Date: Thursday, 29 July 2021
Venue: BB Print Stadium, Mackay
Kick Off: 7:50PM AEST
Referee: Grant Atkins
Head-to-head: Played 134, Parramatta 63, Sydney 66, Drawn 5
Odds: Eels $1.58 Roosters $2.35
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Last Four Encounters:
Parramatta 31 d Sydney 18, Bankwest Stadium, R9 2021
Sydney 24 d Parramatta 10, Bankwest Stadium, R6 2020
Sydney 32 d Parramatta 18, Stadium Australia, R3 2019
Sydney 44 d Parramatta 10, Stadium Australia, R25 2018
Well great, looks like Canberra had turned the corner. The Eels were the unfortunate victims of one of the most impressive “effortball” performances of recent times, as Canberra muscled up in the middle, dragged Parramatta into a war and held out a late rally for a gutsy victory. Gone were the “Faders” of most of 2021, while Jordan Rapana had the gas tank of two men at the back. It’s still a game the Eels should have won, and a loss that might prove costly come the final standings, but it wasn’t a world ending performance from the men in Blue & Gold.
Now we travel to Mackay to face an injured ravaged Roosters, who are very much the anti-Eels in terms of how they handle the absence of key players. Parramatta lose one member of their spine and their attack falls to pieces, while the Roosters structures have held relatively firm despite half their starting first grade team sitting in the stands. There’s nothing wrong with being a team that is only a contender at full strength; depth and structure is a luxury only the Roosters, Storm and arguably Panthers have (their efforts without Nathan Cleary suggest they need him to win a competition), but unfortunately Parramatta don’t compete in a “NRL except for Sydney, Melbourne and Penrith” competition and must be judged against the benchmarks.
With Mitchell Moses on the sidelines for at least one more week, Parramatta needs to stitch together a victory here against an opponent that will match them in the middle and has class attacking players across the park. We haven’t even turned on to murderers row yet in terms of the draw, a loss here and Parramatta can kiss a top four finish goodbye.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Last week was a write off, both with the result and on the punt.
This week, the Eels remain the favourite, though I’m not sure how often they will be again in the run to the finals.
Consequently, there’s little value in tipping a win on its own, and margin markets could be fraught with danger.
Therefore I’m looking at the first half line/overunder double. Take the Eels giving away 1.5 start (that’s a mere goal) with over 22.5 points scored in the first half and you’ll get odds of $3.20.
If you’re not as confident as me about the total points, the return is $3.50 for under 22.5 total points.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
How we look
How do we look? Ordinary. For as easy as it is to win internet argument points by responding to those that question Parramatta’s attack by tapping the “tries scored” leaderboard that shows the Eels just behind the Panthers and Roosters (and until last week, near level with the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles), Parramatta is not convincing in attack. I’ve generously called it “room for improvement” over the last month or two, but with Mitchell Moses out it was time for Parramatta to show they have structures that work regardless of personnel, and instead they only looked like scoring with traditional variations of “pass it to Sivo” or “kick it to somebody”.
Parramatta has long struggled with “Plan B” football, if the gameplan isn’t working the Eels adjust by doing what they were doing. Canberra gang tackled, rushed and wrestled their way to ruck control, and Parramatta just kept running into the teeth of that defence. To the Eels credit, they held their own in the middle and managed to bash their way through some high-effort defensive sets from the Raiders, it wasn’t a ruck dominance from Canberra by any stretch. It is just so much easier to beat rushing defence by going around it rather than through it, and Parramatta never tried anything but “same, same”. The same thing happened against the Dragons, where the Eels had no counter to a spoiling strategy and high effort football. With the gap in talent between the best and the rest, Parramatta should be able to counter “high effort” as a strategy with skill, poise and execution, yet instead they flounder.
Parramatta has succeeded in attack with a lot of single actions. Reed hitting the right man at the right time to exploit defensive mismatches on the line. High kicks to take advantage of athletic mismatches, giving the ball to our biggest, strongest player one-on-one ten metres from the line. The most successful structure involves Clint Gutherson joining the line, who creates a numbers advantage and has excellent pass selection but most importantly, always joins the line on the run. Not to discount the planning and effort that goes into setting up these plays; Reed hitting a hole runner perfectly is usually set up by two runs at very specific defenders and you only get those cutouts to Sivo by compressing the defensive line, but they are plays that punish mistakes, not force mistakes.
The less successful structure is the “two passes wide” red zone attack, where long passes from dummy half and/or the first receiver force depth on the playmakers and make it difficult to hit any ball at speed. Mitchell Moses might catch more passes flat footed than any halfback in the NRL. Spreading the ball across the park in two passes isn’t enough when there is no need for any defensive player to make a commitment. Defenders are shifting, marking up and adjusting. There is more than one way to take advantage of a dominant play-the-ball, and too often the Eels take a good setup run only to throw long passes to flat footed playmakers.
