The Cumberland Throw

The Preview – Round 1, 2024: Eels vs Bulldogs

Welcome Eels fans to season 2024! It has been a quiet off-season for Parramatta, with fan and pundit expectations of the men in Blue and Gold at their lowest in recent memory. Most predictions place the Eels just outside the top eight, exactly where they finished last year, but given that 2023 was a year where little went right for the Eels and they missed the finals by a single win, surely there is room for improvement?

I’m not going to re-litigate season 2023, but I feel confident saying that of all possible outcomes for a season with that roster, last year was in the bottom percentile of results. Just turning around the self-inflicted misfortune of suspensions should be enough to see the Eels grab that win or two they need to feature in September football. Add in some injury luck that sees the top pack play together more than once in a year, and I’m not understanding the pessimism about season 2024.

That’s not to say the roster is perfect, but there’ll be plenty of time to have a cry about that down the line. For now we’ve got one of our great rivals coming to town for a huge round one contest at CommBank Stadium. If you can’t get excited about the Eels delivering another beating to the Bulldogs, I don’t know what could get you excited. On with the preview!

Game Info

Date: Saturday, March 9, 2024
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Parramatta
Kick-off: 5:30PM AEDT
Referee: Grant Atkins
Bunker: Liam Kennedy
Weather: Warm, dry
Broadcast: Fox League, Kayo

Sixties Speculates (Odds quoted are NSW TAB)

Early season betting. There’s no exposed form to speak of and many teams like the Bulldogs have a collection of new combinations in their side.

If you want to look at the trials, the Eels only trial to feature most of this round one team was a decent performance. It’s difficult to get a handle on the Dogs, as I thought both of their trials were a mixed bag.

The Eels are at short odds so there’s not much value in taking a win result on its own. I’m opting for the “score a try and win” market.

Smart money could go on Will Penisini to score a try in an Eels win at $3.50 or Sean Russell at $2.25. But I’m after more value for round one.

I’m tipping J’maine Hopgood in an Eels win which is returning $5.50.

Happy, responsible punting,




Parramatta Eels

1. Clint Gutherson 2. Bailey Simonsson 3. Will Penisini 4. Morgan Harper 5. Sean Russell 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Joey Lussick 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Bryce Cartwright 13. J’maine Hopgood.14. Brendan Hands 15. Ryan Matterson 16. Joe Ofahengaue 17. Kelma Tuilagi.

18. Ofahiki Ogden 19. Daejarn Asi 20. Luca Moretti 21. Makahesi Makatoa 22. Blaize Talagi.

Morgan Harper: better than his reputation

The thousands of fans that chant Maika Sivo’s name every time he scores at Parramatta must not use social media, because all I’ve seen online is Sivo bashing since he let in one ugly try in a trial match, then got himself suspended. His judiciary record is such that any mistake is going to see him sit for a week or two, stretching our notorious backline depth. It isn’t a great start to the year to have him on the sideline.

Brad Arthur has gone with Morgan Harper as Sivo’s indirect replacement, moving Bailey Simonsson to the wing where he hasn’t exactly excelled in Blue and Gold. Bailey’s running game looked strong in the trials and hopefully he brings the attacking spark, but defensively he is going to make mistakes, we just need to limit the chances he gets to make them. Harper has suffered for becoming a meme-player after one shocking defensive half, two years ago, he should be a solid fill-in for a few weeks. I’m more worried about Bailey on the wing defensively than Harper coming in at centre

To the chagrin of Supercoach players everywhere, Brendan Hands has earned a utility role on the bench, likely to play a similar role to how he started his career last year, spelling Joey Lussick instead of Josh Hodgson. How Arthur uses Kelma Tuilagi will be interesting, Kelma had a strong trials and comes well regarded, but who makes way for him to get minutes on an edge? If not an edge, how do you squeeze him into the middle rotation? Brad Arthur doesn’t mind leaving a man on the pine for 80, so eyes will be on how he handles this interesting new bench combination.

Canterbury Bulldogs

1. Blake Taaffe 2. Blake Wilson 3. Jacob Kiraz 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Matt Burton 7. Drew Hutchison 8. Max King 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Poasa Faamausili 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Jacob Preston 13. Jaeman Salmon. 14. Kurt Mann 15. Sam Hughes 16. Josh Curran 17. Kurtis Morrin.

19. Bronson Xerri 20. Toby Sexton 21. Jake Turpin 22. Connor Tracey 23. Kitione Kautoga.

Some surprises in this lineup, with Stephen Crichton taking that fullback money from the Bulldogs to stay in the centres despite the trial struggles of Blake Taaffe. Maybe it’s a defensive decision from coach Ciraldo? Regardless, it keeps the attacking strength of Bronson Xerri out of the side, with lesser lights Blake Wilson and Jacob Kiraz getting a run.

Drew Hutchison in the halves is another mild shock, the journeyman has never shown himself able to lead a side in plenty of prior chances, but maybe things will be different at the dogs. Jaeman Salmon is preferred at lock, a small-ball approach we’ll talk about later on. Former Eel Sam Hughes wins a bench spot alongside new recruit Josh Curran, while another journeyman in Poasa Faamausili gets the start at prop.

