Like most Parramatta Eels fans, I hate the Melbourne Storm. From the salary cap cheating that makes the great 2009 Parramatta run a “what could have been” to the scores of grubby footballers they have produced, for well over a decade now the Storm have sat high on my list of most hated teams. Yet for most of that time you couldn’t consider them rivals for the simple reason: they always bloody beat us.
In this, the year of our Eel 2023, it has most definitely graduated to rivalry. Parramatta currently holds a four game winning streak over Melbourne and wins in five of the last six, headlined by a “win and in” game for the top four last year as well as a classic down in Melbourne when Ray Stone sacrificed his knee for a win in golden point. Brad Arthur, Mitchell Moses and co. have had Craig Bellamy scrambling for Daryll Cullinan’s number to join the bunny support group, and now one of the great streaks in rugby league is at risk as the Eels look to deliver the Storm their first round one defeat since Jason Taylor’s playing days.
Round one, Eels fans. Bring it on!
Date: Thursday, March 2 2023
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 8:00PM AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
Weather: Warm, chance of afternoon rain
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
Welcome to another season of speculating. The aim is to have a bit of fun with the punting tip, as we look for the best value for those who enjoy a small, responsible wager.
I try to keep track of an imaginary $20 investment per week because my colleagues at TCT believe that the Eels perform better without the burden of carrying my real cash. I tend to agree.
That said, we’ve had some very good weeks in recent years, and it helps when your team is winning more often than not.
The early rounds are really a case of betting blind. There is no real exposed form as the trials are not reliable indicators of premiership credentials.
Therefore, I’m avoiding the exotica and looking at the head to head market.
Though the Storm have won the opening round for something like two decades, the Eels are in their own streak of being placed in the top 8 for every round since the start of 2019. Furthermore, the Eels have won their last four games against the Storm and have emerged victorious in their last three home matches with them.
It’s hard to ignore the $2.05 on offer for Parra to win. Keep it simple.
Happy, responsible punting everyone.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Bailey Simonsson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Junior Paulo 11. Bryce Cartwright 12. Matt Doorey 13. J’maine Hopgood. 14. Jirah Momoisea 15. Jack Murchie 16. Wiremu Greig 17. Makahesi Makatoa.
18. Jake Arthur 19. Ky Rodwell 20. Ofahiki Ogden 21. Mitch Rein 22. Isaac Lumelume.
For all the consternation about injury crises, the Eels are trotting out their 2022 backline in round one as Bailey Simonsson makes a slightly miraculous recovery (UPDATE: or maybe not, he’s been scratched for Isaac Lumelume to make his debut) and Waqa Blake is ready to go. No such miracles are forthcoming in the pack, with Bryce Cartwright and Matt Doorey winning the battle for the edge spots and Brad Arthur employs the rare four forward bench as cover.
It’s a good move: nobody wants to see Bryce Cartwright defend for 80 minutes. Expect Jirah Momoisea to spell him in the back row. The 36 minutes per game that Oregon Kaufusi averaged should be split between Murchie and Greig in short stints, though both will likely avoid the traditional Brad Arthur blooding of 8 minutes at the end of the game.
Some will look at the bench and worry about the lack of cover at hooker, but Josh Hodgson has been an 80 minute player for most of his career, averaging 75+ minutes in 2019 through 2021. None of our backup hooking options are worth a spot in the side on merit as yet, so if Arthur is confident he can play 80 then let him do it.
1. Nick Meaney 2. Will Warbrick 3. Remis Smith 4. Young Tonumaipea 5. Xavier Coates 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 9. Harry Grant 10. Christian Welch 11. Trent Loiero 12. Eliesa Katoa 13. Josh King. 14. Tyran Wishart 15. Alec MacDonald 16. Chris Lewis 17. Jordan Grant.
