I usually use this little introduction to talk a bit of trash, outline the rivalry with our opponent and have a few digs. There isn’t much point in that this week, because every Eels fan is all too familiar with the modern rivalry between the clubs, and while the Panthers are arrogant and lack any sense of sportsmanship, they are unfortunately winners. There’s just not a lot of shots, however well thought out and justified, that can beat a retort of “but who won the grand final?” It will be all too sweet when us fans can start giving it back to overgrown grubs like Luai and Fisher-Harris, but until teams can start doing their talking on the field against Penrith, us fans just have to lump it.
There’ll be talk of revenge, but you don’t get yours back for a grand final loss by winning a club game. You can take some pride back, feel a bit better about yourself, but it doesn’t change what happened on the big stage. What a win here could do is kickstart the Eels true revenge campaign: a premiership, and while it will be a tough slog, if Brisbane and St Helens can do it, surely we can.
Date: Thursday, March 23 2023
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 8:00PM AEDT
Referee: Ashley Klein
Bunker: Adam Gee
Weather: Warm, high chance of rain
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
I’m glad we looked on last week and I’m tempted to do the same again this week. Three losses, a Thursday night Eels game (is it my imagination or do we struggle on Thursdays?) and facing the premiers – could there be any more reasons to keep the coin in the pocket!
But, the odds look very good and there’s a range of them available, even starting at the head to head odds of $3.30.
But, I want to get a points start involved, and I’m heading to the line/over under market. For the 7.5 start to the Eels combined with over 38.5 total match points you’ll get a return of $4.20. Given the high match points of the past two weeks, and Parra’s consistent margins, that seems quite generous. And if you aren’t comfortable with taking the Eels then just look at the total match points. I reckon it will be high scoring.
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. Ryan Matterson 13. J’maine Hopgood. 14. Matt Doorey 15. Brendan Hands 16. Wiremu Greig 17. Makahesi Makatoa.
18. Jake Arthur 19. Jirah Momoisea
As expected, Ryan Matterson walks back into the side after three weeks on the sidelines that don’t need to be talked about anymore. The surprise is his position on the edge, having been most successful in the middle rotation in his time at Parramatta. Still, edge depth is stretched with Shaun Lane still sidelined, and I’d expect Matterson to play a similar game regardless of the number on his back. He’d best be primed for a big one.
Matterson’s return pushes Matt Doorey to the bench and Jirah Momoisea out of the side, a fair enough series of demotions based on three rounds of play. The other big change is the surprise debut of Brendan Hands, a utility with experience at hooker and in the halves, who replaces the injured Jack Murchie. It signals an intent from Brad Arthur to give Josh Hodgson a mid-game rest, and ultimately is a better use of a bench spot right now. I think Murchie will be fighting with Wiremu Greig for that last bench spot on his return.
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Sunia Turuva 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Mitch Kenny 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Luke Garner 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Soni Luke 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon.
18. Matthew Eisenhuth 19. Zac Hosking
It sure must be nice to never suffer injuries. Penrith are, as usual, full strength with the only changes from the grand final being forced: Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau are gone, replaced by Mitch Kenny and Luke Garner, while Taylan May was hurt in pre-season and Sunia Turuva takes his spot.
Having previewed four clashes against basically the same team last season and having a general dislike for them as a whole, I haven’t got a lot more to say on the Panthers.
There is precedent for the Eels turning around horror defensive stretches in games against the Panthers. Sure, there’s also precedent of some pretty ordinary performances on the biggest stages against the Panthers, but let’s focus on the precedents that benefit us here. In short, I’m willing to bet the big time nature of the match and the chance for some revenge will provide some defensive mettle that has otherwise been missing in the opening three rounds.
That is all that the Eels really need to fix, and it comes down to protecting the ball. The tries are being leaked through a combination of inexperience and incompetence in the edge defence, as guys who haven’t defended together in a system are exploited by opposing shape and leaving guys who are terrible at defensive decision making forced into choices. We’re not going to fix Waqa, Bryce or Bailey overnight, so the key to improved defensive efforts is reducing the chances for the opposition to throw good ball shape at them.
