Remember to breathe, Eels fans. After three games back-to-back that have taken years off my life, it’d be nice for the Parramatta Eels to just play to the odds and put up a comfortable win as 9.5 point favourites against the Dragons. Recent history suggests that is unlikely, so I’m reduced to hoping my blood pressure rises due to the tension of another close game, and not in rage at another underperformance by the Blue & Gold against the Red V.
We’re back at home and under lights for the first time this year, playing on a sodden CommBank Stadium after a series of storms lasting as long as the Eels premiership drought. I may not remember the feeling of warm sun on my face, but the heroics of Ray Stone, Dylan Brown, Clint Gutherson and Mitch Moses are fresh in my mind as we dig into the preview for what I’ve circled on the calendar as a “danger game” against the St. George-Illawarra Dragons.
Date: Sunday April 3, 2022
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 6:15PM AEST (don’t forget daylight savings ends Sunday morning)
Referee: Chris Butler
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 39, Eels 20, Dragons 17, Drawn 2
Odds: Eels $1.30 Dragons $3.50
Lines: Eels -9.5, over/under 39.5
Fact: The Dragons have beat the Eels in their last two clashes, after losing 9 of the prior 10 matches
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
There was tremendous value in selecting the Eels to win last week, so I hope people got on.
This week the Eels are at short odds, so we have to look at the exotics for value.
I’ve decided to hit the first half line/over under market, and I’m taking the Eels to cover the Dragons 5.5 start, with total first half points over 18.5.
You’ll get nice odds of $3.10 with that.
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. Ryan Matterson 16. Bryce Cartwright 17. Oregon Kaufusi.
18. Mitch Rein 19. Wiremu Greig 20. Hayze Perham 21. Ky Rodwell 22. Solomone Naiduki 23. Sam Loizou 24. Elie El-Zakhem.
Brad Arthur is treating poor old Wiremu Greig like he knows Greig is the one who keeps forgetting to flush in the clubhouse, getting him onto the first grade bench only to deny him a chance to play, then shifting him to the reserves this week for Ryan Matterson. In seriousness, it was bad strategically to not make full use of the bench in a physical contest, and it can’t be good for the morale of a young forward that many expect big things from at the club.
The argument about “game situation” isn’t good enough, if you are worried about throwing a young player into the 70th minute of a tight contest it is your mistake for not throwing him in there in the 30th or the 50th minute. Plenty of Eels forwards looked like they could use a break (how Shaun Lane blocked that field goal when he lumbered from marker like the walking dead I will never know) and getting a middle interchange rotation right should be a simple job.
The only changes are to the bench, with Matterson returning from injury right on schedule and Bryce Cartwright taking the utility role from Ray Stone, who now goes down in Eels lore as the man who tore his ACL scoring a matchwinner against Melbourne. There is now no noted cover for Reed Mahoney should there be an injury or HIA, and I’m curious to know what Arthur would do, but absolutely do not want to actually see it.
St George-Illawarra Dragons
1. Tyrell Sloan 2. Mathew Feagai 3. Moses Suli 4. Zac Lomax 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Talatau Amone 7. Ben Hunt 8. Francis Molo 9. Moses Mbye 10. Blake Lawrie 11. Jack Bird 12. Jack Gosiewski 13. Tariq Sims. 14. Jack de Belin 15. Josh Kerr 16. Jackson Ford 17. Aaron Woods.
18. Tautau Moga 19. Poasa Faamausili 20. Daniel Alvaro 21. Andrew McCullough 22. Jaiyden Hunt 23. Jonathon Reuben 24. George Burgess.
Anthony Griffin continues to shuffle deck chairs in his forward pack, giving maligned new recruit Jack Gosiewski a start on the edge while Tariq Sims remains at lock and Jack de Belin on the bench. It isn’t a move that has me quaking in my boots. This was forced by the suspension of Jaydn Su’A, while Aaron Woods returns from injury via the bench.
The other forced change is Mathew Feagai coming onto the wing in place of the injured Cody Ramsey. Ramsey may not have held his spot regardless, but Feagai is a long regarded youngster who had a steady debut last season in his eight games. Andrew McCullough has snuck onto the extended bench and after not mentioning Brandon Smith at all last week, figuring his place in the reserves was a bit of a ruse, I should note he has the potential to return from injury and push Moses Mbye back to the bench. Stuffed if I know which forward makes way for Mbye if that happens. I’d rather it didn’t and the Dragons play a four forward bench, leaving them vulnerable to backline HIA or injury.
After a first up win against the Warriors and a noble loss to a depleted Panthers in round two, it all fell apart for the Dragons last week as they were thoroughly handled by the Sharks. Inopportune sin binnings and an ineffective attack were primarily to blame for the losses, though the Dragons’ pack hasn’t dug in like they have in prior years, sitting middle of the field in running metres, offloads and tackle breaks.
