Date: Friday, July 16 2021
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
Kick Off: 6:00PM AEST
Referee: Matt Cecchin
Head-to-head: Played 20, Parramatta 9, Gold Coast 11
Odds: Eels $1.53 Titans $2.45
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Parramatta Eels 46 d Gold Coast Titans 6, Gold Coast, R2 2020
Parramatta Eels 36 d Gold Coast Titans 12, Gold Coast, R22 2019
Parramatta Eels 28 d Gold Coast Titans 12, Stadium Australia, R21 2018
Parramatta Eels 30 d Gold Coast Titans 8, Stadium Australia, R24 2017
Well that escalated quickly.
For the next month the Eels will make their home on the Gold Coast as part of the NRL’s “survive COVID” protocol, playing out of Queensland as Sydney sinks deeper into lockdown. The way things are shaping up I think we’ll be lucky to be allowed into a stadium come finals time, but for the next month at least we will see the Gold Coast Eels playing north of the border against the Titans, Raiders, Roosters and Rabbitohs.
Parramatta has always enjoyed healthy support up north, particularly on the Gold Coast so hopefully the Eels feel right at home, even in what is a (sort of) true away game against the Titans. There is no time to adjust or get sloppy, the Eels need wins against the Titans and Raiders in the next fortnight, knowing five of their last six are against the fellow top contenders for the title. Any game dropped against lesser opposition is a huge step closer to finishing out of the top four and losing that crucial second chance and potential home field advantage in the finals.
Add to all this drama a two day turnaround for New South Wales representatives Mitchell Moses and Junior Paulo, Reed Mahoney returning from a lengthy injury stint and the uncertainty of when player’s families will be able to join them in the northern bubble. I’d sure hate to be trying to write a comprehensive preview of this one.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
The rugby league punting gods can be very cruel. Two weeks in a row we backed Isaiah Papali’i to score a try in an Eels win.
Week one saw Ice play a blinder and do everything but score in a big Eels win. Then last match we backed him again at the juicy odds of $6.50. This time he scored but Mitch Moses missed that final kick to secure the win.
The Eels start this match against the Titans as odds on favourites. So once again I’ll look for value in the “score a try and win” market.
I’m looking at Reed Mahoney coming back to sneak a try in an Eels win, and the return is $5.25.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
How we look
I’d originally used the harrowing bye week to write up a big preview of the Eels run home, and emphasised just how much danger there was of Parramatta being replaced in the top four by Manly should the Eels slip up in the run home. Then Manly lost to Canberra and suddenly the Eels position is a lot more secure. Sure, a bad final month will still cost Parramatta dearly, but even a 50% winning record should ensure a second bite come finals time.
Brad Arthur will want to aim higher than that, though. Parramatta is in good shape compared to many fellow contenders, with Reed Mahoney’s return the Eels are officially running out their best 17. Only Nathaniel Roache and Wiremu Greig populate the injury ward from the top squad. With the bubble in place and NSW Cup on hold, being healthy and keeping match fit players on the park could be crucial to success in the final third of the competition.
Parramatta is also playing good football. While Penrith and Melbourne own the best defensive records in the league and will likely continue to do so for this season, it will take a capitulation for the Eels defence to drop from next best after the two heavyweights. Since the Tigers’ Bradbury win in 2005 (where half of the top eight somehow came from the bottom half of defensive teams), every team to lift the Provan-Summons trophy has finished in the top three for defence, bar the 2016 Sharks (fourth best defence) and 2015 Cowboys (fifth). Attack wins hearts but defence wins championships, and aside from a brief reunion of Blake & Blake Defensive Associates, the Parramatta defence has been rock solid in 2021.
There is also a lot to like about the Eels attack. Parramatta sits hot on the heels of Penrith, South Sydney and Manly in terms of points scored, three teams regarded as attacking powerhouses this season. At the same time, the Eels attack is described as clunky, side-to-side and predictable, reliant on kicks or “give it to Sivo” freak plays. Yet Parramatta is scoring plenty of points, and those critics do have a case; the Eels could get better with the ball.
Dylan Brown has come back from suspension with an edge, his running game has always been his strength and he’s looking to be more involved in attack. Mitchell Moses has also left his running game in the cupboard for much of 2021 and his influence on the Eels’ structured attack has suffered for it. If both men can hit form in the Parramatta structure and link better with their outside men then we could start seeing more Penrith and South Sydney style sweeping backline plays.
That in turn creates space for what has been the Parramatta strength in 2021: their forwards. Whether it be distribution from Junior and Nathan Brown, hard runs and quick play-the-balls from Reg and Browny, or just being impossible to tackle like Isaiah Papali’i, the Parramatta pigs have feasted in 2021. There has been no trouble getting Papali’i the ball, but imagine more structured play to unlock Ryan Matterson or Bryce Cartwright on the edges as short runners. The offload heavy last few minutes of the first half against Penrith were a reminder of what Parramatta can do when they’ve worn down their opposition through a half, and I expect an improvement in both the Eels structured plays and their ad-lib attack as we approach the finals.
