Parramatta Eels 32
Penrith Panthers 18
Like the sun breaking through the clouds on your last full day of a rainy holiday, this win was a very nice finish to what has largely been a disappointing time. The Eels dominated the Panthers for most of this contest, stifling the Penrith attack with resolute defence and creating their own opportunities through the weak points in a usually impenetrable Panther armour. If you wanted something to pin hopes on for an entire off season, this win certainly delivered. I’m excited about 2024 already.
Brad Arthur lamenting the side finishing one win short of the finals is a bit much for me, like this side didn’t leave that solitary win on the table by phoning it in for the last month. This season isn’t unlucky, it is a systemic failure on many levels and I hope the coach, who should be most aware of the issues at the club, brushing off the season as a bit of bad luck and oh so close, is just a deflection tactic.
Clint Gutherson is probably the opposite of what you think of when you hear the term X-Factor, but he was the difference between the sides in this contest. He ain’t quick, nimble or exhilarating but he’s the ultimate footballer, right down to knowing the rules better than some referees. I continue in my belief that I wouldn’t trade him for any other number one in the game.
For the numbers inclined, it looks like the Eels should have lost this game. Taking your chances and defending like you care can do that to numbers:
Possession: Panthers 54%, Eels 46%
Completions: Panthers 36/43 (83%), Eels 29/37 (78%)
Run metres: Panthers 1,938, Eels 1,679
Post contact metres: Panthers 530, Eels 458
Line breaks: Eels 7, Panthers 5
Tackle breaks: Panthers 48, Eels 39
Offloads: Eels 13, Panthers 12
Effective tackle %: Eels 84.8%, Panthers 84.2%
Errors: Eels 9, Panthers 9
It feels like the King has taken MVP in half our victories this year, but I don’t remember any appearance this year by Clint Gutherson more deserving of the honour. He was in everything, hobbled as he was, and led the Eels to a big lead before finally succumbing and watching the closing stages from the sideline. Enjoy a rest, King, you’re one of the few who can hold their head high after season 2023. You da MVP, Clint.
1 – Fullback
It’s a bit of a shame such an iconic image as Clint Gutherson limping along, trying to kickstart his bung knee like a bodgy mower, is wasted on such a forgettable season. That happens in a grand final, maybe even just a semi final, and they’re making a statue of him. That he could play so well on one leg is a testament to how much he cares, and when the King is on song, his kingdom responds.
2 – Left Wing
In the unpublished, incomplete grades of last weekend I called Sivo an overpaid catch-and-fall merchant, and while that never left my hard drive, Maika still managed to take it personal. It wasn’t quite vintage Sivo, but there was plenty of power and most importantly confidence about his four try night at Penrith Park.
3 – Right Centre
Will coming into first grade with well above average defensive skills for the position has made him a favourite with the grades, but his emergence as an attacking weapon as he crosses the half century of NRL games played has me very excited for his ceiling. This was another class attacking performance from Willy P, and sooner or later it will be more than just Eels fans noticing how good this kid is. Just stop kicking mate, please.
4 – Left Centre
I forget who he stood over, but Bailey Simonsson giving attitude to Penrith players was one of my favourite moments of the game. No doubt he copped a bit from little brother for his Todd Byrne impression in the grand final last year, and even the slightest revenge on a much smaller stage should be celebrated. He hasn’t got the highest ceiling, but playing like he cares has won me over for tonight.
5 – Right Wing
He’s not getting a lot of opportunities, something he shares in common with just about every other Eels right winger of the last five years, but Russell isn’t doing much wrong in his early first grade days. I’m hoping there is some competition for him next year (I’ll be rioting if there isn’t more competition for him next year), but he’s a solid option who will only get better.
6 – Five Eighth
While I wouldn’t call it downhill running against the Panthers, Asi certainly looked more comfortable playing like a 7 rather than a 6 and distributing over running. Is he the backup halves answer of a premiership contender? Probably not for the long term duty he’s had to pull this year, but as a versatile player who can fill in a lot of spots in a pinch, he’s a good guy to have in the back pocket.
7 – Halfback
With the Eels finding good field position and the front foot more often than not, Dylan played a fun hybrid halves role. He took on the attacking kicking, something we’re well used to now, but also managed to get his running game on like he was playing six. With the right player (read: anybody who can kick long) next to him, I’m feeling better about being able to cover Mitchell Moses for any short stints by moving Dylan across. Funny what coming off a win against the premiers-to-be does for you, last week I had him playing for Wentworthville and Asi playing winter league baseball.
