Date: Sunday, April 11, 2021
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
Kick Off: 6:15PM AEST
Referee: Grant Atkins
Head-to-head: Played 38, Parramatta 20, St George-Illawarra 16, Draws 2
Odds: Eels $1.28 Dragons $3.60
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
St George Illawarra 14 d Parramatta 12, R14, 2020
Parramatta 12 d St George Illawarra 4, R20, 2019
Parramatta 32 d St George Illawarra 18, R8, 2019
Parramatta 40 d St George Illawarra 4, R22, 2018
Another week, another win that doesn’t answer the question “are the Eels for real in 2021?” Parramatta looked unstoppable at times against the Tigers, but a lack of killer instinct and a horror day under the high ball let Wests back into the contest and left Eels fans feeling more relieved than anything else when they walked away with the two competition points.
Now the Dragons come to town, on a somewhat unexpected three game winning streak and the lone data point on the ladder against the “there’s only six good teams” argument. Sure, those wins were against the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and a Knights team without most of its spine, but misplaced confidence is confidence all the same, and the Dragons have proven in the past to be a tough matchup for Parramatta.
With plenty of chatter about the impact of V’landys-ball on the early rounds of the competition, today I’m going to take a look at how that specifically has impacted the Eels, alongside our regular preview. Strap in Blue & Gold army, let’s go for a ride.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
The healthy returns continued last round for followers of my tips.
I suggested taking the $1.95 on offer for the over 42.5 line and the $3.40 first half double for the Eels covering the 5.5 start coupled with total first half points over 20.5.
This week I’m keeping the tip suggestion to one market – it’s called the first half total three way. Last week we saw 30 first half points. This week there’s $2.45 on offer for over 23.5 total first half points. That’s four converted tries in the first half.
If there’s any wet weather or a damp track, keep your money in your wallet.
Happy, responsible punting.
How we look
I’m not ringing the alarm bells just yet, but it was disconcerting to see the Tigers beat the Eels at their own game: offloading. Wests tired out the Parramatta forwards with second phase play, allowing them to unexpectedly win the metres and post-contact battles against a more fancied forward pack. In the running it looked like the Parramatta forwards were still more dominant, but all that second phase play added up and left me a touch nervous with ten minutes to go and Wests having all the running.
Brad Arthur’s bench management didn’t help settle my nerves. Already playing with a three forward rotation in an era of high fatigue football, you can’t waste two bench spots by giving Will Smith 3 minutes of football and Keegan Hipgrave 8 minutes. Kaufusi and Stone each only played in the mid 20 minute range as well. RCG, Paulo and Brown are all monsters who play well even under fatigue, but as we’ll see later, fatigue is a huge factor in the game right now and placing our middle men under any more than necessary will be a recipe for disaster.
There are plenty of positive signs though. Defensively the Eels have been strong, with the Tigers only “earning” one try last week with the play of Luciano Leilua. The rest came from dropped bombs and repeat sets, or Clint Gutherson falling down. Heartwarmingly, the Eels have conceded more tries this year from defenders slipping over than they have through the right edge defence making poor choices.
The attack also continues to chug along, though I’d love to see more smooth backline movements and less pirouettes and direction changes from our halves, even if one led to points last weekend. The edges are still a work in progress, which is perfectly fine for this time of the year, and the wrinkles around the ruck and improved play of Reed Mahoney are covering for a few clunky backline movements so far. The fatigue era makes attacking the middle all the more attractive, and Parramatta are well suited to that style of footy.
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. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown. 14. Oregon Kaufusi 15. Isaiah Papali’i 16. Will Smith 17. Bryce Cartwright. 18. Ray Stone 19. Haze Dunster 20. Keegan Hipgrave 21. Jordan Rankin.
Ryan Matterson looks set to return this week after being a late withdrawal last round, still feeling the effects of a concussion in round 2. Isaiah Papali’i has made sure we didn’t really notice Matto’s absence, thanks to some high effort, high impact running. He’s a different player to Matterson, less skillful with ball in hand, but his massive charges have felt like a change of pace for an Eels back row that can sometimes fade into the background.