18. Grant Anderson 19. Bronson Garlick 20. Sualauvi Faalogo 21. Joe Chan 22. Jonah Pezet.
Where most of the Eels backline players found themselves available in round one, the Storm’s outside men have dropped like flies. Justin Olam, Dean Ieremia and George Jennings are all out, while noted Eel-killer Ryan Papenhuyzen won’t return for a couple of months yet. Young Tonumaipea puts the replacement in “replacement-level”, while Will Warbrick makes his first grade debut on the flank. He looked big and strong in trials, but he also couldn’t beat out most of those now-injured guys for a spot last year. He needs to be tested.
The starting pack ain’t what she used to be, but still contains enough threat to keep me a touch worried. Where the advantage might be pressed is the bench, which doesn’t match the Eels reserves for size and certainly doesn’t match up well against the starters. They’ll work hard and defend stoutly, as all Storm forwards seem to do, but the spark won’t be there, mistakes will be made.
While back row injuries ensure we won’t see the final form of the 2023 Parramatta Eels for at least a month or two, the biggest (on field) question of the off-season will get a tentative answer on Thursday night: how do the Eels look with Josh Hodgson? The trials provided a mixed bag of low sample size results to nibble on; under premiership pressure we will see just how well the English rake combines with Brown and Moses.
Hodgson has said all the right things about getting early ball to his dominant halves pairing, but it isn’t a role we often saw him fill at Canberra. One of Reed Mahoney’s strengths was those crisp long passes from dummy half and while I expect most first grade hookers to be able to throw those passes, a whole attacking play can come undone with bad service. Hodgson’s long ball needs to be on point.
That is the worry, but what Hodgson will bring to the table that Reed did not is true creativity around the ruck. Hodgson loves a step or two out of dummy half to evaluate the defence and hold players at the ruck, then exploiting their uncertainty or over-commitment One of the biggest criticisms of Mahoney was his reliance on uncreative crash balls for settling plays, with Hodgson every play inside the 10 is a danger.
A more temporary concern for Parramatta is what happens when their back row pairing don’t have the attacking threat of a Lane, Matterson or Papali’i. Mitchell Moses will make whoever lines up on the right look good, presumably Matt Doorey who ran some nice lines in the trials, while Bryce Cartwright can do a reasonable Shaun Lane impression with his offloading ability. There is hope, but there is no doubt Lane (and Papali’i, I suppose) will be missed.
Expect Clint Gutherson to pop up in attacking ball more often as a result, which could be good news for the wingers, particularly Maika Sivo. Defenders are going to key on Dylan Brown this year so the chances will be there for Gutherson running outside. That Gutherson/Sivo combination is well oiled and as long as he can be given a metre of room to work in you’d back Sivo in any one-on-one situation.
Buy of the Year 2023 in waiting J’maine Hopgood deserves his own paragraph, with his ballplaying in the second trial a level beyond what we’ve seen from Eels locks. He really was a junior Isaah Yeo out there, and combined with his strong running and great offloading I think he will be a Parramatta favourite in no time. It’s tough to expect him to be the key link in the Eels attack from day one, but he had a huge distributing role in that trial. I’m excited about the space he could provide our halves with his late passing.
I’d like Parramatta to try and find better attacking chances for their centres as well; good, early ball was a rare treat for Will Penisini and Waqa Blake, and both have the footwork and skill to take advantage of it. Some of those late tackle plays targeting Lane or Papali’i running short off of a half may instead now become early shifts to see what the centres can do in space.
Finally, the other side of the ball will be an interesting watch. Don’t expect the Eels to change their “strong middle and slide” defensive structure, it has worked to varying degrees for several years and at its best has proven a tough nut to crack. New combinations all over the place will need some time, particularly on the edge where Cartwright can be a liability and Doorey is unproven.
The Eels defensive struggles of 2022 were overstated. Yes it was a poor start (and a poor final game) but in the last eight rounds the Eels were the fifth best defensive side, better than the Cowboys and Panthers. I’m not saying it can’t improve, but you shouldn’t dismiss the Eels chances based on long term stats that say premiership winners are top four defensive sides. Parramatta should be able to achieve that level.