Defensive Resolve

So how do the Eels go about changing their fortunes from season 2023? Stop getting suspended is a start, but defensive improvement is a must. The Eels need to knock a try a game off their points against to get back to league average, and about six points per game to get into that elite tier of defensive sides. We know at their best they can stop the top team in the league, but their average points conceded in losses last year was an unacceptable 32.5 per game. Only four times could the Eels keep their opponent to 12 or fewer points, twice against the Bulldogs, once each against Newcastle and an Origin depleted Manly.

I’m expecting big things from Kelma Tuilagi with the ball, but without it he needs to step up

It’s unrealistic to expect this team to suddenly defend like the Panthers or Storm, but they also don’t really need to. They just need to avoid defence-optional collapses like those that cost wins against the Sharks, Sea Eagles and Titans last year. This attack can win a 22-18 or 26-22 game, but needing to put 30+ on top tier opposition is an unsustainable strategy.

Defensive improvement starts with fixing the middle. Parramatta’s defensive template failed in 2023 as the focus on a tight ruck at the expense of edge numbers didn’t produce the middle steel to justify the edge frailty. For the three seasons 2020 through 2022, the Eels conceded just 35 tries (15% of their total) through the middle, second best in the NRL behind the Storm. In 2023 the Eels conceded 25 tries through the middle of the field, 25% of their total. While watching wingers and centres fail to handle situations where they are outnumbered is frustrating, knowing they are doing so because there was no way through the middle was somewhat comforting. Last year that wasn’t the case, and the tries poured in through cracks all across the line. (thanks Stats Insider for the numbers).

The good news? The Bulldogs are the perfect opponent for the Eels to test their improved defensive commitment. Aside from one blip in 2022 that we don’t talk about, the Eels have conceded a miserly 8.6 points per game to the Bulldogs over seven clashes since 2020, winning all of them. The hallmark of these victories has been total middle dominance, with only the now departed Tevita Pangai Jr offering any resistance to the Blue and Gold wave that has regularly ground the Bulldogs to sand.

With the attacking weaponry the Eels have stationed across the park, points won’t be a problem. It really is all about the defence. Even with early combinations and off season rust, there is no excuse for conceding more than three tries to this Bulldogs lineup. Fans need to see a strong effort first up, and considering the mismatch in forwards here, I expect the Eels to deliver.

Utility Bill

It’s tough to preview any team coming into round one, but it is especially foolish to try and make predictions on how a Bulldogs team with ten changes from the lineup that finished 2023 will perform. Naturally that isn’t going to stop me trying.

Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo had a debut season that gave off Stephen Kearney vibes, a highly rated assistant who struggled to replicate an elite system with a cellar dwelling roster. Ciraldo has openly blamed the commitment of some of his players for the failure of his defensive systems in 2023, and you imagine his squad, if nothing else, will hold a line with some tenacity to start 2024.

Dylan Brown owes the Eels plenty this year.

Will tenacity and commitment be enough to overcome the deficit in class between the starting packs? The Eels have gone all-in on front row dominance for several years, led by two world class players in RCG and Junior Paulo, while Ryan Matterson brings attacking class and J’maine Hopgood elite workload on both sides of the ball. Phil Gould and the Bulldogs have funded their spending spree by gutting the front row ranks, seeing Tevita Pangai “retire” and Luke Thompson return to England after an injury-riddled stint, leaving a motley crew of workhorses, veterans and cast-offs to fill the void. The level of performance Ciraldo can get from Max King, Sam Hughes, Poasa Faamausili and the rest will go a long way to determining their fate in 2024.

I doubt many Bulldogs fans will miss Tevita Pangai Jr, but his size and offloading prowess were often the only signs of life for Canterbury in recent clashes with the Eels. He could make a mistake, sure, but those late offloads are coach killers and Pangai was an expert at them. The Dogs will rely on Viliame Kikau for the impact attack in their pack, and Kikau is another player the Eels have handled relatively well in prior matchups. If the Bulldogs are going to win this game in the middle, it won’t be through brute force.

It has been fun to dig at the Bulldogs utility recruitment strategy, but the risk potential of a pack with plenty of hybrid ballplayers is high. I’m not expecting a football revolution and maybe Ciraldo is just doing the best with what he has, but I expect a lot of ball movement around the middle of the park, particularly with Salmon at lock, where he can dig into the line and pass out wide where Stephen Crichton will find one-on-one matchups to exploit.

The key for the Bulldogs is that this strategy only works when you get into attacking position, and that has been a massive issue for them in recent clashes with Parramatta. The Eels have outgained the Bulldogs by an average of 440 metres in their last three contests, winning by an average margin of 28 points across those games. I expect it to be a bit closer here, purely based on the “round one” factor, but the Eels pack will be hungry and I expect they feast on metres all night long against an undersized Bulldogs pack. Reed Mahoney missed 10 tackles and had 7 more ineffective in two games against the Eels last year, and that was the stats boffins being very kind on him. The CommBank groundskeepers will be filling Reed sized divots all week long after this one. At least they’ll be small divots.

