There’s nothing like a Parramatta grand final week.
One hundred thousand dormant Eels fans awoke Saturday morning and raided Peter Wynn’s Score ready to get loud and proud about the mighty Blue and Gold. The NRL Fan Fest may as well have been an Eels fan event, and so many people are keen to paint their house in Parramatta colours that Taubman’s has made back the cost of their Eels sponsorship in a single week. Rebel hasn’t got a single Parramatta jersey left across the country, in any size. Respect to the people who picked up a 5XL they are swimming in just to make sure they represent this week. Even more respect to the big units squeezing into an XS for the same reason.
Thousands of fans rocked up to Kellyville for open training, forcing Sixties to climb onto a neighbouring roof to give his report. CommBank Stadium may sell out for a viewing party, and trucks will be wheeling out poker machines under cover of night on Saturday to create more room in the Leagues Club for the celebration, win or lose (okay, that last one probably isn’t true). You can buy Blue and Gold sausages, donuts, cupcakes, even Jimmy’s Kebabs is dyeing the garlic sauce. The Parramatta Fire Department is on high alert.
The grand final result will come down to how the Eels players handle this sudden weight of expectation. Can they ride this wave to the first Parramatta premiership since colour television? I’m feeling it. Onto the special grand final preview!
Date: Sunday, October 2, 2022
Venue: Stadium Australia, Homebush
Kick-off: 6:30PM AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
Head-to-Head: Played 106, Eels 60, Panthers 45, Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $3.10, Panthers $1.37
Lines: Eels +8.5, total points 38.5
Fact: The Eels are in their first grand final in 13 years!
I’m changing nothing right now.
There is only one thing that matters and that is an Eels win.
No punting tip.
Go you mighty Eels!
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. 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. Nathan Brown 15. Jake Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore.
18. Bryce Cartwright 19. Makahesi Makatoa 20. Tom Opacic 21. Ofahiki Ogden 22. Ky Rodwell.
What a time to earn a recall! Nathan Brown will make his first appearance in the top team in nearly three months, with Brad Arthur wanting a bit more fire in the middle to handle the relentless Panthers pack. Bryce Cartwright makes way and will take the 18th man role for the big one. There is some risk in this pick, Brown wasn’t exactly killing NSW Cup when demoted and then spent time on the sidelines with a thumb injury, but he’s an old head, a Blues veteran and a player built for the challenge of taking on a tough pack like Penrith’s. I expect he’ll bring plenty of fire into this one.
Tom Opacic hasn’t recovered from his hamstring injury, so Bailey Simonsson will get another chance at centre after impressing last week. Simonsson is one of only two Eels with grand final experience and while he will undoubtedly be a target for some Penrith shape, he did a great job against a strong attacking team in the Cowboys. His future at Parramatta may end up one in.
A grand final appearance has vindicated Brad Arthur’s bench usage this year, but I’d expect Nathan Brown to see more than the token ten minutes that Makatoa was getting late in the game. Brown regularly got 30-40 minutes off the bench earlier in the year, but I doubt Brad’s grand final plan will deviate that much from what has worked the last two weeks.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 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. Sean O’Sullivan 19. Matt Eisenhuth 20. J’Maine Hopgood 21. Sunia Turuva 22. Chris Smith.
Sometimes the fans just don’t get what they want, as Taylan May couldn’t overcome injury to take his place in the grand final side. Charlie Staines replaces him on the wing and represents the most obvious weak point in an otherwise rock solid Panthers squad. He’ll be marking up on Maika Sivo. Juicy.
You know what you are getting from Penrith otherwise, with Spencer Leniu used as an impact middle for about 20 minutes while Jaeman Salmon has got token minutes in both Penrith finals this year. That wasn’t always the case mid-season, but in the biggest games he’s remained on the sidelines in his kennel until the game is well in hand.
Penrith and Parramatta are nothing if not evenly matched. While the Panthers have enjoyed a near unprecedented period of dominance over the NRL in the last three years they’ve not had it easy against the Eels too many times in that stretch. The games are close, they are grinds and they’ve always required a Parramatta defensive effort far in excess of expectations set across the rest of the season. The Eels “get up” for Panthers games, and if a shot at a premiership wasn’t enough motivation (and you just never know with the Eels) then a shot at beating a team fast becoming their biggest modern rival to get one should ensure we see the best Parramatta effort we’ll ever get.
