Can the Parramatta Eels keep their error rate down low enough to give themselves a chance of beating the Storm in Melbourne in the first week of the finals?
There will be plenty of other factors at play as well, of course, but none will matter if the Eels make too many mistakes.
Drop the ball too much and Melbourne will have them for what would be an early dinner, given it’s a 4:10pm kick-off at AAMI Park on Saturday.
The thing is though, Parramatta know they have to take some risks to be in with a chance of beating the odds-on premiership favourites.
Canberra had the right attitude when they went to Melbourne in the final round, but they couldn’t execute their gameplan remotely well enough and ended up losing 32-6.
The Raiders moved the ball quickly to get it out wide, to test the rival centres and wingers in defence. Sometimes they shifted back inside before it got that far wide. All the while they were on the lookout to offload.
The tactics were designed to try to move the defence around and stop the Storm from getting numbers in the tackle, but for that to work you just can’t give the ball up as often as Canberra did.
Half as often would have been bad enough.
Canberra had 15 offloads to Melbourne’s six, but they also had 14 errors to the Storm’s five. The Raiders completed at 71 per cent and the Storm 86. An average-at-best defensive team like the Raiders can’t afford to turn the ball over that often, particularly against a team as disciplined and relentless as the Storm. That story ends the same way every time.
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Parramatta coach Brad Arthur will come up with a specific plan, designed to weaken the Storm’s recognised strengths. He won’t, as many coaches have done, play the percentages in the hope that his opponents are off their game and his team can grind out a narrow win.
You have to at least try to force Melbourne out of their comfort zone. Your defence has to be terrific, but to actually win the game you have to be prepared to take options in attack that have some element of risk about them.
I’m not talking about crazy stuff, but swift passing of the ball even when the defence is moving up on you, sending it back inside when the opposition isn’t expecting it, cutting players out with long balls.
The best way to beat Melbourne with your attack is from a distance. Working your guts out to just occasionally get down inside their 20-metre area and then hoping the close proximity to the try-line will work in your favour with however many tackles you’ve got left is never enough.
The Storm, with their defence set, will stop you in the red zone way more often than is any good for your chances of winning. So you must be sharp, be prepared to mix things up a bit, and there will be times when you simply have to be brave – and that is just to put yourself in the contest.
The Eels have got the players to make things happen, in Mitchell Moses, Corey Norman, Semi Radradra, Michael Jennings and Nathan Brown. But then you’ve got to keep the mistakes to a bare minimum – probably so few that you can count them on one hand.
I don’t know if the Eels can do that on the road against the runaway minor premiers, but if they do we could be in for one hell of a contest.
If they cough it up too much they’ll pay the price that every team pays under those circumstances against Melbourne, but one thing for sure is that Parramatta will go down there with the aim of making something happen rather than waiting for something to happen.
And that will make this clash fascinating to watch – at least for as long as the Eels can stay in it.