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Get set for a Western Sydney Derby like never before

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Roar Guru
8th June, 2020
4

A major highlight on the rugby league calendar is the Western Sydney derby between the Parramatta Eels and Penrith Panthers.

With both sides sitting in first and third place on the ladder respectively, this has the potential to be a finals preview, even if we haven’t yet reached the quarter-mark of the rebooted NRL season.

The Eels have been the most impressive team of the season so far, winning their first four matches of a season for the first time since 1989 to be sitting comfortably on top of the ladder.

Prior to the season suspension, they had edged out the Bulldogs by 8-2 before they unleashed their attacking flair against the Titans, winning 46-6 on the Gold Coast.

The blue and golds picked up where they left off after the resumption of the season, thrashing the Brisbane Broncos 34-6 at Suncorp Stadium and then returning home to edge out the Sea Eagles 19-16 at Bankwest Stadium.

The win over the Sea Eagles didn’t come without any controversy, as the Sea Eagles were incorrectly pinged for a forward pass at the death that could’ve cost the Eels victory.

Central to the Eels’ early-season form has been the performances at halfback of Mitchell Moses, who is currently in the box seat to don the number seven jersey for New South Wales in the post-season State of Origin series.

But long-suffering Eels fans need not get too excited just yet, because the last time they started the season that impressively, they faltered to miss the finals altogether, finishing eighth (back then, it was only a six-team finals series) out of 16 teams.

Still, coach Brad Arthur and the playing group would be happy at where they are at, as they get set to face the Penrith Panthers in the second match of a string of five straight matches at Bankwest Stadium this Friday night.

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Brad Arthur Eels

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

The Panthers could also have been 4-0 to start the season if not for a rather poor performance against the Knights in Round 3 – after leading 14-0 at the 23-minute mark, they failed to score again as they were pegged to a 14-all draw.

However, they were able to unleash their frustration on the New Zealand Warriors last Friday night, racking up a 26-0 victory to make it three wins from four outings so far in 2020, with rookie five-eighth Matt Burton scoring two tries after missing five field goal attempts against the Knights.

Making their past fortnight all the more impressive was that they were without halfback Nathan Cleary due to a suspension arising from his controversial TikTok video which surfaced on social media during the Anzac Day weekend.

They had also beaten reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters at home in Round 1, as well as come from behind to beat the Dragons at Kogarah Oval in Round 2. This makes them undefeated after Round 4 for the first time since the 1997 Super League season.

Cleary will make his return against the man who could potentially snatch his number seven jersey for the Blues (although it must be said that Cleary missed Game 3 last year due to injury) in the revamped State of Origin series to take place in November.

Thus, the stage is set for, potentially, the biggest Western Sydney derby for a while.

Channel Nine commentator Phil Gould once said “when Parramatta go up (the ladder), Penrith go down and when Penrith go up, Parramatta go down”.

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Phil Gould

Does Gould know something we don’t know? (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

This is somewhat true, because only once since 2000 have both the Eels and Panthers made the finals in the same season. That was in 2017, when both teams made it to as far as the second week before being knocked out by Queensland clubs in the semi-finals.

Most notably, in 2001 when the Eels dominated the regular season and topped the standings, the Panthers wallowed at the wrong end of the ladder, taking out the wooden spoon after losing its final match against the eventual premiers, the Newcastle Knights, by 60-18.

Yet two years later, the Panthers rocketed up the ladder and ended up claiming the premiership, defeating the Eels in the final round of the regular season and denying their western Sydney rivals a finals berth in the process.

Also since 2000, neither the Eels or Panthers have managed to beat each other four times in a row, however, the mountain men have had the better of the two teams in recent times, winning eleven of the last 17 meetings dating back to 2011.

Granted, the Panthers’ dominance has come during what was a dismal decade for the Eels, in which they only made the finals twice (2017 and 2019) and finished last three times (2012, 2013 and 2018).

While the stands may remain empty, up to 50 patrons per corporate area inside Bankwest Stadium will be permitted to attend the match, with the NRL securing permission from the state government to slowly allow crowds to attend sporting matches once again.

Though details are yet to be finalised, one plan could see fans enter the stadium at one end and exit the other, sit at a designated seat (or seats, in the case of families) and order their food without having to leave their seat.

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It’s a far cry from nearly three months ago when the Federal Government flagged that fans would be banned from attending any sporting event for up to six months, even longer, as the country sought to fight its way out of the coronavirus crisis.

Phil Gould talks with Peter Wallace on the field.

Phil Gould loves his Panthers. (Photo: Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Until either a vaccine is developed and approved by the government, or the final patient with coronavirus recovers from the disease (as was the case in New Zealand, which became the first country to completely eliminate the virus), full stadiums will be a thing of the past.

Of those two scenarios, the vaccine is unlikely to be developed and approved before the end of the season, while there are still over 400 active cases of the coronavirus and are increasing by only single figures daily.

All major restrictions in New Zealand, bar international travel, have been lifted, meaning the country will just about resume all normality this week, including sporting events with crowds.

That could potentially pave the way for the Warriors, who are based on the Central Coast indefinitely, to once again play home games on their home soil later this season, pending the establishment of a Trans-Tasman travel bubble.

Back on topic to finish off, and western Sydney bragging rights will be up for grabs in what is expected to be a genuine blockbuster between two sides that really don’t like each other, but are sharing each other’s company at the upper part of the ladder.