Bryce Cartwright swapping into the reserves for Ray Stone is the other change, with Keegan Hipgrave making way for Matterson. Unlike many here at TCT I am a Cartwright sceptic, I’ve watched his half-hearted defensive efforts for too long to believe he has changed until I see it. All signs are good for the talented ballplayer, and he could be a right handful off the bench late in halves as middle defenders fatigue, I’m hoping he makes a believer of me this week.
St George Illawarra
1. Matt Dufty 2. Cody Ramsey 3. Jack Bird 4. Zac Lomax 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Corey Norman 7. Adam Clune 8. Blake Lawrie 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Josh Kerr 12. Tariq Sims 13. Tyrell Fuimaono. 14. Poasa Faamausili 15. Trent Merrin 16. Daniel Alvaro 17. Brayden Wiliame. 18. Jackson Ford 19. Kaide Ellis 20. Jordan Pereira 21. Max Feagai.
Not many changes to a winning formula for Anthony Griffin, with Jack Bird returning to the starting side after sitting out a week for suspension, pushing Brayden Wiliame back to the bench and Jackson Ford to the reserves. Ben Hunt is out for another month with a broken leg, leaving late recruit Andrew McCullough captaining the side.
Ravalawa had a points victory over fellow Fijian Maika Sivo last time out, scoring two tries in the Mary McGregor sacking appreciation game. He’s picked up his game after a rough start to his first grade career and is one to watch. Cody Ramsey on the other side had a Ferguson-like day under the high ball last week and should be tested early.
It’s dusk at Bankwest for this clash, which will mean slipperiness regardless of the weather. The early forecast is fine, but I’m fast learning that weather forecasts a few days out are about as useful a predictive tool as Jamie Soward’s power rankings.
Grant Atkins is the referee, a man we have struggled under in recent times. Parramatta went 2-1 under Atkins last year, including the loss to the Dragons and unimpressive wins against the Warriors and Bulldogs. We were 1-4 under him in 2019. If you start to feel bad about those stats, the Dragons are 1-5 under Atkins in that same period.
So let’s talk about how Parramatta have adapted to V’landys-ball. I’m not here to pass judgment on whether the rules are good or bad for the game, but the facts are out there on how the game has changed, and those numbers (thanks to the Rugby League Eye Test) are damning:
- Missed tackles are up dramatically on 2020, 27% in the first half alone, 13% in the second half
- Completion rates are down, errors are up
- Penalties are down dramatically
- The Eels are missing 8% more tackles this year, fifth best of all teams (Melbourne are missing 22% more tackles, Penrith 13%, Wests a ridiculous 81%).
Eye Test points out several fatigue indicators, all of which are up in season 2021. This checks out, just about every “bludge opportunity” in rugby league has been removed in the name of a “faster game”. Penalties and penalty goals are disappearing, as are scrums, taking away half a minute of rest here, a minute there. You can’t even stay down with a trainer without risking having to go to the sideline. Tired players make more mistakes and fall off more tackles, it all makes sense.
I feel safe in calling the Eels one of the fittest teams in the competition. It goes beyond known fitness machine Clint Gutherson, it is the fact that Junior and RCG have played 80 or near to it last year, that Parramatta came back as one of the fittest sides post-COVID break, that Reed Mahoney can play 80 and make 50 tackles while still being an effective playmaker late in halves. This plays out in the numbers, where only four teams are missing a lower percentage of tackles year on year. Parramatta has been a very fit side the last couple of years, and anybody who reads Sixties’ training blogs in the preseason won’t be surprised about that.