8 – Front Row
RCG played like he was making up for a past embarrassment, focused on intimidation and damage more than technique. The result was a fair few missed tackles and the Eels competing hard with and getting on top of the best forward pack in the game. His role needs to change next year, but as a swansong for the 60+ minute Reg experience, this was one heck of a show.
9 – Hooker
Joey Lussick did the job Brad Arthur expects of his hooker: a lot of good service, a bucketload of tackling and minimal creative input or rogue darting. That’s all we need when the rest of the machine is purring.
10 – Interchange
Where Reg went out to hurt Panthers, Junior was intent on running over them. Playing 46 minutes from the bench, he ran a team high 20 times. There weren’t a lot of tackle breaks or offloads, but against a Panthers pack fresh from never having to run the ball themselves because their backs do all the work, that kind of running output is an especially tough ask. Enjoy a rest this off season Junez, and maybe hold the boxing career until after your footy days, huh?
12 – Second Row
The rumours that Isaiah Papali’i wants to return to Blue and Gold just won’t go away, but the Carty Party at a fraction of the price has my blessing as the preferred Eels edge for 2024, and that is only partly due to my distaste for spending yet more big coin and a precious roster spot on an edge forward while our backline is one injury away from starting Jersey Flegg players. Carty did what Carty does here, a few key creative sparks, a few mistakes and a lot of defensive attention from his former team.
11 – Second Row
Ryan Matterson played a tough 80 highlighted by a tackle count second only to Joey Lussick. I think I prefer him as a middle, his passing game and offloading were curtailed as an edge forward, though that might have been gameplan related. It does feel like we’re not getting our money’s worth by using Matto as a battering ram, he’s paid for his ball skills.
13 – Interchange
Bench or starting, it doesn’t matter for J’maine Hopgood who has been a revelation this season. I expected big things from the little I’d seen of him in Cup and based on his reputation, but he came to the Eels first grade ready and soon emerged as an Origin contender, exceeding my wildest expectations. It was a textbook revenge game for Hoppy, and however long we’ve locked him down for is not enough.
14 – Interchange
I reckon Luca Moretti might have secretly been thinking “gee I might finally get a good run here” during training this week, even if that run would probably come with the team down by 30. Instead the Eels belted the Panthers and he got his usual token time, and again he made the most of it. There’s a lot of competition for those bench forward roles next year, but I’m hoping Luca can keep himself in the mix with a big off season.
15 – Interchange
I’m still struggling to understand why Shaun Lane was rushed back from injury for 14 minutes against the Panthers, but I choose to believe it was because Lane was so desperate to salvage something from a horrible year that he pestered Brad Arthur into naming him. That’s a good sign for 2024 after his expected breakout year this season turned into a nightmare.
17 – Lock
I’m not sure what Penrith did to Joe Ofahengaue, but put every opponent in a pink jersey if this is how the mid-season recruit is going to play. Joe O led the team in tackle breaks and made some tough runs in his 40 minutes, absorbing the early stages and paving the way for Junior to maintain the rage. He’s got the skills, so hopefully a full off season better defines a role for him in Blue and Gold.
16 – Prop
Wiremu Greig ate Panthers for breakfast in his first stint, if you can equate running over and through defenders with munching on toast. Work with me here, it’s the last grade of the year. If this is a glimpse of the future I am all for it, Greig getting out there and delivering 15 minutes of pain before Junior comes in against the softened up opposing pack and runs riot. His breakout season might be my favourite Eels storyline of 2023.
While it is a muted joy given what has happened in season 2023, despite my protestations in the preview I’m very happy to finish the year on a high. Yes, I’m asking where this was for the last month, but it was good to see the sheds full of players who looked to be asking themselves the same question. Better to end with something to build on rather than fizzle out in shame.
In saying that, this wasn’t a “what might have been” year, this was a systemic failure across the board. Defensive structures and ruck tactics need to change. Recruitment and retention has to be held accountable for failure to secure enough outside backs in the squad, for continually playing two or three players short of a full squad, and for questionable contracting decisions at the bottom end of the roster and with development deals. Beating Penrith to end the year doesn’t change any of that.
What beating Penrith does is allow me to enjoy football again for at least a few more days. I hope you can feel the same, take some joy out of belting the Panthers around like only a big brother can. 2023 may not have gone how we hoped, but it ended on a high.
Until next season, stay slippery Eels fans.
Stats and images provided by NRL / Eels media