Date: Thursday, 22 July 2021
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
Kick Off: 7:50PM AEST
Referee: Adam Gee
Head-to-head: Played 60, Parramatta 29, Canberra 31
Odds: Eels $1.16 Raiders $5.00
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Parramatta Eels 35 d Canberra Raiders 10, Canberra Stadium, R6 2021
Parramatta Eels 25 d Canberra Raiders 24, Bankwest Stadium, R7 2020
Parramatta Eels 22 d Canberra Raiders 16, Darwin, R15 2019
Canberra Raiders 19 d Parramatta Eels 0, Canberra Stadium, R5 2019
For what should be the “calm before the storm” game, Parramatta River has sure been choppy this week. Incumbent NSW halfback Mitchell Moses wrote his name in Origin folklore by playing 70 minutes of the toughest football in the world with a broken back (well, a slight fracture that took nearly a week to identify, but you know what they say about the truth and good stories) that will keep him out of the Blue & Gold jersey for a few weeks. Blake Ferguson gets a recall, and the most anticipated debut of the current rookie class is near. Add to that some big time transfer rumours and Eels fans have sent Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin into meltdown trying to digest all the news. All this before a final six weeks where the Eels play all five of the other legitimate premiership contenders as the bread around a Cowboy sandwich. We’ll be learning a lot about Parramatta in the next two months, that’s for sure.
This week is about survival. Canberra haven’t been good this year but they have won two in a row and are only out of the top eight on for and against. It has been that kind of year, where 7 wins, 10 losses is a finals record. Their backs are against the wall; injuries and walkouts mean they are led around the park by their reserve grade halves and fourth choice fullback, but facing a bit of adversity is just the way Ricky Stuart likes it.
The Raiders will be smarting from the spanking that the Eels gave them on home soil back in round 6, breaking a long Parramatta hoodoo in the nation’s capital and confirming to neutral observers that Canberra might not be it in 2021. Mitchell Moses was man of the match in that clash, controlling the game beautifully and challenging with his running game. It will take a different approach for the Eels to win this one, but anything other than a win here is an absolute disaster for Parramatta’s chances in season 2021. Let’s dig in.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Cash delivers the coin!
Here’s that reminder from last week.
“I’m looking at Reed Mahoney coming back to sneak a try in an Eels win, and the return is $5.25.”
How sweet it was to see our returning dummy half take the last pass in a brilliant Eels try against the Titans! I knew he was primed for a big match, and he didn’t disappoint.
This week I’m going to stick with the same market and a similar theme. But let’s get a bit more ambitious.
I’m tipping Junior to score a try in an Eels win at the massive odds of $11. His Origin 3 form was his best of the series and I reckon he’s warming into huge end of season performances.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
How we look
While Brad Arthur praised his team’s effort following their win over the Titans, you can bet privately he’d have a few stern words about the lack of killer instinct in a second half riddled with errors that kept the game a contest longer than it should have been. For a disrupted preparation and missing two Origin stars it was a solid effort, but not one without room for improvement.
This week’s team is all about looking to the future, with Arthur able to make a few personnel changes to give the extended squad some game time and keep them match fit without a lower grade to play in. The only selection questions he would have about his best 17 are the right wing and the bench utility, and both are in focus on this week’s team sheet. I talked about Dunster vs Ferguson a few weeks back, and while Haze is growing on me as the answer, mainly for his discipline in the defensive line and slick finishing, Ferguson deserves the chance to make his case for a permanent first grade recall. If, and it is a big if, he can work in the defensive structure, he offers more as an individual threat than Dunster does with ball in hand.
Will Smith v Bryce Cartwright may be a more matchup dependent choice. I prefer the ability of Smith to cover the entire backline plus hooker, but Cartwright offers more to the team in the event there are no injuries as you don’t need to replace a member of the spine to get him on. Smith gets a token ten minutes with the game well in control when there are no injuries, Cartwright can still come on when it is a contest and be a difference maker.
Dylan Brown continues his run of form, finally breaking through with his running game last week to score a great try, but also showing a lot more confidence as a kicker and ballplayer. This is a good test for him, and with an entirely new right edge defensive combination outside him his tackling efforts will be as crucial to the Eels’ success as his playmaking. He’ll have able help as usual from Reed and Gutho, but Brown stepping up will be key to the Eels going deep in the finals, and games like this are a great accelerator for his development.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Jake Arthur 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Isaiah Papali’i 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown. 14. Marata Niukore 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Will Smith. 18. Haze Dunster 19. Bryce Cartwright 20. Makahesi Makatoa 21. Joey Lussick.