It is an advantage that will fade as the year plays out. Teams will get fit, players will adjust and coaches will manage their benches more efficiently. The key for the Eels will be not being left behind in the adjustment. Just because we are handling fatigue better than most teams doesn’t mean that will remain the case when coaches start using bench middles for 30 or 40 minutes instead of 20, making their first changes at 15 minutes instead of 25 and start playing for more rest breaks by kicking to the sideline (even a short rest for a handover is still a rest).
It is as sure as the tides that rugby league teams adjust to new situations. Crushing fatigue might be the story of the opening month of season 2021, but the combination of new rules and a shortened preseason will soon be conquered by the ingenuity of coaches and players who have spent 113 years pushing, bending and exploiting the rules of the game. Parramatta is well suited to the game right now, but come round 25 they need to be ready, and that means getting those backline movements working and those defensive combinations humming while other teams are running laps and catching up to the Eels’ fitness levels.
One of those teams that are missing a lot more tackles in 2021 is the Dragons, who are up 65% on last season. Considering the teams they have played to start the year, that is somewhat alarming and certainly an area Parramatta should exploit. Tariq Sims, Daniel Alvaro, Josh Kerr and Blake Lawrie are all up the missed tackles list, as is Jack Bird. Mitch Moses is among the leaders in tackle breaks this season, he’ll be looking to target those middle and edge forwards with footwork in good ball, and Dylan Brown should find some success too.
The Dragons are among the worst teams in the league for time in possession, usually a bad sign when facing Parramatta who are ruthless when dominating the middle. Again, considering their opposition this year that is a very bad sign. Parramatta scored nearly every time they were in good ball last week, the Dragons giving away easy possession or repeat sets will put a lot of pressure on a defensive line that hasn’t faced a lot of tests this year.
The Sharks in particular found a lot of success with short kicks, something Parramatta has used to good effect in the last few years. Kicking in behind Bird and Ravalawa will be a priority when not trying to bomb Ramsey. Matt Dufty for all his great attacking skills is one of the worst line defending fullbacks in the game, Reed should know where he is at all times and look to direct traffic towards him when he joins the line.
So where are the Dragons dangerous? “Cleary” kicks to Zac Lomax in the no-man’s-land around the tram tracks have provided a few tries for the Dragons this year, something the Eels have been vulnerable to in the last two years. Corey Norman has a great cutout pass that could exploit a rushing defence should he choose to throw it instead of lay up another runner on the inside. He’s built to take advantage of the Parramatta defensive structure, but having watched Corey sleepwalk through five long years in Blue & Gold I’m not too concerned about him taking this game by the scruff of the neck.
On the edges, Tariq Sims has found results in the last two rounds with his line running and effort plays. He’s not the most dangerous edge player the Eels will see this year, but he’s high in confidence and knows how to target a man in the line. Dufty will always be in support of any half break and Parramatta don’t have anybody who can match him for pace, so the best way to defend those plays will be not allowing them in the first place. Sims has broken through some fragile defence for his big plays, let’s see how he goes against a real team.
Like the Tigers last week, the Dragons have a bit of a “won’t go away” aura about them that will require an 80 minute effort to subdue. The Eels have them for middle firepower, playmaking skill and outside finishing ability, but they can’t leave the door open for a comeback like they did last week.
I’m hoping to see an absolute demolition job through the middle of the park. The Dragons matched it with a big, strong forward pack last week, but that included the Knights’ starting front rowers playing a combined 143 minutes, with no healthy playmakers to draw the attention of a compressed middle defence. The Dragons middle will be made to pay for missed and ineffective tackles, and that should lead to attacking opportunities to exploit mismatches like Ferguson on Ramsay and anybody against Matt Dufty. I hope to see the Eels play with control and discipline and patiently grind down the Dragons defence, confident that possession will lead to points.
This is another one that is there for the Eels to win, and if they can’t do it they’ll have been their own worst enemy. A convincing display would be nice, but I think another step in the right direction is a more reasonable expectation. The Dragons will play hard, but Parramatta should have too much talent for them. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 28 St George Illawarra Dragons 12
Man of the Match: Nathan Brown