Smell that in the air? It’s a delightful combination of finals football, controversy and fear, as Penrith’s nightmare comes to life and they must face the team that dealt out two of the three legitimate losses they have suffered this year: the Eels. While a second chance for both sides is guaranteed, you know they will be leaving everything they have on the park to best a bitter rival and get a crucial week off to refresh. It will be a cracking game.
This season definitely feels different to the last few, and not just because we come into the finals on the back of some form and have reversed the old “flat track bullies” line that was never that true to begin with. It might be the last chance to taste success in some time for Reed Mahoney, Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore. Dylan Brown, Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson have taken big leaps while Clint Gutherson, Junior Paulo and Mitchell Moses are finding their best form at the right end of the year. Underneath the pungent odour of Panther fear, I am definitely detecting the faintest sniff of hope from Eels fans.
Stadium arguments, suspended sentences, stupendous betting plunges, none of it matters come 8PM Friday night when the Eels attempt to make it three from three against the Panthers in 2022 (sorry Sixties, I just can’t count a trial win in the total). The 2022 finals start with a blockbuster battle of the west. Let’s go!
Date: Friday September 9, 2022
Venue: Penrith Park, Penrith
Kick-off: 7:50 PM AEST
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 105, Eels 60, Panthers 44, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $2.90 Panthers $1.42
Lines: Eels +6.5, total points 38.5
Fact: The Eels are 2-1 in finals matches against Penrith, and that should be 3-0
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Last week I stated that the Eels would set up their victory on the foundation of a powerful first half. I therefore looked to the first half line/over under market for the investment tip.
Unfortunately, the Eels left at least two tries out on the field during the opening forty minutes, so their dominance wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard.
This week the value is in the win itself. Parra are the outsiders, paying $2.90 in the head to head market. Let’s not complicate the bet type. Take Parra to win.
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. Nathan Brown 19. Bailey Simonsson 20. Bryce Cartwright 21. Ofahiki Ogden 22. Ky Rodwell.
You won’t be winning any prizes for predicting Ryan Matterson and Marata Niukore will make their late swap for the fourth week running, but why mess with what ain’t broken? Marata is playing his best footy of the year in a starting role, and Matto keeps the fire burning before and during the first interchange of props.
Minutes-wise I’d expect something similar to last weekend, as Brad Arthur leans on his most important forwards in the biggest games of the year. It makes sense, RCG and Junior Paulo are more than capable of big stints at high levels of performance and the finals is where they don’t need a whole lot left in the tank to dig deep. One area we might see a change is the minutes for Isaiah Papali’i, who was clearly busted at the end of last week and might be looking at a 60-odd minute run as his best usage. In that case, perhaps Marata returns to the field on the edge.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Taylan May 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon.
18. Charlie Staines 19. Matthew Eisenhuth 20. J’maine Hopgood 21. Sean O’Sullivan 22. Chris Smith.
Full strength as usual for the Panthers, who have made a habit of staying healthy for the best part of three seasons. Nathan Cleary returns from his suspension for dumping Dylan Brown on his head, while Taylan May gets the first “the finals are too important” suspended suspension because Peter V’landy’s is to administration what Paul Carige is to high pressure moments. How’s that TV deal looking mate? What about those new suburban grounds?
For a team that really monsters the middle of the field I’m always fascinated by the small Penrith bench, with Jaeman Salmon used in the similar way to the Eels’ bench utility i.e. not much at all when everybody stays healthy. Mitch Kenny often shares the field with Api Koroisau to up the playmaking potential of the side, while Leniu is the type of impact front rower the Eels bench could do with, a beast in 20 minute bursts. It’s an advantage you get when your lock can play a full 80, and seeing the Panthers attack runs through Isaah Yeo it is understandable they keep him out there all match.
Parramatta has played Penrith hard in recent years, with a defensive structure that Nathan Cleary and co. have found hard to break down and ad-lib footy driven by offloads that negate the Panthers grinding, ruck slowing tactics. The first Eels victory this year came on the back of discipline, with a solid helping of offloading and some match-saving Mitchell Moses kicking. The second win was secured the moment Nathan Cleary was marched, but before that point the Eels had taken ascendancy in the ruck and were parked in the Penrith half, again with the help of some Mitchell Moses magic off the boot.
As a defensive unit Penrith is basically immune to traditional structure and set plays. They’ll eat up basic shifts all day and do a good job numbering up when teams attempt to stack their way to an advantage. You won’t have hands fast enough to get around the edge without some solid leadup work or broken play. Few teams have found regular success attacking the Panthers, but the Eels have some tricks that have worked well in recent times.