Lot to unpack here as Brad Arthur covers for injury and starts to rotate in some of the players who don’t have a lower grade to keep them match fit, in one of the last opportunities to do so against non-elite opposition. That means Blake Ferguson returns at the expense of Haze Dunster, Will Penisini gets his first grade debut for Tom Opacic who is getting a one week mental health rest, and Will Smith slots into the utility spot for Bryce Cartwright. Jake Arthur is once again the replacement for the injured Mitchell Moses.
Let’s start with the Moses injury, which I believe will define the remainder of the Eels season. If it really is a one or two week return and Mitch somehow has a “broken back” but can play at full ability, we’ll be fine. If it in any way hinders his running game, his willingness to take on the line, to dig in and challenge defenders, then we are in big trouble. I know how I would react to a “pain tolerance” issue, and it wouldn’t be charging into defenders, but Mitch is undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than your humble preview writer. I’m praying to Sterlo that Mitch is at full capability for our finals run.
Brad Arthur needs a bit more information to make his Ferguson/Dunster decision, hence the backflipping bald one makes his return to the top grade. We covered him earlier. Penisini is a much hyped young centre with an electric running game and an appetite for metres. He stood tall in his chances in NSW Cup and deserves his debut, but I wouldn’t expect it to be a permanent promotion at this stage of his young career. His early tackle carries have been particularly strong, and will be something to watch for in his debut.
1. Jordan Rapana 2. Harley Smith-Shields 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Sebastian Kris 5. Semi Valemei 6. Matt Frawley 7. Sam Williams 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Emre Guler 11. Corey Harawira-Naera 12. Hudson Young 13. Ryan Sutton. 14. Tom Starling 15. Matt Timoko 16. Iosia Soliola 17. Joseph Tapine. 18. Caleb Aekins 19. Ryan James 20. Siliva Havili 21. Trey Mooney.
Canberra is ravaged by injuries, down to their fourth choice fullback and running out a three quarter line where washed veteran Jarrod Croker accounts for 88% of the first grade experience. Rapana is a good finisher but lacks any real ballplaying nous as a fullback, he will be a metre eater and support player much like Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, but without the tireless motor. In Rapana’s stint as fullback earlier this year he looked like he was about to collapse from fatigue at some points, though he did play a solid game. There is a reason two rookies and his opposite winger were given shots at custodian before he was, and there will be plenty for the Eels to exploit in his positional play.
The Raiders pack still looks very strong but has rarely played to expectations in 2021. Guler is hitting a good patch of form, Hudson Young has been strong and Corey Harawira-Naera quietly goes about some great work, but Elliott Whitehead missing takes away one of their ballplaying options and a key piece of the Raiders attack. It is another “two forward” bench from Ricky Stuart, with Josh Hodgson shifting to a roaming lock role when Tom Starling comes on the field. It has clicked in the last two weeks and proven to add some threat to what was a struggling Canberra attack. I don’t know what Matt Timoko is expected to do off the bench.
As a standalone bubble game between two out of state teams on the Gold Coast you wouldn’t expect a big crowd for this one, though maybe match organisers could choose to put some fans on the three sides of the stadium the TV cameras can see next time? Every team should be used to the atmosphere (or lack of) at these bubble games, and it shouldn’t be a factor here. Players will also be happy with their families being allowed into the bubble as well, which should relieve any potential pressure that some might be feeling as their Queensland isolation enters a second week. One week away from the family is a holiday, two weeks or more is a punishment.
Adam Gee is the man in the middle, his fifth Eels assignment for 2021, in which Parramatta are 3-1. Canberra are 2-1 in 3 games under Gee this year. This is as good a spot as any to once again highlight the outstanding work of the Rugby League Eye Test, with an incredible breakdown of set restarts in season 2021. What is relevant to Parramatta here is that Adam Gee, while not as big an arm waver as he was in 2020 (where he led all referees in restarts awarded) loves to blow a first half set restart (particularly from the ten minute mark) before putting the whistle away in the second. Getting on top in this early stage when Gee is more inclined to punish poor ruck behaviour is crucial, as is making sure to take advantage of slowing tactics later in the game when he puts the whistle away.
The set restart era has generally been kind to Parramatta, who are on the receiving end of more restarts than they concede. The Eels are among the most disciplined teams for conceding ten metres infringement restarts, showing they are either very good at getting off the line, good at hiding their cheating or they’re not cheating enough. The last week of football has highlighted just how damaging offside play can be at scrums and when pinning teams on their own line, Rugby League Writers has done a good job of showing how the Bulldogs nullified South Sydney backline shifts from scrums by simply cheating. Expect this to be the next crackdown target, but until then Parramatta needs to take advantage of this flaw in the rules to protect themselves from wide shifts when they are caught short, and to simply pummel an opponent close to their own line.