Frankly, a team that has had minimal personnel changes over two off-seasons and has had the same spine and coach together since the start of 2019 should be better at structured play than this. Individuals are evolving, particularly Reed and Gutho, but aside from Moses and Brown switching sides, the Eels attack looks as flat and predictable as it did last year.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 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. Bryce Cartwright 15. Shaun Lane 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Will Smith. 18. Haze Dunster 19. Ray Stone 20. Will Penisini 21. Joey Lussick.
Not going to sugarcoat it, I hate this. Jake Arthur’s initial stint in first grade was fine, to give the kid some experience and a taste of what is to come in his future, but his defensive frailties are being exposed and it was time to go with the unexciting veteran in Will Smith against a team with killer edge forwards. Isaiah Papali’i is a beast, but he isn’t Tonie Carroll and struggles in his protector role.
Will Penisini had a good debut, but makes way for the returning Tom Opacic who, to be fair, did nothing to deserve being dropped for a one-game rookie. We’ll be seeing Penisini again, don’t worry. Blake Ferguson was his old “rocks and diamonds” self, but his ability to create that try for Dylan Brown was a good indicator of what he offers the team above Haze Dunster. He was only tested once defensively and did well, but also spilled an opportunity with the ball. In short, we know nothing more about the battle between the two, it is still the ups and downs of a freak talent against a solid, dependable youngster.
Marata Niukore is out with bone bruising in his knee, shrinking the bench even further as Bryce Cartwright returns and will probably push Papali’i in for a stint as a middle forward. Simba is a huge loss, and it is time for Oregon Kaufusi to stand up in his place. He is 40 games into his first grade career and he needs to do more in his short stints on the field. Dropping the ball a bit less would be nice, too.
Poor old Maika Sivo has copped some criticism this week for not finishing off that final play against Canberra, though I can’t blame him for sticking with what works (charging over people) rather than attempting to finesse his way through the line. Remember all those tries that Sivo has scored that no other player could? The price for that is sometimes the defenders attempt a shoulder charge, miss and collect him with an apparently legal tackle that does the job. In a league that is trying to prevent injuries, it is interesting that only dangerous shots that actually connect are punished, but in the end the spectacle of Sivo being stopped inches short like that is not something I want stripped out of the game, even if it did cost us.
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Josh Morris 4. Adam Keighran 5. Joseph Manu 6. Drew Hutchison 7. Sam Walker 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Sam Verrills 10. Isaac Liu 11. Angus Crichton 12. Sitili Tupouniua 13. Victor Radley. 14. Lachlan Lam 15. Nat Butcher 16. Egan Butcher 17. Siosiua Taukeiaho. 18. Ben Marschke 19. Fletcher Baker 20. Moala Graham-Taufa 21. Naufahu Whyte.
I’m sure I said this last Roosters preview, but damn would it be nice to look like this with two internationals and an Origin player retired (Cordner, Brett Morris, Friend) and two more rep stars gone for the year (Keary and Collins). If only the club spent the money on the Mexican restaurant at the Leagues Club on sombreros instead.
The Roosters middle has lost a lot of experience, but Waerea-Hargreaves has taken the pack on his back while Liu is a solid veteran that delivers 7/10 every week. Tupouniua is working his way up the “devastating edge forwards” rankings each week, chasing at the heels of his edge partner Angus Crichton, and Victor Radley remains the best ball-playing lock in the competition.
Joseph Manu shifts to the wing while Adam Keighran replaces the injured Matt Ikuvalu, with Josh Morris recalled to replace Billy Smith. It seems unlikely Manu is wasted out on the wing the whole game, but it may just be he is the best man suited to the job now, Keighran is a converted half/hooker and Josh Morris, well, he doesn’t have that winger pace and motor like he may have in his younger days.
Being a few hours south of Townsville, Mackay isn’t a quick trip up the road for the Eels, Gold Coast is further from Mackay than it is Sydney. It’s hot and humid up there, by winter standards, though players are all in mid-season shape at this point so I wouldn’t expect the weather to make much impact.
I love the initiative of taking these games to smaller venues, there is only so much Sydney football the Gold Coast market wants to watch, but you have to have a giggle at the Mackay stadium being named after a local printer. My first, second and third thought was what if Western Sydney Stadium ended up named after a local sponsor, which immediately led me to 1800 Poo-Man Stadium. Still better than 1800 Smiles.
Anyway, Mackay Stadium holds about 12,000 people, probably a lot less with COVID rules seeing as only 1,600 of that capacity is seated. It wouldn’t get a run for a FTA broadcast game if lighting and facilities weren’t up to scratch, so I wouldn’t worry about players having to play by headlights or anything like that. It isn’t Henson Park we’re talking about here. Here’s hoping the locals hate the Roosters more than they hate the Eels. Technically it is a Roosters home game.
Grant Atkins is the referee, Eels fans will remember him for the Dragons game where the ruck was a slow, grappling mess. Atkins binned a Dragon and the Eels won the ruck infringement count 9-5, but those actions did little to control the grind or help Parramatta out of their hole. We’re 2-1 with him this year. The Roosters have played under him once for a win.
