The NRL’s ambitious push to emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown has paid off after attracting its biggest television audience for a regular-season game in more than six years.
The final game in the first week of the NRL finals comes to us from what will be a sold-out Bankwest Stadium, as the Parramatta Eels look to send the Brisbane Broncos out without a finals victory for the second year in a row.
The Broncos, while under a different coach, with a slightly different-looking roster and a different style of play, made the elimination finals last year, only to be bounced out in a shock defeat by the St George Illawarra Dragons.
On that occasion, they were the heavily-backed favourites, only to be destroyed on home soil.
Fast forward 12 months, and the roles have virtually been reversed for the men from Brisbane.
They come into this game away from home, at one of the toughest places to go and play footy, as the rank outsider who have fallen into the finals, seemingly despite their best efforts to miss out with a bad loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs in the final week of the season.
In fact, the argument could be made Brisbane wouldn’t even be here without a draw against the New Zealand Warriors earlier in the season and a golden point win over the Eels just a couple of weeks ago.
That win will give them confidence, but not much else will, given how good the Eels have been at Bankwest Stadium throughout the year.
This is a team who look primed and ready for the finals, and would prefer to draw on their earlier flogging of the Broncos at home, than the game played just a fortnight ago between the two sides.
Still, Parramatta, in front of 30,000 of their home fans, will have to be cautious about this game, given the immense potential and raw talent Brisbane have at their disposal, especially in the forward pack.
Parramatta will also be slightly worried about their form. While they did have a big win over the Sea Eagles to snatch fifth spot on the table and book in the seemingly easier of the two elimination finals against the Broncos, they had lost to Brisbane and the Bulldogs before that, and given how poor Manly were last week, it’s not a true guide to where their form is actually at.
In what is a big boost for the Eels, Nathan Brown returns from suspension for the first game of the finals. Unfortunately, his return is offset by the loss of an in-form Kane Evans, who misses out after failing to get his charge for a careless high tackle downgraded at the judiciary during the week.
It means that Daniel Alvaro will start, while the originally dropped Tepai Moeroa regains his place on the bench, although Parramatta could yet opt to run with Peni Terepo instead.
1. Clint Gutherson, 2. Maika Sivo, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Waqa Blake, 5. Blake Ferguson, 6. Dylan Brown, 7. Mitchell Moses, 8. Kane Evans, 9. Reed Mahoney, 10. Junior Paulo, 11. Shaun Lane, 12. Manu Ma’u, 13. Nathan Brown
Bench: 14. Brad Takairangi, 15. Daniel Alvaro, 16. Ray Stone, 17. Marata Niukore, 18. Tepai Moeroa, 19. Will Smith, 20. Peni Terepo, 21. Josh Hoffman
Not too much in the way of team news for the Broncos, who do have Joe Ofahengaue back once again, while Gehamat Shibasaki replaces Izaia Perese on the bench.
They might be settled, but won’t want to settle for what they dished up last week against the Bulldogs.
1. Anthony Milford, 2. Corey Oates, 3. Kotoni Staggs, 4. Alex Glenn, 5. Jamayne Isaako, 6. Darius Boyd, 7. Jake Turpin, 8. Matthew Lodge, 9. Andrew McCullough, 10. Payne Haas, 11. David Fifita, 12. Matt Gillett, 13. Joe Ofahengaue
Bench: 14. James Segeyaro, 15. Thomas Flegler, 16. Gehamat Shibasaki, 17. Patrick Carrigan, 18. Rhys Kennedy, 19. Izaia Perese, 20. Shaun Fensom, 21. Cory Paix
Breaking down the Bankwest bubble
There is little doubt that one of the key challenges that comes with facing the Eels away from home is their new stadium in Parramatta, and that’s going to be on display again here.
Ever since they opened it in front of a sold-out house and thumped the Tigers by 45 points, it’s turned into a stomping ground for the Eels, where they are quite obviously comfortable playing their footy.
The ground has been a major part of the reason the Eels have recovered from a slow start to make the finals, with the club winning eight out of their ten games at the venue.
That’s a pretty damn good strike rate in anyone’s book, and Parramatta also have the wood over Brisbane here, serving up a 38 points to 10 beatdown earlier in the season.
