Finals footy has come a week early for the Eels as we get a Thursday night CommBank blockbuster against our modern rivals, the Melbourne Storm. If there has been a bigger home game than this in recent years, I got too drunk at the game to remember it clearly. These games are why you sit through cold Saturday nights against the Knights and leave work early to make a 6PM Friday against the Warriors in the pouring rain. This is what makes being a footy fan worthwhile.
The grubbishness of the Melbourne Storm that Eels fans have been seeing for years has come to the rugby league world at large after last weekend, perfect timing for the cleanskin Eels who will hopefully benefit from a timely crackdown. Not that I feel we’ll need a crackdown, Melbourne have been Parramatta’s bunnies in recent years, and tonight we are gearing up to bowl them round their legs like the late, great Warney.
Friday is Jersey Day, and hopefully we’ll all be able to wear our jersey with pride after this one. I’m as excited as Big Kev in a dirty shower for this one, so let’s dig in!
Date: Thursday September 1, 2022
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 7:50 PM AEST
Referee: Ashley Klein
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 41, Eels 17, Storm 24
Odds: Eels $1.74 Storm $2.10
Lines: Eels -1.5, total points 43.5
Fact: Since Jahrome Hughes became a regular starter in the Melbourne side, they are 11-6 when he has been missing (64.7% win rate) versus a 79.6% win rate when he is in the team.
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Last week I tipped Shaun Lane to grab a try in an Eels victory. It was returning $7.50, but unfortunately Lane did everything but score a try in his man of the match performance.
This week I’m looking for the Eels to repeat some of their best wins, and in doing so the launch pad will be a big first half.
Take Parra at -0.5, with over 20.5 points scored in the First Half Line/Over Under market. You’ll get odds of $3.20.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Tom Opacic 5. Waqa Blake 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Ryan Matterson. 14. Makahesi Makatoa 15. Jake Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore.
18. Ofahiki Ogden 19. Bailey Simonsson.
No changes for Parramatta, unlike the week before Brad Arthur is sticking with the team that put 50 on Brisbane for this important clash. This appears to be his preferred configuration of the side and while I’d like to have Bryce Cartwright on the bench in that utility role, hooker and halfback are the two toughest positions on the field to cover so I can appreciate what the Eels coach is looking to do here.
With no changes there is little to talk about, though I expect the late swap of Niukore for Matterson to continue. It makes too much sense; Simba grows another leg as a starter/enforcer, and he would no doubt relish the chance to throw a bit of fire the way of Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Matterson off the bench provides impact to an Eels pack that has lacked it plenty of times at first changes. As long as Brad can time Makahesi Makatoa to get on the field for round two with King Grub Nelson I’ll be happy.
Nick Meaney 2. David Nofoaluma 3. Marion Seve 4. Justin Olam 5. Xavier Coates 6. Cameron Munster 19. Cooper Johns 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Harry Grant 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenny Bromwich 13. Josh King. 14. Brandon Smith 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Trent Loiero 17. Chris Lewis.
18. Young Tonumaipea 21. Jordan Grant
Jahrome Hughes is a massive late out for the Storm, the halfback has a calf injury and while this week is important, next week is even bigger so Craig Bellamy is resting him. All of the other Storm injuries are long term, with Ryan Papenhuyzen, Christian Welch and Reimis Smith all missing for the year.
This is testing the traditionally ridiculous Melbourne depth, as Trent Loiero and Chris Lewis loom on the edge of that bench as potential targets for the Eels pack. Marion Seve and late season loaner David Nofoaluma have done a job filling in during an injury crisis, but neither are defensive powerhouses, nor is Xavier Coates who is also averaging a try concede a game. It’s still a team stacked with talent, but the fringes just aren’t as strong as they were in years gone by.
It’s a bit strange to have the wood on Melbourne, but the fact is we’ve won four of our last five against the Storm including a rare victory down in Melbourne. The hallmark of each victory has been standing up in the middle and defending strongly, a blueprint the Roosters followed exactly to knock off the Storm last weekend and give us this top four opportunity.
When Melbourne needs to shift up a gear to match their opponent, they inevitably find thug gear instead of fifth gear. Parramatta has learned this all too well in recent years, from Felise Kaufusi elbow dropping Ryan Matterson out of the game for a month to Asofa-Solomona getting away with a swinging arm on Makahesi Makatoa earlier this year. To their credit, the Eels pack has responded by lifting in intensity and dominating the Storm pack cleanly, something that only infuriates these front running bullies more. It has been beautiful to watch, and with an intense focus on the Storm and their grubby ways this week, hopefully it results in a complete meltdown as the referees crack down on thuggery.
Another key to recent wins over Melbourne has been an elite scramble defence. Clint Gutherson has had some of his best defensive performances against the purple people eaters and intense chase from the inside has shut down deficiencies on the edge that are often exploited by other clubs. Maybe Parramatta just wants it more against Melbourne, but if this high effort, desperation football is what we can expect from the Eels through the finals then maybe the defensive lapses throughout the year won’t matter so much.
Without Hughes and Papenhuyzen and following the departure of Addo-Carr last year, the X-factor that can often be Parramatta’s undoing has been dramatically reduced. Harry Grant remains dangerous around the ruck, especially against an Eels defence that errs on the side of caution in clearing the tackle quickly, but he may lack for breakaway weapons now without the speedy Papenhuyzen and always perfectly positioned Hughes.
Cam Munster is, of course, the other major threat. After a Tom Trbojevic moment in the off season he is living clean and his footy is showing the benefits. If the Eels didn’t drive me to drink every second weekend I’d be living clean too seeing how it has helped these guys. Munster can single handedly turn a match, but he can also feel the burden of taking the side on his back. His recent shifts to fullback probably end this week without Hughes, he’ll be needed to accompany the pedestrian Cooper Johns, who has rarely looked a first grader in his chances. The Melbourne attack will run through him and Grant, limiting the number of targets the Eels need to aim up on.
As for Parramatta’s strategy, I don’t see Brad Arthur fixing what isn’t broken. Middle dominance, possession and field position control, and using our many weapons in the red zone once that pressure builds. Taking chances is going to be crucial, and not something Parramatta has always excelled at. The good news is that any moments of panic in recent weeks have come from trying to extend the lead from 20 to 30, which I don’t feel will be representative of how Parramatta reacts to chances in a close contest.
While the competition hasn’t been elite, there are signs of the Eels warming up at the pointy end of the season. Clint Gutherson has found form while Dylan Brown and Shaun Lane are in career best touch and Mitchell Moses has been strong and composed. Looking at the side from last year to this year, the overall improvement is significant in individual performances, even if the defensive efforts have regressed. It should mean the Eels’ best in 2022 is even better than in 2021, and we weren’t too far off last year.
A top four berth is massive. I’m not a great believer that stats like “teams outside the top four don’t win the comp” are universal, but a potential week off, a guaranteed second chance and a home final in the crucial second or third week all contribute to a smoother finals campaign. This will be the most even NRL finals series in years, with questions over two of the top four finishers in Cronulla and North Queensland, while three hot, experienced teams will be coming from the elimination side of the finals draw. You’ll need any advantage you can get, and a win against Melbourne provides a massive one.
I’m firm in my belief that no team can beat the Eels at their best, and at this point if I am wrong it is unfortunately going to mean the end of our season. It hasn’t always been fun in season 2022, but ultimately Parramatta has a top four spot within their grasp and are playing good footy coming into the finals. If you can’t get excited about the season at this point, why follow the game at all?
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 24 d Melbourne 16
Man of the Match: Mitchell Moses