Playing for pride.
I hate that term. Not just because it means your team is not playing for any meaningful result in the premiership standings, but because if a team in that situation played with a bit more pride earlier in the year, maybe they’d be playing for a semi final position instead. It’s a reminder that, at multiple points during the season, your team probably phoned a few games in, playing for paychecks, to meet their contractual obligations and little more. It’s a reminder of your team’s failures, and if there is one thing I dislike more than being reminded of my own failures, it is being reminded of the failure of the football team I choose to support.
Anyway, the Parramatta Eels certainly lacked for pride for the last month, being belted from pillar to post by any team in finals contention and barely able to squeak by the also-rans, whose ranks they are now among. It’s been an embarrassing time to be a supporter, and one with few silver linings. It took until Sunday night for me to feel I could write grades up for last week’s loss, with the intention to rate how happy I felt about the players being on the Eels roster for 2024 as much as their performances on the field. I got halfway through the backline and was too depressed to go on. Call the lack of grades this week an act of self care on my part.
This time tomorrow, the Parramatta Eels’ 2023 season will have mercifully ended. While there is little to be proud about for the men in Blue and Gold and their coach, ending on a high will at least make the last moments of season 2023 pleasant for us long suffering fans. Can they do it? Let’s stay positive and say there is a mathematical chance.
Date: Thursday, August 24, 2023
Venue: Penrith Park, Penrith
Kick-off: 7:50PM AEST
Referee: Ben Cummins
Bunker: Chris Butler
Weather: Cool, dry
Broadcast: Nine, Fox League, Kayo
Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)
It’s not much fun being an Eels supporter and trying to find a punting market that fellow supporters could have a flutter on.
Parra are at long odds so if you have faith, take your pick of what’s available. I can’t recommend you do so.
However, I do think that there’ll be a lot of points scored, so if you feel inclined to have a fun bet on the game, and like me you don’t want to back the Panthers, hit the total points market.
You can get $6.20 for total match points of 57.5 or more. I might even break my own rule and have a lobster on that myself.
Happy, responsible punting,
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Will Penisini 4. Bailey Simonsson 5. Sean Russell 6. Daejarn Asi 7. Dylan Brown 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Joey Lussick 10. Junior Paulo 11. Ryan Matterson 12. Bryce Cartwright 13. J’maine Hopgood.14. Luca Moretti 15. Shaun Lane 16. Wiremu Greig 17. Joe Ofahengaue.
18. Makahesi Makatoa 19. Brendan Hands.
Brad Arthur continues to aimlessly shuffle deckchairs on the Titanic, this time moving Ryan Matterson into the back row and J’maine Hopgood back to lock. That shifts Joe Ofahengaue back to the bench. Shaun Lane makes an unlikely and frankly unnecessary early comeback from injury to take a spot on the bench, he should be fired up for a good run in a tough season.
While some might have seen this as a chance to blood some youngsters, I don’t know what playing against the likely premiers in a must-win game for them is going to do for the confidence of young players on debut. On top of that, our best prospects are still SG Ball eligible, and barely got a taste of NSW Cup this year. The current NSW Cup team is barren of talent ready and deserving of a go, part of the larger problem with the club this year. I’m good with keeping them out of this one.
There is a youth revolution coming through, even if the leader of that revolution (Ethan Sanders) has already signed with Canberra because our first grade halves are committed until the heat death of the universe (I may be being optimistic in assuming this is a good simile for “a long time”). Plenty of that premiership winning SG Ball side looked good last weekend in NSW Cup, albeit against cellar dwelling opposition, but if even one or two are ready for a first grade debut next year that would be a surprise.
20. Jesse McLean 2. Brian To’o 3. Tyrone Peachey 4. Stephen Crichton 21. Tom Jenkins 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Jack Cogger 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Zac Hosking 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo. 14. Soni Luke 15. Lindsay Smith 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Luke Garner.
18. Jaeman Salmon 19. Luke Sommerton.
The Panthers are confident enough here that they can rest a few players, with Dylan Edwards and Sunia Turuva out. Maybe they’re injured, I’m beyond caring to check out Panthers injury reports in writing a preview. It’s been that kind of year. Highly touted rookie (aren’t they all highly touted out at Penrith?) Jesse McLean steps in at fullback, with Tom Jenkins gets his fifth first grade start on the wing. Izack Tago remains injured, with Tyrone Peachey an able replacement at centre
In the pack, backup halfback Jack Cogger is pulling duty at hooker in place of the injured Mitch Kenny, while Zac Hosking gets the back row start again after losing the spot to Scott Sorensen for the back half of the year. Luke Garner sneaks back onto the bench after a year that would have had fans up in arms about recruitment strategies had the Panthers not just kept winning nearly every game.
In case you couldn’t already tell, I’ve got a touch of bitterness about this one, even when trying to look on the upside as the preview is wont to do. The likely scenario for the Eels here is coming out fired up for 20 minutes, pumped to end the season on a high, they are repelled by an elite Panthers side (maybe they even score first and give us some hope), then concede a try and then spend most of the next 60 minutes behind their own posts waiting for it to be over. This is a team that showed the resilience of a wet tissue for the last month. As somebody who has watched them capitulate over and over I’d be insulted if they can suddenly find something within themselves and spring the upset on the premiers. Where was that when it mattered?
