Paulo, Nathan Brown and Ryan Matterson need to isolate a man or get into position for an offload.
There weren’t many obvious gains from the switch of edge forwards and halves, but Brad Arthur reiterated in several interviews this week that the move was to help Dylan Brown’s kicking game. Parramatta couldn’t get to their kick in the first half and spent most of the second parked in good attacking position, so the jury is out on Dylan’s long kicking game. Mitch Moses didn’t stand out either way on Friday, Ryan Matterson looked as good as usual (and played a decent game of footy, too) and we’ll get to Shaun Lane later, so I’m holding judgment on the swap for a few weeks yet.
No Eels fan will be feeling any better about the edge defence after last weekend, with Maika Sivo caught infield multiple times. Don’t sleep on just how good the plays from Anthony Milford were to exploit that tendency, particularly the cross field kick that Coates took in stride, but the Broncos definitely had a gameplan to target how the Eels defensive line operates. If Kevin Walters had a plan for that, you can bet Craig Bellamy will.
Of particular worry is the early shift in their own quarter that the Storm used to get Josh Addo-Carr into space against Josh Mansour, a footrace that Addo-Carr made look like a Skyline burning a Yaris off the lights down O’Connell Street. Blake Ferguson might be more a well loved Falcon than a Yaris, but I still don’t want to see him drag racing the fastest man in league. The Eels love that compressed defensive line to pressure teams in their own half, here’s hoping Fergo and Blake watched tape this week and play that situation with a bit more width.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 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. Oregon Kaufusi 15. Isaiah Papali’i 16. Will Smith 17. Marata Niukore. 18. Keegan Hipgrave 19. Haze Dunster
20. Ray Stone 21. Joey Lussick
Marata Niukore walks back onto the bench as expected, with Keegan Hipgrave making way as the only change to the 17. Hipgrave was solid in his first hitout but Papali’i played himself into a permanent spot in the side and Oregon has runs on the board too. Hipgrave pushes Dave Hollis from the reserves while Ray Stone is an obvious like-for-like replacement for Jordan Rankin… Lussick and Stone have already dropped from the extended bench.
This is as good a spot as any to talk about Shaun Lane, who would be finding himself in the 21 jersey for NSW Cup if I was Eels coach after his pitiful effort last week. Lane is a player of great potential, a unique body type that forces defenders to adjust their tackling style and that combined with his strong hole running makes Lane a danger close to the line and in mid field. Unfortunately there is no “ordinary day” for Lane on the field, he is either very solid or a Paul Carige level train wreck.
Those Carige games have become more frequent in the last year, and coming out of the blocks with several crucial errors and some lazy defensive play is not a good start to the year for a player who should have plenty to prove. Lane was a passenger for the Broncos first try, putting in only an “oh, rats” effort when the runner cut back inside to where Lane should have been covering instead of switching off once the ball moved past him. It wasn’t good enough, and I hope Brad Arthur has reached the end of his famed patience and will not accept another slack effort like that.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. George Jennings 3. Reimis Smith 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Brandon Smith 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenny Bromwich 13. Nelson Asofa-Solomona. 14. Tyson Smoothy 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Tom Eisenhuth 17. Chris Lewis. 18. Nicho Hynes 19. Darryn Schonig
20. Cooper Johns 21. Dean Ieremia.
No changes from last week for the Storm, who are missing some troops in Harry Grant, Brenko Lee and Dale Finucane, not that you’d notice with the quality of their replacements. Brandon Smith is eager to earn his next contract as a marquee hooker while Grant is out, he picked his running well last week but didn’t unlock the middle and edge forwards close to the line like his namesake Cam used to.
It is interesting to see how Craig Bellamy is using his interchange, with Tom Eisenhuth and Eels junior Tui Kamikamica both playing around 40 minutes a game, similar to starter Nelson Asofa-Solomona, while the starting props hit about 50 minutes each. You might notice NAS a lot more (I’m reliably informed his head can be seen from space) but Kamikamica has quietly come into his own as a middle forward and will ask some questions of the Eels interchange.
Kamikamica is the only Eels junior in the Storm side, don’t believe all of these garbage “revenge game” stories about Ryan Papenhuyzen, who may have lived in Eels territory but came through the Tigers system. It is easy to stir Eels fans with the “you lose all your good juniors” myth, and rubbish stories like these don’t help things.
