It’s revenge time!
Nothing would help you forget a low week for the Parramatta club and its supporters like knocking off the defending premiers. Especially when said defending premiers were lucky to survive their clash with the Eels in the 2021 finals. Delivering the Panthers their first loss of the 2022 season in front of their home fans won’t change that result, but it would be a rather nice start to the weekend and a great sign for an Eels campaign that hasn’t exactly torn off the starting line. Brad Arthur is playing the long game this year, and it would be nice to see that start to pay off.
Parramatta has matched up pretty well with the Panthers over the last two seasons, though only once has that resulted in a win for the good guys in Blue and Gold. Every match has been a tough, grinding, physical contest, old school football if you will, meaning every little moment is magnified in importance. It will be a tough old night at the foot of the mountains, but there is no better measure of how you are truly going than a game against the best. I can’t wait.
Date: Friday 6 May, 2022
Venue: Penrith Stadium, Penrith
Kick-off: 7:55 PM AEST
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 103, Eels 58, Panthers 44, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $4.30, Panthers $1.22
Lines: Eels +12.5, total points 39.5
Fact: Penrith went over ten years without a victory over the Eels between August 1974 and May 1984. In that 1984 game the Eels were missing five players to State of Origin duty.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Given the Eels horror performance last week, it’s no surprise that the punting tip was way off the mark. Let’s suggest it was in the wrong universe.
Is it possible to have any confidence about the punt this week?
The Eels are at long odds against the undefeated Panthers. Last time our team started as rank outsiders was round 3 against the Storm. We all know how that unfolded.
Hence, with Parra at $4:30 in the head to head market, the value is impossible to ignore.
No exotics. Just take Parra to win.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Hayze Perham 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. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Bryce Cartwright.
18. Wiremu Greig 19. Jake Arthur 20. Mitch Rein 21. Ky Rodwell 22. Samuel Loizou 23. Elie El-Zakhem 24. Sean Russell.
Hallelujah! Tom Opacic returns from injury and saves us another week of interminable discourse on Dylan Brown playing centre, while Sean Russell pops up in the reserves to give hope of an imminent return. Russell is also named in NSW Cup so it is likely he is eased back through the lower grade for a week or two, meaning at least one more week of Hayze Perham on the flank. He’ll undoubtedly be a target and the Eels will need to limit the good ball chances Penrith have to minimise his exposure.
No changes beyond that, with Jake Arthur moving to the reserves and Bryce Cartwright retaining the bench utility role. Marata Niukore remains an “indefinite” on the injury report, and he is likely the injured player the Eels are missing the most. While this is hardly the full strength Parramatta lineup, it will be the first time the first-choice spine has lined up against Penrith since round 5, 2020, otherwise known as the only game Penrith lost that year except for the grand final.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Taylan May 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Matthew Eisenhuth 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Soni Luke 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon.
18. Robert Jennings 19. Chris Smith 20. J’maine Hopgood 21. Sean O’Sullivan 22. Moses Leota 23. Mitch Kenny 24. Brian To’o.
All the fun is hidden away in the Panthers reserves, and I’ve got it odds-on that Brian To’o and Moses Leota line up in the starting side come Friday night. To’o likely comes in at the expense of Charlie Staines, but the interesting question is whether Ivan Cleary breaks up the electric combination of May and Tago or not. To’o hasn’t done anything to deserve shifting from his favoured left wing, but his strengths aren’t really impacted by what side of the field he plays on. To’o and Leota returning would officially make Penrith full strength for this clash, which must be a nice feeling.
The Panthers bench has seen a few interesting changes, with Soni Luke pushing Mitch Kenny out of the reserve hooker spot, while former Eel Jaemon Salmon has forced his way into a utility role as an edge forward that can cover the outside backs and half. Parramatta hasn’t exactly excelled at first changes this year, so I don’t think facing a relatively light middle bench presents an opportunity for the Eels. It does mean Viliame Kikau is being asked to play 80 minutes most weeks, and his defensive commitment under fatigue is definitely an opportunity.
So, how do you beat Penrith?
Much like last week, the Eels are facing an opponent that shares their core gameplan. Penrith dominate possession through high completion percentages, few errors and good discipline, sitting just ahead of Parramatta in each category, with both teams at the top of the competition as a whole. Where the Panthers lap the Eels is defensive structure, conceding nearly half the points per game that Parramatta do. Last week’s game did not help Parramatta’s position in the defensive rankings, particularly the late barrage of tries, but time will tell whether it is simply the lack of combinations on the edge due to injuries or a more chronic structural or technique issue. The right edge has leaked some tries, but I’m not seeing the total structural deficiencies that defined the Waqa/Fergo era. Instead there are a lot of individual issues that can hopefully be addressed.
Penrith has massively favoured their left edge in attack this season, with Izack Tago and Taylan May running riot against a parade of overmatched defenders. That spells bad news for an Eels team that has had those aforementioned long standing right edge issues, though the combination of Will Penisini and Bailey Simonsson has been able to spend a significant amount of time together and has improved in decision making. This is particularly true of Simonsson, who makes good choices to pressure the link man with well timed rushes. Penrith loves an early spread to this edge and the Parramatta defence likes to compress in the mid-field, which could create one-on-one chances for Tago. Penisini is an excellent tackler but will need to be at his best in this one to cover those shifts.