The high contact crackdown officially ended last Saturday night when Thomas Flegler knocked Isaah Yeo into next week and didn’t find himself hitting the showers. Whispers remain that referees will start to penalise cynical six again abuse, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The Roosters love an infringement to reset their defensive line, so hopefully a set or three parked in Sydney territory will get them testing Atkins’ patience.
I described the Roosters as the anti-Eels earlier, and feel like I should elaborate on that. Last week gave a great example, with Angus Crichton shifting to the centres and immediately running lines and slotting into backline movements like he’d been there his whole career. “Roosters football” is coached across the board, allowing players like Sam Walker to step in and immediately succeed, knowing that if he calls a play whoever is outside him will be where they are supposed to be, even if they’re a back rower playing centre. You could watch the Eels play and be forgiven for thinking they aren’t even calling plays.
We’ve seen countless examples of it, Mitchell Aubusson was an everywhere man for the Roosters for years, Victor Radley slots between hooker and lock, Joseph Manu into the halves or fullback. You just know Adam Keighran will immediately slot in and be a dangerous presence at centre, though I don’t buy Joseph Manu on the wing for a second. Whoever is in that backline knows where they need to be, what line they need to run and when to expect the ball, even if they’ve not played much of that position.
Compare that to Parramatta, where every time Waqa Blake runs in a backline movement it looks like he is ad-libbing like he’s on a social touch footy team, and in recent weeks we’ve seen wingers out of position for long and short passes. There are set plays in the Eels repertoire, of course, but rarely do we see threatening shape and multiple option runners on a backline movement outside of the red zone, and usually when we do see it in the red zone it comes off a standing start. Can you remember the Eels doing something like this? Or even this?
This section is meant to be about the Roosters though, and those inside runners drawing defenders to force decisions on the centre and open space for the Walker cutout ball is a big one to watch here, as is the chance to hit Tupouniua and Crichton on the short side if they can isolate Jake Arthur. The Raiders second try last week won’t have gone unnoticed by Trent Robinson, and he’ll be looking to force repeat efforts on Isaiah Papali’i to expose Arthur in the line.
The Roosters will always be a dangerous side for Parramatta because they challenge with shifts designed to draw defenders in then out. Victor Radley touches the ball more than any other lock, holding defenders up for that beat and hitting both the big men for crash ball and the fast men to get outside a defender and create one-on-ones out wide. Parramatta defend inside out and are susceptible to quick shifts and numbers, and every Eels fan knows the tense feeling you get when a good shift heads toward either wing. We’ll see a lot of those shifts this week, let’s hope Fergo’s one good decision last week wasn’t a fluke.
Then we have James Tedesco, who you can at best just hope to contain. Tired middle defenders can’t drop off plays once the ball moves past them at any point on the field, looking at you Shaun Lane, and I get the feeling the Roosters will try and use the old Storm outside-inside ball trick back at the ruck.
Last week did not do great things for my confidence, and the team sheet for this week did little to ease my mind. If the Parramatta attack can’t function without Mitchell Moses I’d at least like to see them be as defensively minded as possible while going for points with pet plays: bombs, Sivo runs, Isaiah Papali’i crash balls. I criticise the Parramatta structure because those plays aren’t enough against the best defensive teams and the most committed, high effort sides, but against shakier defences they are still good for 3-4 tries in a game, and the Roosters aren’t the defensive powerhouse of years gone by. Their attacking structures are holding together but defensively they are feeling the pinch of new combinations and inexperienced players.
The good news for Parramatta is that these performances without Moses are in no way indicative of a 2020 style collapse. It is okay to be bad without your halfback, generations of rugby league teams have struggled without their most important player. Remember the Knights without Joey? Canberra without Ricky Stuart? Melbourne in the grand final without Cam Smith? We’re in a freak period of football where a couple of superclubs have depth for days, an ideal officiating environment, and have such an advantage in coaching over the rest that they are succeeding with key injuries, but that is hardly the norm in this sport. A loss here without Moses might make the finals path a little tougher, but frankly the difference between fourth and fifth means a whole lot less now that it looks like finals footy will be played in Queensland with no home ground advantages.
This is going to be a tough one to win. Possession and attrition got the Eels over the Roosters first time around, neither of which are exactly repeatable actions. If it becomes a battle of the middle, without Moses and perhaps with a hobbled Clint Gutherson (who clearly wasn’t 100% last week), the Eels don’t have it across the park to match the Rooster for firepower. That doesn’t mean we can’t win, but it will be a tough contest that might not look very pretty.
A few weeks ago I was hoping for a convincing effort here to set us up for a brutal late draw. Now I’m hoping to survive. Season 2021 has shifted from “build into the finals” to “survive to the finals” and hope it all comes together at the right time. It isn’t the ideal preparation, but at their best Parramatta can still beat anybody in the competition. Let’s hope we see that Parramatta this week.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta Eels 22 d Sydney Roosters 18
Man of the Match: Ryan Matterson