Date: Friday July 2, 2021
Venue: Penrith Stadium, Penrith
Kick Off: 7:55PM AEST
Referee: Ashley Klein
Head-to-head: Played 100, Parramatta 58, Penrith 41, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $2.55 Panthers $1.50
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Penrith Panthers 20 d Parramatta Eels 2, Penrith Stadium, R18 2020
Parramatta Eels 16 d Penrith Panthers 10, Bankwest Stadium, R5 2020
Penrith Panthers 16 d Parramatta Eels 10, Bankwest Stadium, R11 2019
Parramatta Eels 20 d Penrith Panthers 12, Penrith Stadium, R1 2019
Here it is, the Parramatta Eels’ biggest game of the season. After feasting on NRL minnows over the last month, a well rested Parramatta squad gets the chance to flex its premiership muscle against the benchmark team in the competition. A win will see the Eels wearing the skulls of the Roosters, Storm and Panthers around their necks as 2021 trophies, not a bad collection for a side nobody is talking about as premiership contenders.
Ignore those already questioning the legitimacy of a potential Eels win because Nathan Cleary is injured and fans aren’t in the stands. You can only beat who is in front of you in the circumstances presented to you, and the biggest challenge of facing Penrith is not the brilliance of Cleary but the relentlessness of their forwards and the reinforced brick wall that is their defence. Both of those will still be there on Friday night, if anything the absence of their halfback will only strengthen the Panthers resolve in other areas of the game.
It won’t be easy, but it should be an absolutely cracking contest, the type of game you dream of during the long off season. Big games don’t come along very often, so win or lose, try and enjoy the Eels being involved in top class footy.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
How did the last punting tip not deliver!
I tipped Isaiah Papali’i to score a try in an Eels win at the odds of $2.60. Our favourite Kiwi forward absolute tore the Dogs to shreds and did everything but plant the ball over the line. I guess that’s what punting means – it’s a risk and even the surest of speculations can fall at the line.
This week, there’s plenty of value in a match where the opposition are favourites.
First off, the Eels are $2.55 in the head to head market. That looks like the go to punt for me. I’m also tempted by backing up on Papa to get that try in an Eels win. This time the odds of that are a juicy $6.50. It might be worth a crack.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
How we look
Attitude has been the biggest challenge for the Eels in 2021, with all three losses and every ordinary half (such as the first against Canterbury) defined by getting away from what works, trying to play sideways and making basic errors. Occasion has rarely mattered for when the Eels lay an attitude egg, often dropping off in home games against bitter rivals, so playing the best team in the competition, also a local rival, is no sure indicator that the team will “get up” for this one. Another poor start and disjointed performance here, with all the eyes of the NRL on this game, might melt NRL Twitter and online forums in the rush to write off Parramatta for 2021.
The current build of the Parramatta side has been very impressive to watch, albeit against poor competition. Shaun Lane is reborn as a middle forward, the shorter stints and moving to the middle of the ruck has taken away his lower effort defensive plays, while his running style has been well suited to post contact metres and charging into the teeth of the defence. His move to the bench also allows Isaiah Papali’i to play 80 minutes, a man who runs like he’s surrounded by a forcefield, bouncing defenders away at will. Brad Arthur appears to have his rotations down too, with Nathan Brown getting enough time to make an impact but not so much that his efforts fall off. Bryce Cartwright has calmed down after his hot start in Blue & Gold, but remains an intriguing change of pace option against tired defenders.
Just as impressive is how the backline is shaping up. Again, this could all count for nothing once they defend against a real team, but at the moment the shift of Waqa Blake to the left edge has unlocked him as an attacking threat. The shift of Tom Opacic to the right, along with Dylan Brown, has secured that edge. Haze Dunster has been fine so far, he could use another off season putting on some size and some of his efforts against the Bulldogs weren’t great, but the results of dropping Blake Ferguson have been there for all to see the last few weeks.
The last question for Brad Arthur to answer is which of Dunster or Ferguson gives Parramatta the best chance at winning a premiership? I feel like the ultimate answer to that right now is still Ferguson, his efforts out of our own half are crucial and he can score close range tries that Dunster just can’t. His defensive failures and occasional cold drop or air swing have had more impact on the team than his positive plays in recent times, so as long as Dunster continues to prove he is a capable first grader he should retain the spot as that appears to be what Brad Arthur is valuing right now. My worry is that Opacic/Dunster edge doesn’t contain a lot of attacking firepower and really will only score the points provided to them by the halves and inside men. That defence is a huge question mark, If I went and watched the Rabbitohs replay again I’d likely change my mind on Ferguson’s place in the team, which is why Brad Arthur is paid to make these choices, not me.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Waqa Blake 5. Haze Dunster 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Joey Lussick 10. Junior Paulo 11. Isaiah Papali’i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown. 14. Marata Niukore 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright.. 18. Will Penisini 19. Will Smith 20. Sean Russell 21. Jakob Arthur.