It will be a soggy Thursday night at Bankwest, probably a good thing for the Eels as the Storm definitely have more attacking weapons that rely on finding the ball in space. It will force the Parramatta forwards to be more selective with their offloading, but I like the Eels chances in a battle through the middle.
Referee Ashley Klein waved the most six agains and blew the most penalties of all officials last weekend, a far cry from his “whistle in the pocket” performance in the Eels/Panthers trial. The Eels haven’t had a lot of happy times under Klein recently, going 1-2 last year (including the Storm semi final) but 3-1 in 2019. Melbourne was 5-1 under Klein last year, but they would have that kind of record under most refs last year.
Parramatta was singled out in the media for exploiting the new offside six again rules early in the tackle count. I like to think it is just the Eels learning after getting the majority of their six agains last year on tackle one or two, but If the NRL wants to crack down on cynical use of the six again maybe Klein comes out hard. It feels a little too early in the season for the trademark mid-season rules crackdown though.
Another intangible will be how Parramatta reacts to the media beat-ups around contract talks with several Eels stars. Standard player manager due diligence of seeking offers has been blown into a huge story, mainly because Parramatta sells papers and Eels fans bite on every line thrown into the river of clickbait. We went through it all with Clint Gutherson a couple of years back and fans embarrassed themselves, booing the King at Bankwest. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far and the boys can sort their futures in peace.
It isn’t in my nature to praise Melbourne too much, so let’s assume you all know just how clinical and methodical the Storm brand of football is, and how they’ve got yet another “big whatever” group of superstar players supported by a bunch of forwards punching well above their weight. They’re good, they’re well coached, we know that, we’re sick of it, let’s move on.
There are a few areas of opportunity for the Eels to exploit. We will be well familiar with one of them: George Jennings. Jennings and Reimis Smith were caught out a few times by the South Sydney attack, though better defensive pairings than those two would struggle to contain Latrell Mitchell and Alex Johnston. Jennings can be beaten by simply throwing numbers at him, so expect Clint Gutherson to come into the line and create a mismatch down that edge.
While Blake Ferguson would undoubtedly enjoy the chance to run over good mate Josh Addo-Carr, I’d expect Mitchell Moses and the Eels left edge to be getting first, second and third crack to take on Jennings and Smith, neither of whom has ever been known as a decent defender. I will be very disappointed if the first Eels kick is not directed toward Jennings, who frankly owes us a few errors inside his own 20 after his time in Blue and Gold.
Ryan Papenhuyzen presents the biggest danger to the Eels. He demands attention when he chimes in to a backline movement, and thrives on the indecision of back rowers and halves, both of whom he has the speed to beat one on one. He will target Shaun Lane early and often having seen Lane’s tendency to be lazy on the inside, and he will be everywhere in support if Parramatta can’t shut down the ball carrier. A wet night will help that, but you can’t rely on the weather to shut down players as fast and talented as the Storm fullback. Brad Arthur came up with some great gameplans in 2020 to shut down the key player in the opposing side, but Papenhuyzen’s performance in the semi final suggests he may not have come up with a solution for this problem yet.
The story here is simple: you need to be perfect to beat Melbourne. The Eels should be better for the semi final last year, where they took it to the Storm early on before running out of steam. Knowing that they can do that to Melbourne will help steel the Parramatta resolve should they concede early points, and nobody will be taking it easy should the Eels break out to a lead.
On what I saw last week, I don’t know if the Eels have it in them to be “beat Melbourne” perfect right now. I think we can win, absolutely, but am I confident? Not so much. Between the Lane issue, the edge defence seemingly not getting sorted, and accounting for teething pains with the Mitch/Dylan swap, it is a lot that needs to go right.
In saying that, 2021 is the year Parramatta has to stop being satisfied with “getting close”. They had the Storm and Rabbitohs on the rack in the semis last year and let them both off, easily. They had the Roosters there for the taking early in the season and couldn’t get it done then, either. When good teams play well against them, the Eels need to start winning those games rather than just competing in them. It’s why most people have a “big five” of the competition this year and not a “big six”. It is “prove it” time for Parramatta, and a strong win here would be a massive statement of intent for 2021. With those stakes in mind, I’m choosing to believe in the Eels this year.
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 22 Melbourne Storm 18
Man of the Match: Clint Gutherson