It has been a while since the Eels have made week three of the NRL finals, and I’m a bit lost for what to do. I’ve watched replays of the Storm and Panthers wins, as well as the Raiders game once or twice. I’ve mostly avoided the inane commentary from talking heads, though too many fans are still watching these shows apparently just to throw down some dunks on social media or feed their rage for another day. Kent and Rothfield won’t disappear if you keep reading and watching, the ratings can’t tell hate watching from genuine interest.
I can’t say I’m nervous, though ask me again at 7:30 tonight. I was a young man ready to take a week off work to celebrate a premiership back in 2009, now I’m a family man who has learned that the Eels are just one part of life, and your family shouldn’t suffer just because some men wearing colours you like didn’t play well enough in a football game. In saying that, if we lose tonight I’ll be spending Saturday moping in the garage and taking the dog for a long, long walk. If we win this week and next, that week off work might still be on the cards.
All you can do is try and enjoy it. We’re all well too aware that chances like these don’t come around very often. Try and spend these hours before the game soaking it all in. We’re one week away from a grand final, potentially one day away from the biggest hype week in Parramatta’s history. Don’t let the bastards (NRL media, opposition fans, contrarian mates cheering the Cowboys for the first time in their lives) drag you down.
Date: Friday September 23, 2022
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Kick-off: 7:50 PM AEST
Referee: Grant Atkins
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Head-to-Head: Played 42, Eels 20, Cowboys 21, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $2.20, Cowboys 1.68
Lines: Eels +3.5, total points 42.5
Fact: The last time the Eels played a grand final qualifier, Jake Arthur was 6 years old
We are now at the stage where my superstitions are kicking in.
I didn’t give a punting tip last week. I shan’t be giving one this week.
Let’s just get the win!
Go you Eels
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 19. Bailey Simonsson 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. Bryce Cartwright 15. Jake Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore.
14. Makahesi Makatoa 18. Nathan Brown.
Unfortunately Tom Opacic hasn’t been able to overcome a hamstring strain and won’t take his place in the side, forcing a reshuffle of the backline. Bailey Simonsson has been nominated as the man coming in, though whether he plays centre as a straight replacement or he makes a second swap with Waqa Blake remains to be seen. Simonsson spent the late weeks of the season in NSW Cup playing centre and has some experience there, though he wasn’t a standout performer. Given the Eels edge defence has finally got it together this year I’d be going for the least disruptive option which is a direct swap.
That move allows the effective Eels lock rotation to continue uninterrupted. While Marata Niukore has made a fine centre replacement in a pinch, his value in holding the middle together early and allowing Ryan Matterson to come in at first changes is too great to force a full swap. Instead the swap is a somewhat surprising one, where the lightly run Makahesi Makatoa has been dropped for the impact play of Bryce Cartwright. Cartwright had a shocker against the Cowboys in Darwin this year, but at his best offers more in a 10-15 minute stint than what Makatoa can do. It’s a bit of a surprise, but the way Makatoa was being used means it won’t have too much impact on the side.
North Queensland Cowboys
1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Valentine Holmes 4. Peta Hiku 5. Murray Taulagi 6. Tom Dearden 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Reuben Cotter 11. Tom Gilbert 12. Jeremiah Nanai 13. Jason Taumalolo. 14 Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 15. Luciano Leilua 16. Coen Hess 17. Griffin Neame.
18. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 20. Jake Granville.
The only injuries in the Cowboys squad are long-term; this is their full strength side from the second half of the year. That includes the mid-season acquisition of Luciano Leilua, the former Tiger and notorious Eel killer who will be coming off the bench. Speedster Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow takes the utility spot on the bench, though mid-game injuries and HIAs make it hard to determine how Todd Payten would use him in a normal scenario. Perhaps a direct replacement for Peta Hiku.
Last time around the Cowboys fed Kyle Feldt to the tune of three tries, or more accurately fed the mismatch between Feldt and makeshift winger Hayze Perham. They’ll need a new strategy this time around with Feldt lined up opposite Maika Sivo who has looked great under the contested high ball this year. Valentine Holmes is also in rare touch, the highest paid centre in rugby league will be matched against the defensive prowess of Will Penisini, a tantalising matchup.
I hint at it above, but the Cowboys won’t be able to look to their impressive victory in Darwin for inspiration in beating the Eels in the rematch. While plenty is being made of the Townsville weather, it won’t be nearly as oppressive as Darwin in April and both teams now have a full season of match fitness in their legs. The Cowboys took the Eels best punches and laughed “is that all you’ve got?” as the heat sapped Parramatta in the late stages; I don’t see this one playing out the same way.
North Queensland built their 2022 campaign on the back of strong defence, but they have hardly been an impenetrable wall in the latter half of the season. Ignoring their matches against the NSW Cup Panthers and a Warriors side that had given up, the Cowboys in their last few gave up 30 to Cronulla, 20 to Souths in slippery conditions, and 32 to the Roosters. Before that they also conceded 26 to the Sea Eagles, Broncos and Sharks.