It isn’t the start we are used to from the Dragons, the traditional March premiers. That isn’t unexpected, with two rookies in the spine and disruption at hooker, and effortball hasn’t been enough to get them over Penrith or Cronulla. Unfortunately, Parramatta has been particularly vulnerable to the high effort spoiling tactics of St George-Illawarra, so they can’t be taken lightly even without a lot of form on the board.
Last year was the blueprint the Dragons will want to use going forward, where they happily gave away six agains and pushed the boundaries laying in the ruck to slow down the Eels red zone attack, which was duly forced sideways and easily accounted for. The lack of adjustment was on us, Mitchell Moses in particular should have switched things up and realised what they were doing was not working, but after a hot start to the year the Eels were frustrated by being dragged into swamp footy. It is a worrying trend for the Eels, unable to rise above teams that drag them into a trench war and play spoiler, and one I hope is reversed this weekend.
Mikaele Ravalawa has traditionally been the best weapon the Dragons have; he will be attacking the left edge defence of Parramatta where Tom Opacic and Waqa Blake are defending. Blake would rush in on a stiff breeze out wide and Ravalawa feasts on defenders trying to knock him over the sideline from close range, so expect the Dragons to test that side out at the first opportunity. On the fragile Eels right are Mat Feagai and Zac Lomax. Lomax can beat a two-on-two with his footwork and flick pass, so Sterlo knows what he will do to Bailey Simonsson. The key, as always, will be limiting those opportunities by winning the field position battle and avoiding costly mistakes.
While two weeks ago it was penalties that crushed the Eels, last weekend it was costly mistakes. Reed Mahoney turned it over in good ball a couple of times, either with basic errors or poor passing decisions. Waqa Blake was even worse, taking bombs like he had beer bottles taped to his hands at a bucks party. Dropping high kicks like that is unforgivable, at best you turn the ball over in great field position, at worst you create scrappy live ball situations where tries can be scored. He needs to be better, because Ben Hunt will be coming for him this weekend. If he was dropping them in a contest I could understand, but these were just stone cold stuff ups.
If the Eels can execute their standard attack, I think it should be enough to account for the Dragons. Dylan Brown is causing fits around the ruck and showed an evolution in just a single week with how he attacked the Storm versus his running against the Sharks. It feels like he’s found his confidence and is starting to think about the play ahead after he beats the man, rather than beating somebody then reacting, like a dog who finally catches the postie and has no idea what to do.
That threat should open up some space out wide for the more traditional Eels structures, with Shaun Lane playing a starring role this year. He’s still got a mistake in him but he will always draw the attention of defenders and is an excellent offloader in one-on-one tackles. His selection could use some work, but getting the ball free is never a problem. It’d be nice to see some more right edge attack too, Will Penisini hasn’t been seeing much ball and Isaiah Papali’i could be less battering ram and more instrument of targeted destruction.
It all comes down to the forwards and how they handle the Dragons pack. They had better expect a war, and be prepared to dig deep and out muscle a high effort group. After failing to match the Sharks and Storm in physicality at points, if the Parramatta pack can’t get on top of the Dragons then there has to be some questions asked about their preparation for 2022.
It’d be nice to not be worried about this game, to be confident the Eels could handle a team most would regard as inferior. Unfortunately Parramatta fans can not have that confidence, as despite improving in recent years they are still more than capable of playing down to their opposition on any given weekend. We’ll probably know after 20 minutes where this one is going, and hopefully I’ll like the direction and can relax just a touch.
2022 is presenting a golden opportunity to the Eels. The Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles all finished above them last year, and all are struggling to match their 2021 success. Parramatta seems to have Melbourne’s number, having won three on the trot, and while grabbing that elusive victory would be nice, performances against Penrith last year would give the team and fans confidence that they can beat them too.
The key is going to be winning these games that we should. A top four spot is within reach, despite Parramatta having one of the toughest schedules in the NRL this year. Losses in games like this are unacceptable. I’m begging the Eels to show that this year will be different, and really put the Dragons to the sword on Sunday night. I’m prepared for anything, but I’m banking on a big effort from the boys here.
I’m picking Dylan Brown to be the difference. He has lifted to another level and offers a new point of attack for an Eels team that has been fairly predictable for a while now. Mitchell Moses seems comfortable letting Dyl run the show more often, and he is causing havoc down the left edge in combination with Shaun Lane. A few wrinkles on that attack should start to creep in, perhaps as soon as this week, and once Clint Gutherson adjusts to the new and improved Dylan Brown I’d expect to see him cutting through the line off Brown half breaks fairly regularly.
That’s the dream, anyway. I’ll take a win however it comes, but this needs to be a big game for Parramatta. Anything but their best will be a huge disappointment.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 30 d St. George-Illawarra 16
Man of the Match: Dylan Brown