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. Reed Mahoney 14. Marata Niukore 11. Isaiah Papali’i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown. 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright 19. Will Smith. 18. Will Penisini 21. Jake Arthur
The much anticipated return of Cash Mahoney is the big change to the Eels lineup post bye, in fact it is the only change to the Eels lineup from the team that fell to the Panthers. Shaun Lane can consider himself lucky to retain his place after hitting the killer quinella of a crucial dropped ball in attacking position and a lame effort on a scramble play for the Api Koroisau try. Just after I’d given him a wrap in the preview, too. Thanks mate.
Junior Paulo has been rested post Origin, with Marata Niukore coming in to the side and Will Smith joining the bench. Marata has been good as a middle and while the second phase play of Paulo will be missed, he hasn’t been in his best touch for the last month and a rest might rejuvenate him. Smith on the bench is wise considering that Mahoney is hardly match fit coming back from injury, and he can also cover for Moses should the incumbent NSW halfback need an early shower.
1. Alexander Brimson 2. Phillip Sami 3. Brian Kelly 4. Patrick Herbert 5. Corey Thompson 6. Ashley Taylor 7. Jamal Fogarty 8. Jarrod Wallace 9. Erin Clark 10. Moeaki Fotuaika 11. Kevin Proctor 12. David Fifita 13. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui. 14. Tyrone Peachey 15. Sam Lisone 16. Jaimin Jolliffe 17. Beau Fermor. 18. Sam McIntyre 20. Herman Ese’ese.
The Titans have three players backing up from Origin in Brimson, Fotuaika and Fa’asuamaleaui, but I would say only Big Tino is at risk of needing a rest as the other two will come off the bench for Queensland. David Fifita serves his one week suspension in Origin and is free to play against the Eels. With the Titans on the fringe of the eight, I’d expect their Origin players to be more likely to back up as every game means so much more to them.
This is a full strength Titans team, with only former Eel and forever “next big thing” Greg Marzhew unavailable through injury. Tyrone Peachey has taken to his bench utility role and has proven dangerous as an impact player, while Erin Clark has made the hooker position his own ahead of Mitch Rein.
There’s a lot going on here. I don’t know what the NRL is doing with ticketing, but the Queensland bubble has turned the Eels/Titans clash into one part of a double header with the Dragons and Manly. It probably dilutes the Titans fan base, who knows how many Eels, Dragons or Sea Eagles fans made the trip to the Gold Coast for Origin on Wednesday and hung around to see their team play. The Titans don’t have a great home field advantage at the best of times and there could be a lot of neutrals and Eels fans in the stands this Friday.
Then we have the bubble. Players will be used to bubble life, having lived through the restrictions for the entire 2020 season, but that was getting to sleep in their own beds and see their families. Now they are living in hotel rooms with only their teammates and support staff for company. Melbourne thrived in such a scenario last year, but they have an edge to them that perhaps Parramatta lacks. The Warriors had periods of success in their 2020 bubble, but they also spent a few weeks getting belted around the park. Parramatta is a relatively young team and there seems to be a good bond among the players, so I would expect any bubble blues won’t manifest until later on in the stint.
Matt Cecchin is the referee, after not officiating the Eels at all in 2020 we have a 2-0 record under him in 2021. One team is going to lose their first under Cecchin in 2021, as the Titans are 3-0 with him in the middle, though those games were against Brisbane, Canterbury and Canberra. Cecchin waves a below average number of set restarts compared to his fellow officials and the fewest penalties. As the team that gets the most set restarts awarded to them that might be a slight disadvantage to the Eels.
The Titans have all the hallmarks of a 2000s English Super League team: they score a lot of points, they concede a lot of points. Their paper thin defence is what has kept them out of the top eight this year, since round 6 they are giving up over 32 points per game, including big scores to the lowly Broncos and Sharks. They’ve given up huge leads against Manly and Souths, and while their most recent effort against the Raiders was good, the Raiders are only a Paul Vaughan barbeque from being the most dysfunctional team in the NRL.
The Sami/Kelly left defensive edge hasn’t had a great season, with 29 combined try concedes between the two. That said, the right edge has only leaked six fewer tries, just in a wider variety of combinations. Jamal Fogarty, Tino, Tyrone Peachey and Mo Fotuaika are all targets in the line, Tino in particular doesn’t mind a missed tackle, a stat Brian Kelly is currently sixth in the NRL for despite missing several matches.
The Titans capitulations have come in bunches, giving up a lot of tries in quick time whether at the start of the game, end of the first half or through the second half. It signals a lack of commitment and perhaps a mentality issue, so if Parramatta can back up one try with another, they should chance their arm, up the tempo and really try and put them away. The Titans have given up massive leads and made big comebacks, so are clearly a momentum team. The Eels are good at grinding teams down and choking them out, that gameplan will serve them well here, as long as they are prepared to open up once they are on top.