That means fewer mistakes. Parramatta are second worst in the NRL in errors made, and third worst in completion percentage, two categories they were near best in the league last year. Even league average ball control would have seen the Eels 3-0 to start the year; if they’d kept to the high standards set in 2022 then we might be premiership favourites already.
There is no one culprit for the errors the Eels are making. Gutherson, Moses and Brown have had their share of mistakes, but the 1, 6 and 7 often do and it isn’t much to worry about. Dylan needs to stop the cold drops, but he’s been more positive than negative in the opening rounds.
Josh Hodgson has made too many errors (and given away too many penalties), and of course Blake and Simonsson haven’t had a happy time. Hodgson will improve as he gets more comfortable with the team and the team gets used to his timing. It’s unsatisfying to give a general “just be better” to fix the handling issues, but honestly the Eels just need improvement across the board in this regard.
Penrith will prove tougher to crack than the Sharks or Sea Eagles, but Parramatta has found success against their defensive line in the past. The Panthers will eat shape all day and ask for seconds, but offloads, well targeted kicks and the skills of big men around the ruck will be the key to points, all three areas Parramatta have some talent. You just need to weather the storm of their aggressive middle defence, sometimes you can (round 9 last year) and sometimes you can’t (that other game).
While the Panthers defensive machine has kept on humming through the off-season, their attack hasn’t exactly excelled. Luke Garner is no Viliame Kikau, and the absence of Kikau has suddenly meant Jarome Luai doesn’t have so much time to run across field and target one-on-one matchups. The Eels have usually defended that side of the field well against Penrith, but the absence of that Kikau X-factor is welcome.
The Panthers also persist with their defensively minded early stint of Mitch Kenny at hooker, which stifles their attack. If Parramatta want to get on top of the battle early then they need strong kick chase to keep the early tackle metres manageable, so the late tackle runs from the big middle men are meeting a set, aggressive defensive line. Both teams have halfbacks that nullify minor advantages in field position with great kicking games, but forcing some tough work from the Panthers forwards will pay dividends once the chances come in the form of more chances to offload and move defenders around with passing at the line, a specialty of Paulo, Matterson and now Hopgood.
The worry on the other side of that equation is that the Eels have been terrible marker defenders this year. It isn’t just being slow to get into position, it is not knowing when to give away the set restart to save a defensive line. Last week Tom Trbojevic ran through a half set line because nobody held down in the tackle on a half break, the week before Mitchell Moses made a huge effort for nothing as a quick play-the-ball and no defensive line allowed Will Kennedy to stroll through. Hodgson and Hopgood were exploited behind the ruck by the Sharks, and even Harry Grant scored a matchwinner running behind the ruck. Soni Luke is going to have a field day with that if the Eels don’t improve.
Look, I can’t tip us. Nathan Cleary won’t forget the results he got from kicking at Waqa Blake last year, and the Panthers forwards will be salivating at the prospect of getting another one over a team they have had “younger sibling” syndrome against for a couple of decades. It will take a massive turnaround from Parramatta to compete here, and in their current state even with improvement it might not be enough to beat them.
There’s no shame in that. Josh Hodgson is still finding his feet, Shaun Lane is still out and there are two dead men walking lining up in the backline. The Eels will get better and season 2023 is only just getting started. This team can definitely win the game; a bit of X-factor and a determined revenge effort after the grand final, a masterclass from Moses, Brown or both, J’maine Hopgood showing his old club what they never gave a real shot. It’s a chance, it is just less likely than some other potential outcomes.
I expect improvement, and that we will again be competitive. I just don’t expect a win. I’m all here for being pleasantly surprised. Go you Eels!
Prediction: Penrith 28 d Parramatta 22
Man of the Match: Soni Luke