Expect Dylan Brown to feature heavily in the attacking kicking game, putting those cross field bombs up that land in the shadows of the post. Isaiah Papali’i scored on one in round 20 when Penrith was too busy running their blocking plays to contest the ball properly, and a mid-field bomb left Dylan Edwards in no-mans-land in round 9 that allowed Brown to score himself. Shaun Lane and Papali’i will prove tempting targets, while Waqa Blake has been adept at contesting those kicks too.
Before they reach the kick, expect the Eels to exploit some familiar weapons. Running shape to get Shaun Lane one-on-one and find his arms free, Junior Paulo turning in the tackle and distributing, Dylan Brown running the ball. Ryan Matterson scored a pearler of a try in round 9, and we haven’t seen much of that edge line running since then as he moved to the middle and became more offload focused. Using Matto in different ways would add a nice wrinkle to the team.
One key to all of these plays is that knowing they are coming is little help in stopping them. Knowing Maika Sivo will get the ball close to the line doesn’t make him any easier to tackle. Lane, Paulo, Matterson and Papali’i will be offloading regardless of the defensive attention they get, and just last week we watched Dylan Brown step his way through three representative players like they were cones in a training drill.
Still, Penrith will give few chances and Parramatta must be composed enough to take them. The Eels typical play in 2022 is through volume, dominate field position and possession, kick your way out of bad spots and by weight of good ball the points will come. That hasn’t always worked against the Panthers, who match up well through the middle and have their own elite kicking game to lean back on.
This will require defensive excellence from the Eels, which is where fans will be concerned and experts will be pointing when tipping Penrith to win. Parramatta has not been a great defensive side in 2022, and it took a few frugal weeks against broken teams at the end of the year to even hit “slightly above average” defensive numbers. Yet there are some signs of hope for Parramatta without the ball.
The first is their general record against Penrith and Melbourne, who have found it difficult to exploit the right side weakness that South Sydney so successfully target. Playing through the middle with Yeo and the need for Luai to run before he passes buys the Eels defenders time to shift, and that combined with the high effort they find in these games brings the edge up to a solid unit. We’ve also got some strong tacklers that help against the big weapons out wide, particularly Viliame Kikau. Kikau on Moses is the matchup to worry about, but I would expect the right edge to swarm in support.
Another positive sign is more one of hope. The Eels defensive woes in the late stages have only manifested in victories, while the Tigers, Warriors and Storm all came home with a wet sail in the final ten minutes, in all three contests the game was locked up well before then. Yes there have been some worrying defensive efforts, but in close contests the Eels have generally stood firm when the game is competitive. Even against Manly when the right edge was as shaky as a new SFS seat, the team made good adjustments at halftime and locked it down. It isn’t a charming trait that a team doesn’t always play at their best, but the Eels’ best has been better than their opponents every time we’ve seen it this year, on both sides of the ball.
One final risk is the bloody scrum play. Parramatta are just terrible at defending scrums, maybe we should just collapse every scrum inside the 30 just to be safe. Penrith are, of course, one of the great scrum set play teams. Cleary and Luai love to shift sides as the lock holds the ball in, which has usually confused our edge into rushing in whether we have the numbers to cover or not. Let’s hope the stick-um is extra sticky this week and our discipline in our own half is strong.
Mentally, the team has to be up for this one. I’ve got through the weeks we didn’t bring it by living on the hope that “they’ll care enough in the finals”, now we’re here I have to stick by that. In the end these players might not feel great about rocking up to Darwin in 35 degrees or Leichhardt Oval on a soggy Saturday night, but they all want to win premierships and now one is on the line.
Sure you could support a Penrith team that always seems to play at 110%, a Melbourne side that runs around like clockwork or the Roosters and their endless pits of class, but we’ve got the inconsistent Eels and if you don’t love them despite those flaws then you probably should have packed it in a long time ago for your own wellbeing. At least we don’t have to cheer “great kids” that belt members of the public who film them without consent, or justify continued grubbiness because the opposition dare to give them a close contest, or pretend that our billionaire backer is playing on a level field with the rest of the comp.
I’ve kept a positive outlook here because why wouldn’t I? It’s finals footy, the Eels are flying and we’re heading to Penrith with revenge on our minds. The Panthers are an incredibly dangerous team; Api Koroisau has killed us repeatedly over the years, Luai is an effortballer that requires strong marking from first minute to last, and every now and then Nathan Cleary plays well in a big game. It won’t be easy, but I’m confident we can do it.
It’s all about what feels different. The preparation is better, but the quality across the roster is the best we’ve seen in the last five years. Dylan Brown has evolved into a top attacking weapon, just about every forward can claim to be in career best form, especially Lane and Papali’i. We come into this game with a recognised hooker, unlike last year. I’m feeling it.
Nobody has beaten the Eels at their best in 2022. Nobody. We’ll see the best of them again on Friday night, and that statement will remain fact.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 20 d Penrith 18
Man of the Match: Dylan Brown