It hasn’t been a dream start to season 2022 for Parramatta, but as last year proved: contendership is just one Melbourne Storm upset away. Things aren’t as gloomy as reading Eels social media (or the TCT comments section) would have you believe: give me a close win against Gold Coast and a close loss to Cronulla over the six weeks we had before the last time we played Melbourne. I expect the Eels to rise to the occasion for this one.
Melbourne is going through its own troubles, despite a 2-0 start to the year. They needed golden point to beat a very ordinary South Sydney side last week, in a match they’d have buried by halftime in their prime. That came after a win against the Tigers that had more people saying positive things about Wests than Melbourne. They’ve lost two players to season ending injuries, and a few more this week to Covid. Club imposed deadlines on key players and the coach to re-sign are looming. Ryan Papenhuyzen has the worst hairstyle in rugby league. Let’s hope we can add “belted by Parramatta” to that list of woes come Saturday night.
Date: Saturday March 26, 2022
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 5:30PM AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 40, Eels 16, Storm 24
Odds: Eels $2.60, Storm $1.50
Lines: Eels +4.5, over/under 38.5
Fact: The Eels have won three of their last four against Melbourne
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
A close miss in Round 1 at nice odds, followed by being well wide of the mark in looking for longer odds last week, tells me that’s it’s time to play it simple in Round 3.
Therefore, with enough value in the Eels getting the win, I’m going to hit the head to head market and select Parra at the odds of $2.65.
I believe that we are a genuine chance, and Parra’s recent record against the Storm is good enough to suggest that the Eels should be a bit shorter.
If you want longer odds, there’s plenty of markets incorporating a Blue and Gold victory.
But as always against the Storm, apply the KISS principle or even keep the coin for another day.
Happy, responsible punting.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Waqa Blake 3. Will Penisini 4. Tom Opacic 5. Bailey Simonsson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Nathan Brown. 14. Makahesi Makatoa 15. Wiremu Greig 16. Ray Stone 17. Oregon Kaufusi.
18. Bryce Cartwright 19. Brendan Hands 20. Ky Rodwell 21. Hayze Perham 22. Solomone Naiduki 23. Luca Moretti 24. Sam Loizou.
Despite the heavy injury toll, only one change for the Eels this week with Wiremu Greig bringing some size onto the bench in place of Jake Arthur, who has appendicitis. Nathan Brown moves into the starting side for Oregon Kaufusi, who it is safe to say didn’t make the most of his promotion last week. The extended bench shuffles somewhat but if you are like me, the group 18 through 24 are just a blur each week and it doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Jake Arthur not getting on the field last week caused a bit of a stir, and not just because Jake attracts negative fan energy like a long running, beloved sci-fi franchise. His new nickname in the grades is going to be “Star Wars”, or maybe Jar-Jar (cross-promotion alert: I also write the post-game grades each week. If the preview is the Sunday Footy Show of TCT, the grades are the Thursday Footy Show, just with imagined head wobbles).
While I don’t agree with Brad Arthur’s choice of Jake as the utility, I believe we’re in a new era of football where many clubs will run a three man bench in ideal conditions, with the fourth spot reserved to cover outside back HIAs and injuries. A bench of four big men is inviting disaster as it becomes more likely you’ll need to cover an in-game absence almost every week, particularly with the bunker doctor keeping a close eye on proceedings.
So naturally, BA has gone with that four forward bench this week and invited said disaster. Bryce Cartwright might be a late change and offers that flexibility we need, but looking at the Storm bench it is easy to see what Arthur is hoping for here: dominance in the middle stages. At full fitness the Eels are blessed with three middles who offer outside backs coverage: Matterson (halves), Niukore (centre) and Stone (hooker), but full fitness is a luxury we don’t have at the moment. Still, Cartwright in for Kaufusi feels like a good chance for mine.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Dean Ieremia 3. Reimis Smith 4. Justin Olam 5. Xavier Coates 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9.
Harry Grant 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenny Bromwich 13. Josh King. 14. Tyran Wishart 15. Alec MacDonald 16. Trent Loiero 17. Tepai Moeroa.
18. Chris Lewis 19. Nick Meaney 20. Jonah Pezet 21. Jayden Nikorima 22. Will Warbrick 23. Brandon Smith 24. Sualauvi Faalogo.
Covid has already wreaked havoc on the Storm squad, with Harry Grant ruled out after a positive test, taking his housemate Tyran Wishart with him. Whoever let Melbourne’s top two hookers live together in this Covid era is getting an almighty Bellamy spray this week.
Jayden Nikorima is probably the next man up, while Nick Meaney might take the utility bench role, but we’re digging deep enough into the Storm depth chart that things are very murky. Being Melbourne, there is a good chance whoever comes in will do a job, but as the first Eels v Storm clash last year showed, even Melbourne’s depth can be stretched.
Even without Grant, this spine packs some serious punch. Hughes is in career best form, Munster has looked dangerous and while Papenhuyzen isn’t back to his best of last year, he’s still lightning quick and a major threat with every touch. Depth might not be there in the pack, but most of those starters are still elite quality. Sorry Josh King, you are the reason I had to say “most”.
The core of both Melbourne victories last year was an incredible defensive effort, which would be a nice change for the Eels after two fairly soft performances to start 2022. Clint Gutherson single handedly saved the Eels in round 2 last year, racking up in one game a total of trysavers most fullbacks would call a good season. Round 24 showed off edge cohesion that Parramatta fans could only dream of earlier in the year and that we certainly haven’t seen this season.
