Date: Saturday, March 27, 2021
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 7:35PM AEDT
Referee: Adam Gee
Head-to-head: Played 88, Parramatta 41, Cronulla 47
Odds: Eels $1.34 Sharks $3.30
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Parramatta 14 d Cronulla 12, Kogarah Oval, R13 2020
Cronulla 42 d Parramatta 22, Shark Park, R13 2019
Parramatta 24 d Cronulla 12, Stadium Australia, R4, 2019
Cronulla 22 d Parramatta 20, Shark Park, R9 2018
How good was that?
There have undoubtedly been better Eels victories in the last ten years (58-0, the Bankwest debut) but I can’t think of one as satisfying as finally beating a (basically) full-strength Melbourne side at their own game. 2021 is about taking the next step for the Blue and Gold, and beating the 2020 premiers in an absolute war is a big reason for Parramatta fans to start getting excited about the Eels prospects this year.
Now that “can’t win the big games” has been crossed off the “reasons to doubt the Eels” checklist, it is time to get to work on the next accusation thrown at Parramatta: inconsistency. The next three games present a great opportunity for the Eels to consolidate their place atop the premiership ladder, and a loss in any of them will have the critics frothing. First in line are the Cronulla Sharks, who have built a reputation for playing the Eels tough in recent years.
Cronulla are playing to expectations so far in 2021, beating the lowly Dragons well then playing the Raiders close before ultimately going down due to poor goalkicking. With a massive pack and some sharp outside finishers, the Sharks match up well against some of the Eels most obvious deficiencies, but Parramatta are big favourites for a reason, so let’s take a look at the matchup.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Time to gloat!
The punting tip delivered big time in last week’s preview. Here’s a reminder:
”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.”
Nice work if you took just one of the tips. It’s one sweet return if you took them all.
This week, on a dry track and with 11 of the last 16 clashes between these sides going over 38.5 points, I’m tipping relatively large total match points. Consequently my tip is in the line over/under double market.
Take the Eels to win, giving 7.5 start to the Sharks, with over 38.5 total match points. You’ll get odds of $3.20.
Happy, responsible punting.
How we look
For how impressive that Melbourne win was, the unique circumstances of the weather make it hard to take too much from the win in regards to the Eels long term chances. Clint Gutherson was superhuman in saving a million tries and keeping Parramatta in the contest, and Mitchell Moses played to the conditions perfectly, particularly with his long kicking game. I’ve never been so excited to see good clearing kicks as I was last week, but it was the type of game where field position was king, and Moses turned average sets into great ones with his kicking.
One new wrinkle was the Eels often going back inside after spreading wide or making a half break. Maybe it was a function of the weather (BA could have said extra laps for anybody tackled over the sideline), but it also caught the Melbourne defenders short a couple of times and was unlucky not to lead to full breaks. Parramatta has rarely gone back inside like that at pace, and it was nice to see an evolution of the standard attacking movement.
Reed Mahoney needs to be singled out for special commendation. His service has been great this year, but more than that he is committing markers more effectively and creating space for his runners on the edge of the ruck. Parramatta don’t make great use of decoys and movement, so this subtlety around the ruck is crucial to getting on the front foot and finding beasts like Paulo and Brown one on one with smaller defenders. Cash is shaping up for a huge year.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Marata Niukore 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Nathan Brown. 14. Oregon Kaufusi 15. Keegan Hipgrave 16. Will Smith 17. Ray Stone. 18. Jordan Rankin 19. Haze Dunster 20. David Hollis 21. Joey Lussick
Circumstance has not been kind to the Eels depth in 2021, with injury striking down Ryan Matterson, Waqa Blake, Michael Oldfield and Bryce Cartwright, while the dead weight of Michael Jennings must be carried on the roster until ASADA can pull their finger out and confirm his B-sample results (that we are stuck with him until that happens, without compensation, is a joke). With Sam Hughes worryingly absent from pre-season activity and team lists, and Will Penisini not holding any competitive experience against men, that realistically leaves 21 available players of the 28 man squad. To make matters worse, the NSW Cup team is lacking match fitness after a bye and a washout in their first two rounds, leaving the Eels depth players short of a gallop in a season where fitness has been a key factor in success.
The result is a bench that Forty20 has charitably called ‘small ball’, featuring Will Smith and Ray Stone alongside Keegan Hipgrave and Oregon Kaufusi, with Marata Niukore and Isaiah Papali’i promoted to the starting side. Niukore’s performance in the centres last week was superb, devastating when given room in attack (though maybe look to pass sometimes) and strong in defence. We’ll see if that holds up in dry conditions where his opposite Josh Dugan could potentially put some footwork on or find himself with more running room to test Niukore’s lateral defence. It will certainly be a focus for the Sharks attack to challenge the makeshift centre who, until two weeks ago, was considered a middle forward. He’s played some centre in juniors, but that’s hardly NRL level and was years ago.
Papali’i has earned his start after two huge impact performances from the bench. His effort levels in the first two rounds suggest he will relish the opportunity with Ryan Matterson rested after a concussion. I would expect to see big minutes from Nathan Brown, Paulo and Campbell-Gillard in this one, but the Eels need some troops back soon to avoid burning out their middle men early in the year.
1. William Kennedy 2. Sione Katoa 3. Josh Dugan 4. Connor Tracey 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Matt Moylan 7. Chad Townsend 8. Braden Hamlin-Uele 9. Blayke Brailey 10. Aaron Woods 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Toby Rudolf. 14. Teig Wilton 15. Aiden Tolman 16. Jack Williams 17. Billy Magoulias. 18. Mawene Hiroti 19. Nene Macdonald 20. Andrew Fifita 21. Braydon Trindall.