In fact, the Eels have a better defensive record in the leadup to the finals. In their last 11 games, the Cowboys conceded 20 points per game, the Eels 17. It wasn’t due to a difference in draw either: the Cowboys in that time played 6 fellow top eight contenders, the Eels 7 (top eight contenders being the eventual finals teams, plus the Broncos). There are points to be scored here if the Eels are good enough.
Those numbers mean far more to me than long term records at Townsville, where the Eels have not had much success over the last decade. While I’m sure the Cowboys will be buoyed by a record of teams led by Johnathan Thurston beating teams with Chris Sandow, Corey Norman or Joseph Paulo in the halves, the fact is only seven Eels and four Cowboys remain from the last time these teams even played in North Queensland.
So how will the game actually go? The Cowboys play some real traditional rugby league, beating you in the middle to beat you out wide. There are some new wrinkles coming in, particularly the ball-playing of Jason Taumalolo and the high-ball skills of Jeremiah Nanai, but generally the Cowboys find success out wide from space created by their aggressive middles. Reuben Cotter, Taumalolo and even Coen Hess have found strong form this year, while no-name players like Griffin Neame and Tom Gilbert keep the fire burning with high energy efforts.
Much like Clint Gutherson does for the Eels, Scott Drinkwater is essentially a third half for the Cowboys when in good ball. He’s creative, elusive and a good decision maker, a player that generates overlaps and numbers advantage for fun. Cheating the fullback to cover Drinkwater only creates space for the Cowboys kicking game, where Chad Townsend is particularly adept.
It’s not exactly fair that outside of Drinkwater you have Valentine Holmes, who can beat one-on-one situations himself to create space. On the other side Peta Hiku may not post great attacking stats but he draws defensive numbers to put down and creates those opportunities for long shifts to the other side of the field. Add in Kyle Feldt’s freakish ability under the high ball and you have a team you really need to keep out of the red zone as much as possible.
Luckily that is one of Parramatta’s strengths. Field position, possession, winning the middle, and a strong kicking game. It is nice that the Eels acknowledged their gameplan against Penrith was poor, trying to beat the Panthers at their game rather than containing it and playing their own. I’d expect Parramatta to be using the ball in this one early and often, relying on offloads and hitting the short side off quick play-the-balls. The short side moments in particular are where Parramatta looks most dangerous, expect Dylan Brown to be exploring early and often.
The Eels will also find some joy in their typical edge attack with Papali’i and Lane. Jeremiah Nanai is among the leaders in forwards for missed tackles, while Peta Hiku can miss a tackle himself and the halves combination of Dearden and Townsend aren’t noted defensive performers. Getting offloads out of those edge runs is where Parramatta creates their best chances with Gutherson, Brown and Moses sniffing around to complete the break. Forcing the Cowboys to scramble will then open up those short side raids and long shifts which is what people think of when they hear “good Parramatta”.
One area the Eels have found success against the Cowboys is containing Jason Taumalolo. While his 200m a week beast days are over, he is timing his injections well and has shown a deft passing game this year. Our previous strategy was simply “make the guy tackle” and I doubt it changes up much in this one, while I have faith in our edge defenders as tacklers, if not as decision makers. Reed Mahoney is sticking to contact better late in the year, he’d bounce off a lot of tackles at first contact previously but isn’t leaving anything in the tank these last few weeks.
The Eels have the class to win this one, regardless of weather, location or the manufactured dramas of a Fox Sports crew scrambling to recover the lost eyeballs of Tigers and Sea Eagles fans who are now planning summer holidays. Thus it comes down to the mental game.
Brad Arthur appears to have built a bit of siege mentality into the Eels, and hasn’t switched from the “hit and run” strategy of minimising travel on long road trips, arriving in Townsville the day before the game and letting the team face the heat of a frothing Sydney media pack instead of the heat of the tropics. I don’t mind it, acclimatisation is overrated (it takes weeks, not days to get used to new conditions) and if we’re going to win a competition you can’t hide from the media for grand final week, so may as well get the players used to the barrage of idiocy now.
The talk from the camp is a lot of “last chance” or “Last Dance” and while I don’t believe that the premiership window is closing this is certainly the last chance for this squad to win together. Everybody leaving (well, everybody except Oregon Kaufusi) is going to a wooden spoon contender, they know this will be their last taste of success for at least a couple of years. In a footballing career, that is an eternity. Reed, Simba and Ice (even if I don’t think Ice will be leaving) will all be primed for big games.
At this point, I’m just along for the ride. This is the best Eels roster I’ve seen since 2001, even if other sides have had better regular seasons (2005) or gone further (2009). Hopefully that translates to the best shot at a premiership since all those years ago. It won’t be easy going to North Queensland and coming away with the win, but the talent is there to do it.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 24 d North Queensland 18
Man of the Match: Clint Gutherson