Reed Mahoney hasn’t been rushed back for the big game, a sensible choice with the bye next week giving him more time to heal. With Nathaniel Roache injured and Will Smith on the extended bench, it looks like either Joey Lussick will be playing 80 minutes or a combination of Bryce Cartwright and Dylan Brown will be relieving him at dummy half. It’s a risk in what should be a very physical contest.
Haze Dunster has retained his spot over Blake Ferguson, who hasn’t even cracked the reserves in what is a poor sign for his potential future at Parramatta. The bench has reverted to its full strength form, with Oregon Kaufusi and Cartwright returning after a brief stint in NSW Cup. It’s a big bench designed to counter the big impact of Penrith’s own bench forwards Leniu and Martin.
1. Charlie Staines 2. Brent Naden 3. Stephen Crichton 4. Tyrone May 5. Brian To’o 6. Matt Burton 7. Jarome Luai 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Liam Martin. 18. Izack Tago 19. Jaeman Salmon 20. Matthew Eisenhuth 21. Taylan May.
A couple of big outs for the Panthers in Cleary and Dylan Edwards, though Penrith spends half of every season without the injury prone Edwards so that shouldn’t be a big adjustment. Charlie Staines avoids Sivo Duty by moving to fullback, with the unenviable task of marking the big Fijian handed to Brent Naden, returning from exile to play out of position on the wing.
Matt Burton replaces Cleary in the halves, he impressed in that role early in the season but was lucky he’d already signed that big Bulldogs contract based on his efforts on each side of Origin I. Tyrone May replaces Burton in the centres in the last change to the starting side.
The Panthers bench has undergone some changes in recent weeks, with Scott Sorensen officially pushing Matt Eisenhuth out to the reserves and Spencer Leniu regaining his spot from fellow prospect J’maine Hopgood. The Panthers bench forwards are mainly used in impact roles for short stints, and retaining momentum against the first change will be crucial for Parramatta in this one.
Winter nights in Penrith aren’t pleasant experiences, so the Eels will expect a cold, slippery surface with a bit more chill in the air than they are used to at Bankwest. It suits the controlled football Penrith play. It has been a wet week in Sydney, though it should be dry come gameday.
Both teams will have to get used to playing empty stadium football again, with COVID restrictions enforced and no crowd allowed for this blockbuster contest. It is a real shame, but both teams had excellent records in the prime COVID rounds last season so it shouldn’t bother either playing group. Mitchell Moses may need to watch his language though.
Who even knows where the high contact crackdown is at now, but it seems like common sense has prevailed and a happy middle ground has been reached. Referees are still making a mess of when slipping and diving ball carriers get hit high, which is a risk on a cold, dewey night at Penrith. I was somewhat surprised to read that the Eels had seen the most sin bins against them since the crackdown, but the Parramatta defence with 12 men hasn’t been a train wreck. Hopefully we don’t find out how that holds up against a well drilled attacking team like the Panthers.
Ashley Klein officiates his fourth Eels game of the season, and considering this is easily the match of the round, he is held in greater esteem by Jared Maxwell than any rugby league fan I know. Parramatta are 3-0 in those games. This is also his fourth Penrith game of the year, the mountain men are 2-1 under Klein.
Penrith is a good football side.
Yeah, that’s the kind of deep analysis you come to TCT for, isn’t it? Still, it needs to be said that Penrith are very, very good; an all time level defensive team that dominates field position and possession, then executes to perfection to break through the opposing defence. Losing to Penrith is no shame, but much like the second clash with the Panthers last year, how you lose matters. Parramatta was never in that contest, and it highlighted the gap between the two teams that ultimately played out in their finals campaigns. I don’t expect the same kind of game this Friday.
With the ball the Panthers aren’t going to surprise you, and Eels fans will be rather familiar with their strategy as in almost every category Penrith leads the NRL in, the Eels are second. Runs, run metres, receipts, kick return metres, kicking metres, it is Penrith one, Parramatta two across the board. Despite the hyperbole around Penrith compared to the relative quiet about Parramatta, the two teams have very similar attacking numbers. It is only that ridiculous defence that separates the two teams statistically.
Both teams love post contact metres and broken tackles; Brian To’o and Maika Sivo are second and third in the NRL in tackle breaks, though To’o is most well known for aggressive running out of his own half while Sivo breaks most of those tackles inside the opposition red zone on his way to the line. Isaiah Papali’i sits fifth in the NRL for tackle breaks, and is the player that the media hype would have you believe Viliame Kikau is. Kikau sits 44th in the NRL for tackle breaks, for reference, and the only statistical category Kikau is superior to Papali’i in is total kicks. Amazing what a bleached mullet and a commentary box cheer squad can do for a reputation.