That Melbourne Storm record of winning in the opening round is an impressive achievement. I tried to pick it apart, but they’ve won away from home, against eventual premiers, and against plenty of top eight sides during that streak. There’s a few wooden spooners and also-rans in there too, but you play two decades of games and you’ll get some of those.
While having one of the best rosters in rugby league for those two decades has helped, the Storm are the best prepared side in the league year in, year out. They’ll be fit and will execute with mid-season precision, plus they’ll have the fear of Bellamy’s wrath whipping them along when things get tough. They might even have the added “win it for Craig” motivation as he all but confirmed his intentions to retire, no seriously this time for real, at the end of 2023.
The Eels’ speed to get off the ruck and avoid giving away ruck infringements is going to be catnip to Harry Grant, as it often puts tired defenders on the back foot at marker and offers the chance for quick play the balls. Ryan Matterson and Ky Rodwell were caught out badly in the Penrith trial, and while neither man is in this squad I don’t think it is a problem isolated to those two. Marker discipline will be huge in this contest, especially late in the halves under fatigue with the shortened pre-season leaving players shorter of match fitness than usual come March.
Containing Grant is just one prong of the fork we want to stick into Melbourne’s winning streak, the others are the two halves Munster and Hughes. Both possess dangerous running games and lazy inside defenders will be punished. The Eels need to control the pace of the game and where it is played, minimising fatigue and the chance for lazy mistakes. Proper use of the bench will be key here, an area Brad Arthur needs to improve after leaning too heavily on his big minute middles in 2022.
Where the Storm can be targeted is those inexperienced combinations. Like the Eels they have new edge pairings to go along with outside backs without much experience together. Getting in position to throw early shape at that inexperience will be crucial. Cheap penalties and basic mistakes weren’t common to Parramatta football last year and the Eels need to be in mid-season form regarding discipline to tilt that field position battle in their favour.
Finally, I can’t go a Storm preview without mentioning how big a grub Nelson Asofa-Solomona is. Go to rugby union where you belong you dirty oaf.
While the core of the Eels’ success over the last few years remains, 2023 offers the excitement of new possibilities. Josh Hodgson brings a maturity and leadership that has been lacking in Parramatta sides and what he offers in the sheds, on the training paddock and behind the posts will be just as important as his efforts on field. He’s gone under the radar as old, injury prone and not Reed Mahoney, but Hodgson’s best is a level beyond what Mahoney has shown in his career thus far and for 2023 that improvement could be the difference for a team that went pretty damn close in 2022.
Between Hodgson, Hopgood and the continued evolution of Brown and Moses, I’m excited about the Eels attack in 2023. Melbourne will be a stern test first up, they always start the year as a strong defensive side and I wouldn’t get discouraged if Parramatta looks a little out of sync against them. Even accounting for some growing pains and the towering shadow of Melbourne’s first round record, I’m feeling good about the Eels in this one.
I go back to round 2, 2021 for that faith. That game came down to a couple of huge plays targeting the replacement Storm players. Junior Paulo steamrolled Tyson Smoothy and Maika Sivo outleapt George Jennings, twice. Now there are a lot more of those replacement Storm players, and the Eels will ruthlessly target them. Players like Paulo, Sivo and Dylan Brown have proven themselves able to break through even the better Storm defenders with freakish individual brilliance, and that combination will provide Parramatta with enough points to take this game.
Icing on the cake is the superhuman form of Clint Gutherson against the Storm, scrambling to save try after try, year after year. It won’t be easy, but I’m feeling good that it will be another first up win for the Eels. That would make five years of first round victories in a row, which I believe qualifies as a streak. We’re coming for that record, Melbourne!
Prediction: Parramatta 24 d Melbourne 16
Man of the Match: J’maine Hopgood