Kearney Eyes

For me, this game comes down to Cameron Ciraldo. Either he’s got it as a coach, or he doesn’t. If he’s got it, the Bulldogs will put up a stone wall in defence and find ways to utilise their many attacking weapons. That Bulldogs side is going to be tough to beat first up. If he doesn’t have it, the Bulldogs will look directionless in attack and weak in the middle, with little buy-in to his tough love methods.

There are signs pointing both ways, but I much prefer the second option so I’m running with that. This is a side that ditched its captain a couple of weeks before the season started, a player they were claiming they could build a club around just one year ago when they signed him. They’ve given the captaincy to their star recruit, signed (and paid) to play fullback but now shifted to the centres for a veteran reserve grader. They’ve cleared out an entire roster in the space of three years and thrown together whatever they could pick up, hoping it would amount to a decent first grade team. Promising young players who were the future of the club a year ago were cut loose, and the club captain forced out of the team entirely for daring to say “hey, this ain’t working boss”. If I was a Daily Telegraph writer, well first I’d go look at myself in the mirror and ask what I am doing with my life, but second I’d pull out the “Bulldogs in Crisis” banner on every second article.

Remember how Stephen Kearney looked at press conferences after yet another 30-4 hiding? Dead eyes, staring into the distance, no answers, wondering where it all went wrong. That’s going to be the look on Cameron Ciraldo’s face a lot this season, starting with Saturday night. Eels by plenty.

Go you Eels!

Prediction: Parramatta 28 d Canterbury 12

Man of the Match: Mitchell Moses


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10 thoughts on “The Preview – Round 1, 2024: Eels vs Bulldogs

  1. Sec59

    Gol it’s not just Sivos lapses in the trial it his consistent misreading in defence and lack of metres in bringing the ball out of the red zone. His form over the past 2 seasons has been inconsistent and at times meek. If we had some alternatives on the wing last year he should have been playing NSW Cup. The trial against Titans indicates no improvement made.
    But I do agree that our team has been underrated. Penesini and Russell are ready for career defining years, our forward pack is equal to the best as is our spine. That means a big improvement on last year.
    Go Parra

    1. sixties

      Hey Sec. As I’ve said in other posts and replies, to replace Sivo we need someone to hit the following metrics more than Sivo.
      1. High try conversion rate (Sivo is close to unstoppable near the line – yes I know he also gets stroll over tries)
      2. Safe under the high ball (Sivo is)
      3 Good metres on kick returns or in yardage (An issue for Sivo)
      4 Sound defence (Sivo can get the jam wrong)
      I’ll give Sivo a 2/4 here. Can someone deliver 3/4 or better?

      1. Woody

        I would like to see how he goes with a calmer solid defender like Harper.
        He needs someone solid and reliable inside him.

        1. sixties

          That’s a fair call too. Defence is all about team work and communication. And problems out wide can be a result of those on the inside falling out of the system or simply missing their tackle.

      2. Namrebo

        A fair set of metrics I think. I know he is there only as a replacement / stop gap, but what would you give Simonsson under that? I’m thinking a two as well, although he will play as a different type of winger.

  2. Zero58

    The Bulldogs remind me of Moneyball. With all their utility players and there are a few it tells me they have picked up percentage players. Taaffe, Hutchinson, Salmon, Mann all percentage utility players which may take half the season for them to gel. It’s their kick and chase past halfway that needs to watched very closely.
    What troubles me the most is the referee Atkins – he seems awfully hard on Parra – I recall the first game against the Raiders last year and he certainly influenced the outcome of that game with some strange decisions. It would be an interesting how often Parra win when he is in charge.
    Just the same Parra 17 is clearly better and I am hoping Moses and Brown turn it on.
    I hope the team is alert to the rule changes – no lifting the leg, no blockers, and making a genuine attempt to catch the high ball. We will miss Sivo but, he can be a little lazy at times and seems to lack urgency running the ball back from a kick. As Mr Sixties stated – he can score tries and they win games.
    Will Parra win? Can we change the referee?

    1. sixties

      Zero, don’t start me on referees! I have to kick off the season not even thinking about them. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten what happened under a different ref at the start of last season against the Storm. Besides ignoring what was meant to be the new interpretation and calling of the play in the ruck (imagine the Storm not being called out for ruck interference) it was the Eels who had Hodgson penalised in a critical late call. We challenged and it was unsuccessful, despite clear evidence of ball planting. Refs boss later said the call was wrong. Didn’t help us by then!
      Every game this round has been an upset. Parra will end that trend today!

    2. Gol

      Referees are no excuse in this one, with the gap in quality between the rosters the ref would need to take to Mitch Moses’ knee with a crowbar before I’d expect he can change the result.

  3. Longfin Eel

    As you point out, commentators are putting us down to miss the 8, but then they go on to say we have one of the best forward packs, halves and bench in the game! I think this proves they are not remotely interested in Parramatta, and are more hoping we miss the 8. The hatred of our club is palpable, and I for one can’t put my finger on why that is. Can you imagine if Parra was as successful as Melbourne, Penrith or Brisbane? Well it’s time to imagine, because this year is when we lay down a platform for that year on year success.

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