The common factor in both games was control in the middle of the field. Melbourne has a tough, aggressive pack but the Eels forwards rose to the occasion and then some, and after last week you would hope the big men are smarting and looking to re-establish themselves as one of the premier units in the league. Nathan Brown’s return helps that immensely, driving line speed that was worryingly absent in both games this year.
Junior Paulo in particular needs to be better. He has the size, power and skill to dominate games, but we have rarely seen any of those traits this year. As captain now he needs to lead by example, not let Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown take up the slack. If Junior is on his game early, Parramatta is a real shot in this one.
Even if you contain the middle, you’ve only done half the job against Melbourne. Cam Munster looked in good touch last week, running like he’s covered in spiders, while Jahrome Hughes is frustratingly effective, popping up wherever there is a half chance and converting with his speed and footwork. Ryan Papenhuyzen has the elite speed the Eels side just cannot match and has destroyed us in a few meetings. We’ve also managed to keep him fairly quiet in a couple too, so let’s hope it is one of those kinds of days.
There is some good news. Harry Grant is a huge out for them. He’ll be on his couch at home, crying into his warm tea at not being able to run behind the quick play-the-balls the Eels were conceding last weekend. When the Eels are beaten well the opposition rake inevitably had a big game, so it is nice that whoever Melbourne’s Ray Stone is (aka the fourth stringer) will be taking up duties.
Holding out Melbourne will be one thing, scoring against them is a whole different challenge. The Storm did a great job last week shutting down the South Sydney left edge, which was admittedly a bit out of sync but was also rushed into mistakes as the defenders keyed on Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker, hitting them as soon as they got the ball on the spread. It’s a similar ploy to what the Titans tried against Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson in round one, though they were a step slow in most cases as Parramatta ran five tries down that edge. Two of those tries required perfect, no-look cutout passes to succeed, low percentage plays that came off mainly because Greg Marzhew left a five lane freeway passage down the sideline for Sean Russell.
The standard Parramatta spread is going to be eaten up by the Storm defence, so the Eels need either some individual magic or some new wrinkles. There wasn’t a lot new about the attack against the Sharks, but there were a few good shapes shown by Parramatta against the Titans and in the Panthers trial. The key is going to be getting the space to execute, and in that regard the Eels might be better off activating the attack off any good play-the-ball in the opposition half rather than getting to the goal line and spreading with no momentum. Parramatta’s standard shift and “hold and fire” passing is predictable, ineffective and I’d say every Eels fan has seen it long enough. Get deeper and throw some shape, kick early, just do something different. Please.
The scope for those individual efforts is certainly there. Dylan Brown had a breakout running game against the Sharks, but his tendency to improvise a step back inside rather than feed the set play out wide too often left him isolated and skipping across the defensive line, praying for support. His teammates need to be awake to the opportunities Dylan will create, but adding Dylan’s running into the play instead of it always being off-script will allow players to run more aggressive lines and be ready for a pass.
It’d be nice to see Will Penisini get some quality ball as well, especially in mid-field where he has the footwork, strength and flick pass to create long range chances. He’s having to go searching for opportunities to ruck it out right now, and that is not an effective use of his talents. Waqa Blake had a similar game on the wing, it’d be nice to get him some room to work with, even from our own half, rather than have him beat the first man on tackle two only to meet more defenders immediately.
It always takes an outlook of optimism to tip the Eels against the Storm, but there is more than just blind hope in believing that Parramatta can beat Melbourne this weekend. It will take some improvement on recent weeks, but the Eels are nothing if not schizophrenic and capable of stunning reversals of form in the space of a week.
This isn’t your dad’s Melbourne Storm, there are weaknesses there. Dean Ieremia has looked remarkably average for a player coming off the Bellamy production line, like QA took a smoko as he rolled onto the team sheet. Josh King has outperformed the low expectations he set in a stint with Newcastle, but he’s still nowhere near a Dale Finucane. The bench have shown flashes of talent, Alec MacDonald and Trent Loiero in particular, but they’re still raw, no-name guys taking spots once filled by names like Kamikamica, Smith or Asofa-Solomona. Tepai Moeroa hasn’t impressed since returning from rugby union, few Eels fans will be worried about him breaking the game open. That’s all before considering the Storm will be running their fourth string hooker in all likelihood.
This bodes well for middle dominance by the Eels, and from there it is a matter of attacking execution and eliminating silly mistakes. Ray Stone has copped a bucketful for giving away a penalty late last week, but he was far from the only one who gave relieving penalties to the Sharks in their own half. The team needs to be better in that regard, as it is taking a lot of field position for Parramatta to convert opportunities into points.
That’s the big watch for Eels fans this round: how does the attack improve? It’s a strange question for a team that scored five tries in the first 40 minutes of the season, but a lot of that was assisted by a fragile Titans defence. Last week was too much of what we’ve always seen, and it needs to change. Maybe a bit more space opens things up, or giving Dylan Brown more support on his runs, or if we don’t fall back on predictable crash ball footy instead of the clever play Reed Mahoney had begun to display last year.
There’s other questions too, of course. Is Isaiah Papali’i cut out to defend on the edge while making 15+ runs per game? Will Waqa Blake remember he is defending on the wing and he can’t just crash in on a centre anymore? Can Bailey Simonsson or Will Penisini finally get the ball in space? Has Shaun Lane turned back into a pumpkin?
This is going to be a tough one, and a lot of bad results are certainly in play. I’m choosing optimism, and that the Eels have just had a slow start to 2022 and aren’t in any kind of decline.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 22 d Melbourne 18
Man of the Match: Mitchell Moses