James Fisher-Harris is the real danger for the mountain men. He leads forwards in post contact metres, running metres and is top ten in offloads, and if “things happening after he plays the ball” was a stat category then he’d be leading the NRL in that too. Penrith’s attack usually begins with JFH dragging defenders forward with him to a quick play the ball. Parramatta has been a good defensive side in terms of missed tackles, but they give away far too many ineffective tackles and get caught standing and wrestling rather than dominating tackles too often. Fisher-Harris needs to be shut down quickly with heavy first contact. Easier said than done, but I expect Nathan Brown to single him out for some early attention.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast around JFH are good enough to step up in the unlikely event he is shut down. Moses Leota is a dangerous second hitup runner who thrives on a backpedalling defence, and Spencer Leniu coming off the bench is a similar type, just more of a hothead with an error in him. Isaah Yeo is the prototypical 2021 lock forward, a tough defender, strong runner and skillful ballplayer. Liam Martin coming off the bench brings starter quality play and energy. The middle battle will be crucial all game, and if Parramatta get on top early they can’t relax at first changes when Leniu and Martin come on.
Then you have the backline. The Panthers lose nothing in the kicking game with Matt Burton, though his organisational skills and ability to run the red zone attack are a far cry from Cleary. That will steal some of the room Jarome Luai thrives on, he does his best work against static defenders when given room to roam across field. Rushing him has its dangers too, but without time to consider his decisions and threaten to run he is not nearly as effective a player. Parramatta can’t get dragged into his niggle, either, it is a battle you won’t win.
Charlie Staines at fullback is an interesting choice, getting the nod over Stephen Crichton who has filled in previously. Staines is a smaller body who could be monstered if pinned into the corner on kick returns, but he has excellent footwork and a lot of confidence in himself. It will be interesting to see how strong his support game is, though Dylan Edwards has been a more traditional “join the attacking line” fullback, another aspect of attack Penrith will miss. Brian To’o against Haze Dunster is also a dangerous matchup, To’o will like his chances taking on the undersized Dunster close to the line. Despite his reputation To’o is more of a classic finisher than a Sivo-style barger, but his low frame and solid build will make him hard to stop in the corner.
Win the middle, win the game. The last Eels/Panthers clash was decided by the flood of possession Penrith had. The game was played in the Eels red zone thanks to five forced dropouts, a 40/20, an 8-3 set restart count against Parramatta and ultimately a 2:1 share of the ball to Penrith. The Parramatta defence was lauded for only conceding two tries when the match was a contest, with Jarome Luai cracking a third against an exhausted defence in the final minute. Penrith was happy to choke the Eels out with repeat sets and field position, which was the Panthers gameplan for 2020. In 2021 they are a bit more expansive in good ball, but the controlled football remains even without Cleary. Jarome Luai has 12 forced dropouts on the year already, Burton another 3.
That more expansive attack is led by Luai, who loves to run across the defensive line to create mismatches and overlaps further wide. A lazy shift or miscommunication will create chances for Luai to utilise his great long passing game, the edge defenders can’t bite on Luai if he starts to crab. Rushing him is not the answer, but making sure defensive discipline is held against that unorthodox attack is the key to shutting him down. I haven’t seen much ballplaying from Charlie Staines, so Luai may need to do it all himself down the edge.
Speaking of Staines, Mitchell Moses will be licking his lips at the prospect of bombarding the young fill-in fullback. If he isn’t trying to isolate Staines on attacking bombs against Ryan Matterson or Waqa Blake, he will use long, high clearing kicks to force Staines to bring the ball out of his own corners. When given the choice to kick to Brian To’o or Charlie Staines I’d be taking Staines every time. Let To’o run on the first or second, just make sure he is running at a set defensive line because Staines was monstered on his return and the line was allowed to form.
The rock solid defence of Penrith is going to be tough to crack. They cover shape well and scramble to mark up out wide, and they will eat a flat footed, sideways Parramatta attack for breakfast. The Eels need to create off big runs and offloads, Moses and Brown getting the ball on the move instead of flat footed.
Where joy could be found is in some individual matchups. Waqa Blake gave Stephen Crichton a bath a year ago, he will fancy his chances against Naden and May and putting footwork on bigger men like Kikau or Fisher-Harris. Maika Sivo has been unstoppable one-on-one, Brent Naden is a big body but Sivo has steamrolled plenty of big men when given the chance. Dylan Brown is going to test the edges with his running game and will be well supported by Clint Gutherson. Brown has returned from suspension with a real edge to him.
Parramatta will need all their tricks to win this one. Junior Paulo has been a touch quiet in recent weeks, look for him to explode and be given a license to offload. Reagan Campbell-Gillard is in great form and will be fired up against his old club. Isaiah Papali’i is beasting on every team he plays. Second phase play to create fatigue and unlock fast play-the-balls and space for Brown, Moses, Gutherson and Blake will be crucial, as will avoiding mistakes and ill-discipline that lets Penrith camp in the Eels quarter.
The upset is in the air with Cleary and Edwards missing, though the loss of Reed Mahoney continues to hurt the Eels and will be felt in a match where unlocking the middle and making good choices around the ruck will be so important. These two teams meet again in the final round of the regular season, and almost certainly for a third time in the finals. This is the feeling out period, the early rounds of a long fight, but a win here will be a huge boost to the Eels confidence. It’ll be tough, but with the outs Penrith have, without the crowd behind them and seeing how well the Eels lineup has come together, I like our chances. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 16 d Penrith Panthers 10
Man of the Match: Reagan Campbell-Gillard