Tipped to challenge for the premiership after an impressive 2017 season, the Parramatta Eels find themselves glued to the bottom of the table, winless after four starts and in desperate need to turn things around against a Penrith side which has already put them to the sword once this season.
In stark contrast, the Panthers have only dropped one game despite a series of slow starts early in the campaign and are coming off their most impressive performance of the season, a 33-14 drubbing of the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.
When these two sides met just four weeks ago, the Eels launched out to a commanding 14-0 lead but were hunted down by a rabid Penrith in the second stanza, going on to lose 24-14. Since then, the Eels have lost Bevan French and Jarryd Hayne to injury and, if reports are to be believed, are on the verge of a coach-led clear-out of the playing roster.
Big name stars have gone missing for long stretches so far in 2018 for Parramatta and it’s senior figures like Michael Jennings, Corey Norman and Tim Mannah who will need to lift mightily if they are to reverse their last-start loss in the ‘Battle of the West’ in round one.
With no Nathan Cleary once again this week, James Maloney will want to match his stellar performance in far north Queensland and guide his side to their fourth win in five starts.
2018 - Round 1 - Penrith Panthers 24 def. Parramatta Eels 14 at Panthers Stadium
2017 - Round 8 - Parramatta Eels 18 def. Penrith Panthers 12 at ANZ Stadium
2016 - Round 19 - Penrith Panthers 22 def. Parramatta Eels 18 at Panthers Stadium
2016 - Round 5 - Penrith Panthers 20 def. Parramatta Eels 18 at Parramatta Stadium
2015 - Round 22 - Parramatta Eels 10 def. Penrith Panthers 4 at Marrara Stadium (Darwin)
|Parramatta Eels||Penrith Panthers|
|1||Will Smith||Dylan Edwards|
|2||George Jennings||Josh Mansour|
|3||Michael Jennings||Waqa Blake|
|4||Kirisome Auva'a||Dean Whare|
|5||Josh Hoffman||Christian Crichton|
|6||Corey Norman||Tyrone Peachey|
|7||Mitchell Moses||James Maloney|
|8||Daniel Alvaro||Trent Merrin|
|9||Kaysa Pritchard||Peter Wallace|
|10||Tim Mannah||Reagan Campbell-Gillard|
|11||Manu Ma'u||Viliame Kikau|
|12||Kenny Edwards||Isaah Yeo|
|13||Nathan Brown||James Fisher-Harris|
|14||Tepai Moeroa||Wayde Egan|
|15||Beau Scott||Corey Harawira-Naera|
|16||Peni Terepo||Moses Leota|
|17||Tony Williams||James Tamou|
|18||Cameron King||Jarome Luai|
|19||Suaia Matagi||Nick Lui-Toso|
|20||David Gower||Sione Katoa|
|21||Kane Evans||Kaide Ellis|
The facts that matter
There are plenty of areas screaming out for improvement for the Eels, but one of the more concerning has been the lack of creativity and direction for halves partners Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman.
The pair who were electric at the back end of 2017 as the Eels broke a finals footy hoodoo have been underwhelming so far in 2018, laying on just three try assist across the first four weeks of the competition. Behind a heavily beaten forward pack for much of the first four games, Norman and Moses have looked a shadow of the partnership which combined so fruitfully in 2017.
Ill-discipline has also been at the forefront of Parramatta’s problems with the blue and golds amongst the more heavily penalised and error-prone outfits in the league. The Eels rank second overall in missed tackles with 162 against their name (The Titans have been the worst with 164) while they sit fifth overall in penalties conceded with 39 across the first four rounds. Parramatta also sit fourth overall for ineffective tackles according to NRL.com stats with 77 compared to the worst offenders, Newcastle, with 81.
Statistically, things don’t look great across the board for Parramatta, but sitting 14th in completion rates and 13th for line breaks stand out as further problem areas for Brad Arthur’s troops.Goal kicking has also been a concern for the club. Chief shot-taker Mitchell Moses has managed just three successful conversions from eight attempts so far in 2018. Moses was amongst the best sharpshooters in the league last season, kicking at 85%.
Despite the thought that coach Brad Arthur might have been ready to rip up the playbook and bench some under-performing stars after last week’s 30-20 loss to the Wests Tigers, the Eels have named the same side as last week in what looks a desperate last-ditch attempt at finding form.
The only question mark is over hooker Kaysa Pritchard who will need to come through concussion protocols after a head knock but he is expected to play. If he’s forced out, Cameron King is amongst the reserves and would be the obvious replacement.
While many thought the Panthers might struggle after losing Nathan Cleary for an extended period, the boys from Penrith were highly impressive in a last-start win over the Cowboys in North Queensland.
Star import James Maloney stood out as a game-breaker on the night, steering the Panthers impressively while his makeshift halves partner Tyrone Peachey was able to play a solid second-fiddle role.
Penrith coach Anthony Griffin will be hoping Maloney’s good form, as well as that of bustling forwards James Fisher-Harris and Reagan Campbell-Gillard will carry over to their second meeting with the Eels in the first five weeks of the season.
The Panthers overcome a slow start to run down the Eels and bank a 24-14 win in round one and have only dropped points on one occasion since then. Centre Waqa Blake was instrumental in the first-up victory and the young centre has been in career best form this season, scoring four tries in as many games and averaging around a dozen tackles per game in the process. As with any enigmatic youngster he has still thrown in more than his fair share of errors, something he’ll be keen to cut out moving forward.
Blake and Maloney aside, the Panthers have impressed through the middle of the ruck. Their big men have laid one of the better platforms in the league week in, week out, averaging 1509.9m per game. Guys like Dylan Edwards (32 tackle breaks) have benefitted greatly sniffing around behind the likes of James Tamou, Trent Merrin and Reagan Campbell-Gillard while his 663 run metres have him fourth overall in the league.
Anthony Griffin has almost named an unchanged 17 from last week with the only change a swap between James Fisher-Harris and Trent Merrin leaving the latter in the front row and the former starting at lock forward. Round four debutant Wayde Egan moves into the #14 jersey and could see extended minutes if he’s on the bench again this week after his brief cameo in Townsville.
In the 94-game history of these clashes, the Eels hold a historical advantage, winning 56 times to the Panthers 37 with a solitary draw crammed in. Recently, the Panthers were good enough to grab the points in the round one this season, and they’ll fancy themselves to move to eight competition points with a win at ANZ Stadium this Sunday.
The Eels are fast approaching a point in the season where they simply must win to be any chance of taking part in finals footy at the end of the season. The added air of desperation should bring the best out of the Eels, but with things as they are there are too many question marks surrounding them.
With that in mind, as well as Penrith’s top-shelf performance in Townsville last week, I’ll be taking the Panthers in the 1-12 point range this week.
Will the Panthers notch a second straight win in the ‘Battle of the West’ or will the Eels grab their first points of the season? Let us know in the comments and poll below.