There has also been a lot of outside noise this week regarding the recruitment of Anthony Milford. Brad Arthur did a good job to shut that down within hours of the story breaking, assuring players like Will Smith, Dylan Brown and Jake Arthur of his faith in them to get the job done. In a bubble environment any distractions are magnified and the spread of Delta is nothing to how quickly discontent could cut through a camp of disgruntled footballers, so good on Brad Arthur for shutting the rumours down. That won’t stop Fox Sports running with it for another two weeks of course, but if I was in charge of any team I’d be setting team meetings for the time NRL 360 is on every night to protect players from being exposed to the ramblings and opinions of ridiculous, agenda driven men.
Has Canberra turned a corner? Will they turn back-to-back wins into a finals push? While great questions to know the answer to before our game, unfortunately it is at full time on Thursday night that we’ll know for sure. I’m leaning towards not trusting them. They beat a Manly team without their two playmakers and it took 8 forced dropouts on the way to nearly 60% possession. The Sharks missed 61 tackles, lost the offload count 22-3 and gained 600 fewer metres than the Raiders. Neither of those wins scream “the 2019 Raiders are back” to me.
Possession was the key to both of those wins for Canberra, and in set restart football possession is the key to success. It is how the Raiders have put the screws on the Eels in several encounters back before 2020. They didn’t make mistakes and in the case of the Manly game, forced a frankly ridiculous number of dropouts to control the middle stages of the contest. It is hardly a repeatable plan for success, nor is their opposition missing 60+ tackles. The best the Raiders can hope for is to get into a grinding battle and have the Eels beat themselves, something that hasn’t happened often in season 2021.
Canberra hasn’t been the most dynamic attacking team this year, but Ricky Stuart appears to have figured out how best to use impact rake Tom Starling and the Raiders are better for it. Josh Hodgson is playing with a bit more confidence and removing him from dummy half for half the game means the Raiders red zone attack becomes more than just Hodgson drifting across field to hit a forward running crash ball. Sam Williams and Matt Frawley add a level of direction that Jack Wighton does not, though they will miss the hero-ball runs of Wighton that can turn nothing into something. The Eels will miss his erratic kicking game.
Where Canberra will struggle is fluidity. The backline are out of position and inexperienced, Rapana is a good player but touching the ball 30+ times a game as a fullback should gives plenty of chances for his custom brain snaps to manifest. Defensively none of these combinations have worked together much and while the absence of Mitch Moses hurts, Parramatta should be more than capable of throwing numbers and shape at these inexperienced edges. Expect going short to Isaiah Papali’i to again be a big part of the Eels gameplan, and Clint Gutherson looking for those cutout balls to get Sivo one-on-one.
If the Raiders can make this game a battle of trench warfare, they’ll like their chances. Josh Papalii seems to be out of his early season funk and playing better football, and the rest of the pack in Guler, Sutton, CHN and Young are hungry and talented. Tapine off the bench, if motivated, could be a difference maker against tired defenders. Parramatta has been good with tough inside defence and it takes a special effort to crash through their middle, but they have given up offloads in bunches in some games and second phase play is a sure fire way to put the Eels on the back foot.
There are a lot of exciting stories for the Eels in this one, but I am just hoping for more of the same from Parramatta. It would be nice to see Will Penisini crush his debut and Blake Ferguson react well to a few backline shifts in defence, I’d even take another Jake Arthur solo effort, but if Parramatta just break the Raiders down through the middle and run their base plays to Papali’i, Sivo and off of Reed’s dummy half work, I’ll be very happy.
There should be a significant class difference between the two sides. Canberra have one member of their season starting spine playing and are missing their best ball playing forward along with key members of their backline. A good pack can take you a long way, but Parramatta has proven the equal to any pack in the competition and across the rest of the park they have Canberra for talent, strike power and cohesion.
A worry for the Eels is treating this game as a training exercise, as a way to tune up and not as a valuable opportunity for a win and two points. Ricky Stuart will be sending plenty of attack down the new Eels right defensive edge, knowing how bad Blake Ferguson has been in the past. It is a challenge Brad Arthur will welcome, after all we need to know if Blake can handle it, but Canberra scoring at will down that edge would make a long night for Eels fans. If Canberra step up and get a lead early, can Dylan and Jake pull the team together, retain composure and make the comeback? Hopefully it won’t come to that, but Canberra can’t be taken lightly.
For all of that, I expect a very similar game to last weekend. Stifling defence, strong middle work grinding the opposition down, and there are enough points in this team even without Moses. Clint Gutherson will take the team on his back and drive the structured play, and from that point it is just about opportunity.
Parramatta can’t lose this game. It might end up closer than some will want, but I think the precedent of the best teams being able to comfortably handle the middle pack will continue. I look forward to seeing a very unhappy Ricky Stuart in the coaches box come the 70th minute of this one. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 28 d Canberra Raiders 10
Man of the Match: Clint Gutherson