Last year’s preliminary final was an all-time performance for the Parramatta Eels, and it turns out, their grand final. The best defensive effort from an Eels team in decades, in a hostile environment and against one of the toughest sides in the 2022 competition, playing out an all time classic NRL final. It’s fair to say that the rematch is not expected to reach such heights.
For a start, you may have heard this week that the Eels forward pack has been decimated. Junior Paulo, Shaun Lane, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Ryan Matterson and Andrew Davey are all unavailable through Origin duty or injury. With off-season (and in-season) departures that leaves just seven Eels from that preliminary final lacing boots on Friday night, six in the backline and one (Bryce Cartwright) promoted from the bench. The Cowboys are similarly impacted by Origin and injury, and will only return nine players from their final match of 2022.
Still, it has been a month since the Eels have played at home and with three weeks until the next taste of home football, the fans will undoubtedly be in fine voice on Friday night. Hot off one of the great wins in recent Eels history, expectations are high for what Parramatta can do to a struggling Cowboys side. Let’s hope they can meet them for us. On to the preview!
Date: Friday, May 26th, 2023
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 8:00PM AEST
Referee: Liam Kennedy
Bunker: Ashley Klein
Weather: Cool, afternoon showers, windy
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
The season of missing out continued last week when the tip of over 52.5 total match points fell short by, yes, that half point.
There is minimal value this week if you’re backing the Eels. In the head to head, you’ll only get $1.20 for Parra, and you have to concede 14.5 points to get the even money.
I was not be deterred by last week’s close call. Look to the total match points market once more and get on over 52.5 which is paying $3.20.
Happy, responsible punting,
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Bailey Simonsson 5. Sean Russell 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Wiremu Greig 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Joe Ofahengaue 11. Bryce Cartwright 12. Matt Doorey 13. J’maine Hopgood.14. Ofahiki Ogden 15. Brendan Hands 16. Luc Moretti 17. Makahesi Makatoa.
18. Daejarn Asi 20. Ky Rodwell
The “Us” section is going to focus on all of the changes to the side, so we just need a quick rundown here. Junior Paulo is off representing NSW, replaced by new recruit Joe Ofahengaue. Matt Doorey steps in for Andrew Davey, stood down under concussion protocols, and Luca Moretti comes onto the bench for Ryan Matterson, who is out for a month with a calf injury.
The bye comes at a good time for the Eels, though only Davey may be available immediately following the week off in round 14. RCG and Matterson shouldn’t be too far away by round 15, though the Parramatta injury reports are getting Belichickian in their obscurity and finding out exactly who is injured can be a struggle, let alone for how long.
North Queensland Cowboys
1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Zac Laybutt 4. Peta Hiku 5. Robert Derby 6. Ben Hampton 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Coen Hess 11. Luciano Leilua 12. Heilum Luki 13. Jake Granville. 14. Jack Gosiewski 15. Kulikefu Finefeuiaki 16. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 17. Griffin Neame.
18. Mitchell Dunn 19. Brendan Elliot
Origin typically hits Queensland teams hard, even those going like busteds. In the case of the Cowboys this means the loss of Murray Taulagi and Val Holmes from the backline, Reuben Cotter in the pack and more cruel of all, five eighth Tom Dearden is the Maroons 18th man and thus stood down from club duties this weekend.
In the pack, Jason Taumalolo won’t recover in time to play, while Jeremiah Nanai remains suspended and James Tamou (yeah, remember him?) is injured. This leaves Jake Granville starting at lock, yeah, the guy that used to play hooker. He’s not bad as an impact player to be honest, but he should be targeted as a starting middle. Another noted Eel-killer in Luciano Leilua has returned from a no fault stand down, he’s not a bad tip as an anytime try scorer but I don’t think he’ll save the Cowboys chances here.