It’s going to be a tough environment again for the Broncos on Sunday, given the sold out sign has already gone up.
For the Broncos to stand a chance, they must get off to a good start and keep the crowd quiet.
Having been there for a game earlier in the season, what I can state with authority is that it’s a lonely place for the Parramatta side when the crowd do quiet, but as soon as they perk up, it’s one hell of a tough place for an away side to play rugby league.
That said, the whole result might be riding on the first 20 minutes.
Mitchell Moses must direct his side around
One of the more impressive storylines at the Eels this year, and one of the big reasons for them sitting fifth on the ladder at the end of the year, has been the form of Mitchell Moses.
The much-maligned half has had a wonderful second half of the season, and could well contend for the Dally M Medal in a couple of weeks.
His kicking game has been pin-point accurate more often than not, and when he is working in tandem with a strong forward pack, it’s turned Parramatta into a real force to be reckoned with throughout the course of the season.
Of course, Parramatta have more than one part to the machine, but there is no doubt that Moses has made Maika Sivo and Blake Ferguson’s job on the wings a lot easier, while he has also assisted the forwards out of tough spots with an excellent long-range kicking game throughout the course of the season.
Then there is his short-range kicking game, which has been dangerous. He has forced 14 drop outs, but also made 24 try assists throughout the season, which is better than one per game and goes to show exactly how good his decision making with the ball in hand has been.
The other crucial part of Moses game is that, by taking over the key kicking duties, he has made the job of whichever young half – be it Dylan Brown or Jaeman Salmon – is playing next to him, a lot easier.
The fact he has also improved his defence out of sight probably goes to show just how much work he has put in throughout 2019, and if the Eels are to beat the Broncos, watch for Moses to have a blinder.
Can Brisbane’s young forward pack handle the heat?
One reason Moses may not be able to have a blinder though is the impact and influence of the Brisbane forward pack.
If they get it right, they have the potential to be the best in the game. Whether it’s Payne Haas breaking tackles, the line, offloading and just generally being dangerous, Matt Lodge showing the way forward with experience, David Fifita being a wrecking ball on the edge or Joe Ofahengaue proving a menace up the middle, the talent on display for the Broncos in the forwards is outrageous.
The problem, of course, which has followed them around all season, is that little c-word, known as consistency.
It’s been better during the second half of the season as said players continue to adapt to first grade, but at times, it’s ben non-existent.
If they turn up and don’t put in a collectively good game (and the job isn’t made any easier by Tevita Pangai Junior’s suspension), then they will put the Eels on the back foot and make the job of Moses, Brown and Clint Gutherson really tough.
Turn up and play a bad game, and this could be a cakewalk for the Eels.
The biggest factor in determining which way this particular point will play outcomes through whether they are caught overplaying their hand or not.
Haas and Fifita in particular, who are in their first finals game, must remember this is not all about them, and do what is best for the team at all times.
Do that, and Brisbane stand a very solid chance of causing a third boilover for the weekend.
The Broncos have been up and down all season, and their pack of young forwards doesn’t have a lot of finals experience amongst it.
Granted, this game could really go either way, because neither team have screamed consistency.
However, at their best, the Eels are a cut and a half above Brisbane, and playing at home, where they have been unbelievably successful, only increases that advantage.
There is little doubt the Broncos aren’t going to go away without a fight, but the Eels should take the chocolates to book a surpise date in Melbourne next weekend.
Eels by 2.
Date: Sunday, September 15
Kick-off: 4:05pm (AEST)
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Parramatta
TV: Live, Fox League 502, Channel 9
Online: Live, Foxtel App, Foxtel Now, Kayo Sports, 9Now, NRL Digital Pass
Overall record: Played 56, Broncos 33, Eels 22, drawn 1
Last meeting: Round 24, 2019 – Broncos 17 defeat Eels 16 at Suncorp Stadium
Last five: Eels 3, Broncos 2
Record in finals: Played 4, Eels 2, Broncos 2
Record at venue: Played 1, Eels 1, Broncos 0
Referees: Ben Cummins, Grant Atkins
Don’t forget to join us here on The Roar from 4:05pm (AEST) on Sunday afternoon for our live coverage and highlights of the game.