The Sharks are getting used to life without Shaun Johnson, who will be out for some time yet. I’d say they missed his goalkicking last weekend as Chad Townsend bombed three makeable kicks, but when Johnson was around they still set records for losing games when scoring more tries than the opposition thanks to poor kicking. In a close game the radar boot of Mitchell Moses could be the difference.
Connor Tracey is playing well enough that he has forced his way into the centres in place of Jesse Ramien, who remains suspended. Andrew Fifita is stuck in the reserves, apparently losing weight this off season didn’t make him any more attractive to coach John Morris.
Cronulla’s bench is also a little ‘small ball’, with three back rowers alongside traditional prop Aiden Tolman. Magoulias will be familiar to Eels fans for his heartbreaking chip kick to steal the 2019 NSW Cup final from Wenty, but his ball playing skills haven’t translated to first grade in his chances thus far. Williams and Wilton are definitely footballers, but I can’t tell you much more than that about either of them. Williams’ NRL.com profile recognises he is one of the strongest players at the Sharks, something that has never in the history of rugby league correlated with good on field performance.
It’s crackdown time! Two weeks and a dozen concussions into the 2021 season and new referee’s boss Jared Maxwell has made his first public statement to introduce a beloved “early season rule enforcement blitz”, this time on contact with the head in tackles. Expect more liberal use of the sin bin for high tackles and head slams, too late to help the Eels and Ryan Matterson but I sure hope it isn’t us that cops the inevitable send off for an accidental swinging arm that catches a player who is tripping over at the line.
On the bright side, it is shaping up as a relatively dry weekend and Bankwest has stood up well considering the volume of football played over the last week. It’s a night game at Parramatta so chances are it will be slippery, but this will be dry weather football compared to last weekend.
Adam Gee is the referee, the second time in three weeks the Eels get the man known for his love of set restarts. This year he has been a touch more moderate in waving the arm, but early discipline will be crucial for both sides. The Sharks are 5-1 under Gee since 2019, though only one of those wins could be considered an upset.
There was an awful lot of #refsfaulting from Eels fans last weekend despite the win. Parramatta should be at a point where they can rise above mediocre officiating, especially against middling opposition such as the Sharks. No matter how many mistakes the referee makes there will always be more missed opportunities or errors from the players, and those are the ones the team and coach can control.
Cronulla has started the year right on formline, handling the Dragons comfortably but going down to the Raiders in a tough contest. A small sample size (and half of that sample being played in far from standard rugby league conditions) limits the use of statistics this early in the season, but a few things stand out in the Sharks numbers.
The Sharks lead the NRL in missed tackles, with Toby Rudolf, Chad Townsend, Briton Nikora and Wade Graham all up the top of the missed ranks after two rounds. This continues a trend from 2020, with a worrying number of edge defenders making up those numbers. Isaiah Papali’i could cause issues, and if Shaun Lane wants to play himself into form there are some targets for his line running right there. In one of those “numbers are stupid” moments the Sharks have made the fewest tackles in the NRL, have missed the most, but don’t give away many ineffective tackles and thus offloads. Parramatta leads the league in offloads once again, but seeing these numbers they might focus more on hard running and tackle breaking rather than getting an arm free.
The Sharks’ strength is metre making, they lead the NRL in post contact metres, not just their forwards running riot but outside backs like Sione Katoa and Josh Dugan are doing a lot of hard work. They also lead the NRL in decoy runs, which I would be more worried about if Waqa Blake was in the team as he’s never met a decoy runner he wouldn’t commit to. They have had moments of fragile middle defence, but also defended their line well last week against a glut of Raiders possession inside the 20. There were some hairy moments under the high ball in round one for the Sharks, the Sivo/Moses combination could play an encore after its match winning performance last week.
With the ball, the Sharks haven’t shown much to fear in 2021. If the Dragons could field a basic grubber kick then they may have won the round one clash, and despite scoring seve tries Cronulla has managed only three line breaks in two games. The short range kicking has produced results for Cronulla but hasn’t been particularly well executed, though the turning circle of Ferguson and Sivo is likely to be tested. Clint Gutherson has been everywhere in defence this year, and I trust he will be well aware of the Cronulla kicking threats and can contain them.
Two plays stand out as the big weakness of the Sharks in 2021. The first was Matt Dufty tearing through the middle of the park to exploit slow defenders behind the ruck. The Eels don’t have an electric speedster like Dufty, but they do have an excellent support game and have shown a willingness to throw the ball back inside to exploit opportunities. The second was the try on halftime against Canberra, where Josh Hodgson spotted a lazy marker and used that to create space for Hudson Young to crash over. Both times the Sharks were caught being lazy behind the ruck, and it is on Reed Mahoney to take advantage of any opportunities that come his way. Reed has been on point with his pass selection and has shown more dynamism in his work out of dummy half and willingness to run a few steps to commit markers before passing, the Sharks should give him plenty of chances to showcase this improved aspect of his game.
Those chances will come from holding our own in the battle of the middle. The Sharks have some size, but the Eels get superior numbers into tackles and will punish Cronulla if their discipline is as poor as it was last week. I don’t see the Sharks having enough creativity or individual brilliance to really worry Parramatta, and I’m confident the Eels forwards will at worst hold a stalemate in the middle. In those circumstances it will just come down to Parramatta taking the opportunities they are presented.
This is a game Parramtata should win, and I’m going in confident and predicting they do so comfortably. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 30 Cronulla Sharks 14
Man of the Match: Reed Mahoney