The focus this week on who is missing from the Eels pack gives little credit to those that will take the field on Friday night. The form of Wiremu Greig has been a revelation and I get the feeling he will savour being the de facto leader of this group. His front row partner is new recruit Joe Ofahengaue, the Wests Tigers player of the year last season and another classic example of “how do you know a team came last? A prop won their player of the year award.” Still, Ofahengaue is an Origin representative with plenty to give, who will be fired up to impress his new side. Plus he carved up this very opposition less than a week ago.
In the back row we get “starting Bryce Cartwright” who has been a new man this season, joined by Matt Doorey. Doorey has had some questions about his workrate and may not play the full 80, but he does run a good line and has real attacking chops. J’maine Hopgood has mercifully missed Origin selection for Queensland and is likely to set mercurial Supercoach numbers in this contest.
On the bench Ogden and Makatoa offer that classic mix of impact and workrate. Ogden in particular has been good in his opportunities and should bring the heat at first changes against some Cowboys bench forwards that will see this as an opportunity to reverse some ordinary form so far this year. Luca Moretti is the other bench forward and is making his first grade debut. He comes well regarded and has shown moments of real class in his stints in reserves, but lacks consistency, particularly with his defence. He’s mostly played as a big minute middle this year, but may be asked to cover the back row in this one.
All these guys need to do is hold the line and you have to believe success will come for the Eels. The Cowboys backline hasn’t defended well all year, and now has new combinations featuring two debutants. All that Parramatta needs is the opportunities and Moses, Brown and Gutherson will shine. Respecting possession and completing sets hasn’t always been a strength of the 2023 Parramatta Eels, but perhaps a simplified gameplan to account for so many new faces is just what they need to get back to the high completion ways that has defined their success in recent years.
Fans always get nervous facing a team that was just flogged, fearing the bounceback game after their opponents had strips torn from them by the coach all week long. It’s counter-intuitive; you should be confident going in against a team that was just so bad they had 60 put on them, but fans are conditioned to expect the worst.
So how do the Cowboys go as a bounceback team? They didn’t suffer too many heavy defeats last year, but followed up a 28-4 loss to the Roosters with a golden point loss to the Warriors, then later followed a 22-0 loss to Penrith with a 32-6 win over Gold Coast. Going back to 2021 though, we get some encouraging numbers.
They were flogged twice in the opening four rounds, following both with losses. In round 3 the Titans beat them by 36, then the Sharks beat them by 38 the next week. Lucky for the Cowboys, they played the Tigers in round 5 and won by the widest four point margin in history in Wests’ famous “Tanking for Tommy” capitulation where the Tigers went to the sheds down 28-6. Later during a ten game losing streak, the Cowboys followed floggings with another loss four more times.
This Cowboys team has a lot more of the 2021 Todd Payten debut year in them than last year’s aberration of defensive excellence. They’re the worst defensive team in the competition, leading the NRL in points conceded and missed tackles, second worst in penalties conceded. They barely offload, don’t make many post contact metres and are solidly below average as an attacking team. I’m sure that won’t improve without their five eighth and half their three-quarter line on debut this weekend.
I don’t know if North Queensland have quit on their coach, or are just worn down by his methods, or maybe they had some special fire that couldn’t be lit two years in a row. Regardless of how it has happened, it has happened; the Cowboys at a wooden spoon contender level in 2023. Even with a reserve grade forward pack, the Eels should win this one.
The Eels NEED to win this one. They’ve dropped their allotted share of upsets and are well behind the count in wins against their peers thanks to going 1-4 in the opening five rounds. For all of that, on the “true” ladder (i.e. one that doesn’t give points for having a week off) they are one win outside the top eight, thanks to the wonky nature of the NRL this year and a strong points differential. An upside to losing a heap of close games, I suppose.
I’ll probably be able to copy and paste that first sentence above for each preview for the rest of the year. There are a lot of must win games on the horizon. Luckily there will be troops returning, and we don’t play a current top four team until winter is almost over. All of that won’t matter much if we can’t win here, but I’m trusting both the men named in Blue and Gold and that the Cowboys just don’t have it in them this year. It might not be pretty, but I’m confident it will be a win.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Parramatta 22 d North Queensland 12
Man of the Match: J’maine Hopgood