While these sides clashed three weeks ago, I don’t think it will be much representative of how the grand final will play out. I wouldn’t say Parramatta kept their powder dry in that matchup, but they did play an uncharacteristic style of football in trying to out-muscle a Penrith pack that it turns out can’t be out-muscled. The Eels played a pure middle game without the second phase and angle changes, and along with an unacceptable error rate it meant Penrith got too many chances in good ball which they eventually started to convert in the late stages. Like Reagan Campbell-Gillard said, the Eels got into an ego battle with the Panthers forwards and came out second best.
Reducing those good ball chances is going to be the most important part of the Eels gameplan. The first step of that is cleaning up the mistakes that plagued the first Penrith game and the first half of the Cowboys clash. Some of that should be easy; no forward passes, don’t push the offload, no heroic attempts at intercepts or bat downs late in the count. “Just hold the damn ball” is a simple but effective strategy when your pack is as good as ours and Mitchell Moses can put a long bomb into the red zone as long as you can get to the 40.
The second step is to create fatigue in this Panthers squad. They eat straight up footy for lunch and ask for an extra helping, you just can’t beat Penrith playing up the middle. You know their game; the back three do all the yardage work early in the count and leave the forwards fresh for powerful carries late in the set or to run effective decoys in better ball. Most importantly, it leaves the big middles fresh for those extra defensive efforts, winning first contact and dragging the ball carrier backwards. Finals games are built for that strategy, where you get away with murder in the ruck in the name of “free flowing” football. Running into the teeth of a fresh defensive line with ridiculous line speed and brutal first contact is a sure way to be kicking from your own 30 time after time, as we found out three weeks ago.
So how do you beat it? Well we’ve already set the blueprint in previous clashes. The offloads are important, especially late offloads. While the Penrith line speed is good off a slow play-the-ball they don’t much like having to double up those efforts if you can get a ball away. Good darts from offloads will also create fast rucks, which give a great opportunity for part two of the Parramatta blueprint.
That is the reverse angles and wide running. Getting Mitch and Dylan running at the line one or two wide, suddenly Penrith defenders need to consider three things. Both have dangerous running games which must be respected, and both can either swing outside or lay off to a rampaging Isaiah Papali’i or Shaun Lane to test the inside cover. It’s hard for defenders to make that strong contact when having to slide to make the tackle, and from that good ruck speed the Eels can hit the short side or run their shape to the open. That is before considering the good chances that Papali’i or Lane will break straight through or get an offload away.
Getting Moses and Brown into good positions to execute will be crucial, especially when the good ruck speed they need will be in short supply. This is where the passing game of our middles comes in, where Junior and Ryan Matterson (and even Nathan Brown) can draw up the heart of the Panthers defensive line then swing the ball out wide. They’ll have options too, the link passing of our forwards has created some great chances close to the line the last few weeks, while Clint Gutherson and his long passing game always looms as an alternate option for the big men.
We’re likely to see that again in good ball, both the Cowboys and Raiders were carved to pieces by Ryan Matterson running in formation with Junior and Reg, and Reed Mahoney has been craftier in recent weeks. The Penrith structured defence is tough to break apart, you can’t get around them with standard shifts but throwing numbers and unique shape at the edges has yielded results. That is where the Eels set plays have been targeting in the finals, and good things will surely happen around Shaun Lane and his ability to offload on the left side.
The kicking game is also a good chance. While Waqa Blake has copped all the attention, Brian To’o is equally terrible under the high ball. The Eels have also caught Penrith out on shorter kicks, at CommBank this year Isaiah Papali’i crossed by plucking a kick out of the sky as the Panthers were too busy setting up their defensive blockers and nobody went after the ball. On the longer bombs, Moses will look to condition Dylan Edwards to anticipate longer kicks then drop one into no-mans-land, hoping for a similar result to the Penrith Park clash where Dylan Brown stole the matchwinner after Edwards let one bounce.