Tago can also be a target for the Eels. He leads Penrith comfortably in errors made and line break causes, and is second in penalties conceded. Putting defensive pressure on him could force mistakes while throwing shape at him could yield good results with the ball. The edges present a good opportunity for Parramatta, with Viliame Kikau and Liam Martin both known for low tackle efficiency, but the speed of the Panthers scramble defence means you need to take advantage immediately with short passing and selective offloads. Shaun Lane could be a big difference maker on the edge in this one, his skillset is suited to exploiting those defensive weaknesses, but his finishing needs to improve.
Teams have certainly decided that kicking to Dylan Edwards is the tactic of choice, even with Brian To’o out of the side. Edwards laps the field in kick return metres with 694, Clint Gutherson is second with only 433 metres. It is also an indicator that Penrith are seeing a lot of clearing kicks down field against them rather than delicately placed shots into the corners, forced by their dominance of field position. Edwards is constantly underrated as a ballplayer in good ball, and has had a booming start to the season. Gutherson will need to drift and watch for when Edwards joins the attacking line.
Another underrated ballplayer for the Panthers is Isaah Yeo. The good ball attack runs through Yeo and his line engagements, only Nathan Cleary passes more in general play than Yeo for Penrith. He demands respect as a ball carrier and compresses defences with his late passing, the type of play that creates space on the edge, something Parramatta is very generous in leaving. There isn’t a great counter for it beyond commitment and lateral line speed. The poor one-on-one tackling of the Eels to start this year will ensure Yeo has a go himself if the defence doesn’t adequately respect his running. First contact needs to be better across the board, but especially in this spot.
Parramatta has traditionally done an excellent job at shutting down one of Penrith’s favourite weapons this year, Viliame Kikau. Dylan Brown can stop him one-on-one, even close to the line, but Kikau has been offloading at will this season and that is an area the Eels have struggled to contain. He has an error in him if forced, so defensive pressure and strong contact are crucial to shutting him down. I expect us to do another excellent job on the future Bulldog but it may only take one lapse for a game breaking offload to slip away. Parramatta needs to be perfect.
I’m obliged to mention Nathan Cleary, whose control of a game is something we really could have used from Mitchell Moses last weekend. His job is made fairly easy right now thanks to the Panthers dominance in the ruck, and his kicking game is the biggest threat to the current Eels lineup. He has found success in the past with kicks to the posts aimed at back rowers, something Parramatta has tried to emulate this year, but short attacking grubbers are where I feel the Eels are weakest. Clint Gutherson has great positioning, but that is usually driven by high effort play. He tries to be everywhere and a quick grubber behind the line might catch him out. It also opens up the risk of repeat sets, Shaun Lane in particular loves to throw a leg out at grubbers, a sure fire way to gift the opposition another six tackles. Whether it is better to let the ball through, that will depend on Gutherson.
The crucial period for this match will be the 20 minutes each side of halftime. Ryan Matterson has made it his mission to hold the Eels together in his stints from the bench around this period, but the momentum noticeably shifts almost every week when the Eels bench comes on for Paulo and RCG. This is also the period where Penrith has broken away in most matches, so Parramatta needs to either change up their rotations or show better resolve when their starting props take a rest.
Defensive commitment has to improve. First contact must be better, offloads need to be shut down and the ruck must at least be a contest. Penrith are the best in the league at exploiting the current ruck interpretation; dragging defenders to the ground just as the referee calls held, entangling limbs to slow the ball carrier and mastering the catch, hold then drive style of tackling. Parramatta gives away far too many quick play-the-balls, as evidenced last week when good defensive sets were ruined by a good run on the fourth then Townsend kicking with all the time in the world on the last. It isn’t something Parramatta will fix in a week, but if ever there was a week to put a little extra into each tackle, this is it. There’s a long turnaround to Magic Round next week, so leave it all on the field boys.
The few opportunities that come the Eels way must be taken. Parramatta concedes the most line breaks in the NRL, Penrith the fewest. Denying the Panthers good ball will be crucial, as will icing opportunities when they come at the other end of the field. Last week wasn’t a great builder of hope in that regard, but the return of Brown to the halves will allow all the successful structures Parramatta showed in the early rounds to shine once again. Papali’i, Lane and Matterson will be crucial in exploiting the edges, where Kikau and Martin can miss a tackle. Clint Gutherson needs a big game, coming into the line and making the right choices with pass selection. Api Koroisau has been a noted Eel-killer in recent years, and he will love any quick play-the-ball for a chance to scoot.
I think the Eels make a good show of this one, but I’m not tipping them. Some of that is because I need to tip against them at least a couple of times a year to maintain credibility, but it is also an adequate reflection of where the two teams sit right now. Penrith are healthy, confident and at the top of their game. Parramatta are banged up, patchy and coming off a game where they were physically dominated. I’m a bit sick of merely competing with the Panthers. I want victories, but this early in the year and with this many injuries, keeping it close and giving them something to think about might be the best we can hope for.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Penrith 28 d Parramatta 18
Man of the Match: Nathan Cleary