The good people at Rugby League Writers have spent most of 2021 pointing out the lack of repeatable actions in the Titans attack. Indeed, while the Titans score a reasonable amount of points, a lot of those come from hero plays or simply from David Fifita being an impossibly strong, large human.
Fifita deserves his own section here. He leads forwards in try scoring with 11, leads the NRL in tackle breaks with a gap of 24 to second place, despite having only played 13 of 16 games, and is fourth in offloads. Despite those frankly stupid tackle break numbers, he is outside the top 50 in post contact metres, and barely cracks that same list for running metres. People call incumbent NSW halfback Mitchell Moses a flat track bully, but David Fifita is the real downhill runner of the NRL and has regularly gone missing when the going gets tough for the Titans.
He prowls on that left edge for the Titans, meaning Dylan Brown, aka the best defensive half in the game, will be his primary target. I have faith in the Eels to contain the big man, but he is perhaps the biggest individual threat in the NRL to turn a game on its head. Luckily there is form for the Titans wasting huge individual efforts from Fifita, such as when he scored a hat-trick against Souths in a game the Titans led by 14 at half time then lost by 10.
There are other threats in the middle, particularly big Tino and Fotuaika, who are both PCM machines, while Fotuaika and Jarrod Wallace can both find an offload. Kevin Proctor is a solid middle but doesn’t really threaten in any part of the game anymore. The bench is a major drop off, Jaimin Jolliffe is a worker but he is also the best of the replacement forwards, Sam Lisone’s picture appears in Google when you search journeyman, and Beau Fermor hasn’t made much of a dent in his limited first grade career.
You’ll also notice we haven’t mentioned the Titans halves here in this preview. That might say enough about their impact on the team, with late bloomer and former Eels lower grader Jamal Fogarty leading the team around. He is a threat with running, but he’s also been solved somewhat after a good 2020 and has struggled to run a structured attack. Ash Taylor is a perpetual disappointment, playing for his career but unable to stand out in a team that really needs direction. His kicking game is his best asset, but he’ll do well to outwit Clint Gutherson with his grubber game.
This is another “no excuses” game for the Eels. The Titans have had plenty of chances to come in fired up in 2021, they’ve started well and had teams on the rack, and they have continually shown a lack of desire and strength of will to go on with the job. This is a defensively fragile team without a lot going on in their attack beyond some individual brilliance. Parramatta should wear them down and grind them out, and eventually take this one comfortably.
Yet you are most likely a Parramatta fan if you are reading this, and you know it is never that simple. There are spots in the defensive line that David Fifita could torment, particularly Mitchell Moses, Waqa Blake and even Reed Mahoney. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is the kind of freak body that causes our athletic middle some trouble, and while he only has three offloads on the year, he threw a pretty nice one in Origin and Parramatta gives up more ineffective tackles than you would think considering they are best in the NRL for missed tackles.
Parramatta has also struggled to remain composed when in comeback mode. Get 12 points down and suddenly the shifts are to flat footed halves, players are going themselves and throwing miracle balls, Maika Sivo is getting bundled into touch and Bryce Cartwright is kicking. The Titans have quick fire strike power as well as being able to concede in bunches, especially if David Fifita is in a mood. If I was him I’d be fired up having missed the Queensland Origin win due to suspension and with the Titans finals hopes on the line, but he’s gone missing on big occasions before. Shut him down early, make him tackle and make sure he knows he’s in a battle, and there’s a good chance he folds. That won’t stop him getting the Kikau fire in his eyes when ten metres out from the line, but controlling field position has been the Eels strength in 2021 and limiting his chances is our best approach.
The points should come with pressure. Clint Gutherson will be the man to unlock things here, creating a numbers advantage in the line in the red zone or enabling second phase with his support play. What has worked for the Eels before should work again here, expect Mitchell Moses to aim bombs to Ryan Matterson, Bryce Cartwright and Waqa Blake on the edges, with Parramatta players knowing what is coming and sniffing around for the tap back.
It feels like a great “duh” moment to suggest Isaiah Papali’i will have a big game, but this type of opponent is built for him. His running style makes him tough to tackle for anybody, but any sub-100% efforts like what the Titans have put together this year when trying to stop him will result in the buy of the century adding to his 7 tries this year. Expect Parramatta to start using him as a decoy some more, while feeding him is usually the most effective attacking play it is about time the Eels add some wrinkles to their most successful structured play.
Parramatta should win here. Reed Mahoney’s return will add extra danger to every run and every decoy in the red zone, and it should create more room on the edge as the middle defenders need to respect his short passing selection. Maika Sivo is not a man who needs much extra room or time to crash over. Even if the Gold Coast put in an effort beyond what we’ve seen from them most of this year, Parramatta should have too much class. The worry is the Eels expecting to dominate and panicking when the Titans stand up. Parramatta has had no trouble doing what needs to be done since their struggles against Souths and Manly, I want to believe they have turned the corner and will be tuning up for the tougher battles to come. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 34 d Gold Coast Titans 16
Man of the Match: Clint Gutherson