Cracking the Penrith line has proven tougher than defending their attack for Parramatta, but that isn’t to discount the threat of the Panthers with the ball. The Eels defensive structures are most often beaten by stretching them quickly and forcing decisions of the edge defenders, which isn’t the Penrith style. They prefer to draw middles in with Isaah Yeo then getting Jarome Luai some space on the left to unleash Viliame Kikau or what was the Tago/May combination, or letting Nathan Cleary orchestrate on the right with Liam Martin or Stephen Crichton. It has taken some superhuman one-on-one efforts, particularly from Mitchell Moses on Viliame Kikau, but the Eels have largely been successful defending that shape.
Where Parramatta needs to watch out is when Nathan Cleary tries to exploit their defensive tendencies. He took advantage of Clint Gutherson’s positioning to break the game open three weeks back, and chances are something is coming that either attacks Gutherson overcorrecting for that or to exploit other tendencies. Limiting the chances Cleary has in good ball is crucial, reducing his ability to train the defence, as is pressuring him. Penrith love grubbers behind the line against rushing defence and Parramatta needs to scramble effectively and always be ready to cover them.
Then we have Waqa. There are plenty of ways to help a guy who struggles under a bomb, but none are more effective than making it hard for the kicker to put them up in the first place. Nathan Brown and Reed Mahoney will be in charge of rushing the kicker, but it will take more than that to protect the enigmatic winger. Given the kicks he struggles with are usually the midfield floaters rather than pure attacking bombs in the red zone, I would hope both Maika Sivo and Clint Gutherson are assigned wider areas of the field to cover, forcing Cleary to land kicks on a dime to challenge Blake directly.
The last point of attack I want to mention is the scrum. Penrith have proven masters of scrum set plays, and the Eels masters at failing to mark up properly on scrums. They are rare attacking opportunities in good ball, but perhaps not so rare when one of our wingers struggles under the high ball. Defending them requires quick reactions, communication and strong scramble, hopefully the Eels are up to the task.
Grand finals are rarely games of strategy, where tactics can beat passion and raw talent. Teams have honed their attack for a whole season, while there may be some new wrinkles or trick shots from both teams you know what you are getting for most of the match. Thus it comes down to who can impose their will and who has the deeper tank to dig into in those crucial late moments. I’m really glad I just wrote a million words about strategy just to say it doesn’t matter.
Penrith has been here before and knows what to expect, though both of their recent grand finals occurred outside of a proper hype bubble thanks to Covid. Maybe they will be intimidated by a Stadium Australia I fully expect to be decked out in Blue and Gold, perhaps they’ll be slighted and even more determined having spent a week watching the media largely ignore them in favour of the Eels.
Can Brad Arthur keep a lid on his team in that same environment? Will they be over hyped, or will the attention and the pressure of this week drive them, providing fuel to get them over the toughest situations in the game? We won’t know until kickoff, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the team based on the last couple of weeks and the even-headedness of coach Arthur.
By late Sunday night, we’ll know. We’ll either be celebrating our first premiership in 36 years, or commiserating another what could have been. The best thing I can say about the 2022 grand final preparation is that it feels different. Every player has a story, a reason to dig deep. All they need to do is beat a team whose regular season record over the last three years is among the best in rugby league history. No sweat.
This is the day you dream of when suffering through wooden spoons, salary cap scandals and watching your idols fall. You endure Chris Sandow, Corey Norman and Joseph Paulo, hoping for a premiership to make it all worthwhile. Every time Paul Kent opens his mouth to run us down you dream of shutting him up by shoving a premiership flag into it. The soul crushing losses, the lost seasons, the boardroom drama, you go through it all for grand finals. Enjoy this week, and enjoy this game. This is what we’ve suffered for.
Eels fans come from all backgrounds, across the city, the country and the world. Whether you’ve not missed a game for decades or have to watch at home through the cracks of your fingers, whether you’ve painted your house Blue and Gold or grabbed your first jersey in a frenzy this week, whether you lived through the glory days of the 70s and 80s or have never seen an Eels premiership, we’ve all got two things in common. We love Parramatta, and we’ve waited a long time for this. It’s time.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 22 d Penrith 18
Man of the Match: Mitchell Moses