The hope I have is that the issues are mental. The team is tired, stale, in need of a rest. An off season is a long time to forget about last season and come in refreshed, ready to write off a year that was karmically doomed from the start when a Mad Monday addled Ryan Matterson (and the club officials who really should have stopped this) took a suspension instead of a piddling financial penalty.
Don’t get me wrong, there are massive roster question marks, particularly in the outside backs, but this is still most of an elite spine, a world class front row and more than able supporting cast in the pack. It shouldn’t be hard for them to shake off 2023 and come back refreshed and ready to dig in, and as a group they are still more than capable of finals level performances. The failures this year are on a team wide level, not a talent level. Well except for the outside backs, that’s talent too.
Without fresh faces coming into the 2024 side, we’ll need fresh ideas instead. Player contracts tied to media rights bargaining periods create some “dry” market years like what we have for 2024, with not even a half dozen significant player movements across the whole league. Add to that the one year delay in recruitment thanks to the stupid contract negotiation system of the sport, and if you have a “surprise, you’re bad!” year like the Eels had this year, you really are stuck for another season if you want to fix it externally.
It’s clearly time for a new approach to the ruck. Referees have been lulled into a comfort level with Parramatta’s opposition blatantly exploiting the ruck, perhaps mistaking the Eels’ own desire to be as clean in the tackle as possible with a general weakness, thus believing Parramatta’s opposition are simply dominating on both sides of the ball and deserve the leeway. Sometimes they do dominate, yes, but the Eels are regular statistical leaders in metres and offloads, they aren’t slouches in the forward pack. The penalty numbers received by the Eels are borderline mathematical exceptions, and not in a good way. Something needs to change there.
Pushing the boundaries there should reduce the pressure on the edge defence, which has too often crumbled over the entire coaching tenure of Brad Arthur. While there are a lot of bad decisions made, there have been periods where the defensive methods on the edge have excelled for the Eels. Sadly, they are not frequent enough or for an extended period, and looking at the outside backs on the roster right now, something needs to change in the defensive structures. It’s time to give it up and try something new, BA.
While recent results haven’t been promising, I don’t think a lot needs to change in the attack. There needs to be a bit more variety, as the side has floundered the spreads have become predictable and are being smashed by defensive anticipation. Shaun Lane at full strength helps that enormously, you won’t be able to pick out the centre or fullback in those shifts if you also need to worry about Lane. Bryce Cartwright has been a solid edge weapon on the right and a bright spot for season 2023, he needs to be used in a variety of attacking roles and shapes close to the line next year.
Moses, Brown and Gutherson are all elite attacking footballers, it shouldn’t be hard to put together a structure that showcases their talents. At mid-year the Eels were the best attacking team in the competition, so the ability is there, it just needs some refinement.
Back to the now, and look, we all know it is likely to be unpleasant. Penrith need the win to stay in the box seat for the minor premiership. They’re at home and they’re not a team to rest when they smell blood. Little brother has long had a chip on his shoulder, and not even back-to-back premierships has made his big boy pants fit properly. They’ll relish the chance to belt the crap out of the Eels, especially given our recent successes against them.
Parramatta is the only team with a positive record against Penrith in their last five clashes (3 wins, 2 losses). Only two teams have managed two wins from their last five against Penrith: North Queensland and Wests, and three of those four wins came when the Panthers were either without Origin players or resting their entire first grade side. Most NRL sides are 0-5 against the defending premiers in their last five. I’d say we are their bogey team, but one of those two wins was a grand final, so sucks to be us.
The Eels sides that ran out in those five games was in a very different head space to the one we’ll see at Panther Park tonight. Maybe Penrith will lack some direction without Dylan Edwards, but the gameplan won’t change: backs doing the hard work to leave the forwards fresh to belt the Eels in defence. The Mitchell Moses kicking game has traditionally nullified some of that advantage, but he’ll be watching on from the stands where his right boot will do little to assist.
It might just be a question of when the Eels wilt. Like drawing the wingers on a doubles ticket, getting minutes 20 through 25 in the “when will the Eels fall apart” lottery is going to give you a great shot at taking home the meat tray. Penrith are methodical, patient and experienced, they’ll be quite happy to do their thing and let the Eels eventually beat themselves. 2022 was often defined by Parramatta collapses once the starters left the field and the bench took over. That wasn’t a concern for most of 2023, and I don’t think the 20th minute blues we are currently suffering are the fault entirely of the bench, but we’re certainly not getting that big push from the interchanges like other clubs, such as Penrith, can rely on.
Too often this year I’ve spent the preview not looking at tactical options and evaluating matchups, but discussing the mental state and preparation of the Parramatta side. How they would cope with missing players, belted by injury, suspension and stupidity, instead of how combinations were starting to flourish. There are real problems, but there are also excuses. I hope the Eels can find a balance when answering these in the off season, there doesn’t need to be complete overhauls, but changes have to come.
I fear I’ll spend most of this game wishing it was over. I hope for an 80 minute effort, but I also hope to win the lottery or for my broken fence to magically mend itself. It’ll take hard work to turn this team around, and that hard work starts after the full time whistle as we start to prepare for 2024. We’ve got a one week head start on the opposition, at least.
Go you Eels!
Prediction: Penrith 42 d Parramatta 6
Man of the Match: Isaah Yeo