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Turn Battle of the West into a true battle: How Parramatta can stop the Panthers' streak

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5th May, 2022
22
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A Friday night trip to Panthers Stadium is about the toughest assignment going in rugby league at the moment.

Penrith are on a 21-match unbeaten run at the foot of the mountains, dating back to their loss to Canberra Raiders in July 2019, and in 2022, it has perhaps looked more impregnable than ever.

Here in The Roar tactics towers, we’ve brought down a few fortresses in our time. This is the fourth iteration of our “How X can beat X” column and, believe it or not, we’re three from three in upset tipping so far.

We got the Broncos home in Round 1 over the Bunnies, then turned the tables by getting the Bunnies over the Roosters in Round 3. We even snagged the Tigers a victory, manifesting abundance into Michael Maguire’s life in Round 7 as they downed the Rabbitohs.

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Now, we take on the final boss, Penrith in Penrith. Parramatta are the hobbits seeking to storm the gates of Mordor.

After copping a serious beatdown in the Top End last week at the hands of the Cowboys, there’s not much to love about the Eels.

Their injury toll has slightly abated – they actually have a full complement of outside backs in outside back roles, which helps – and doubtless Brad Arthur will have inserted rocket into jacksie of his team on the back of last week’s performance.

Whenever we do these tactical previews, it is worth mentioning the prerequisites. Yes, you have to compete in the middle. Yes, you have to limit errors. Yes, you have to not get a man sent off after eight minutes (thanks, Karl).

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Lucky for Parra, then, because on those fronts, they rank well. The Panthers and Eels are first and second in the NRL for run metres and completion rates and second and third when it comes to errors. You could easily back Parramatta to compete in those key areas. Here’s three others where they can make a real impact.

Isaah Yeo

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Make Penrith play Parra’s game

These two have history. The closest that any team has gotten to defeating the Panthers in Penrith in their streak was indeed Parramatta in this fixture last season, when they were a missed penalty goal away from winning, but lost 13-12.

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In the finals last year, too, they came close: Parramatta lost 8-6 with troops dropping everywhere around them. The common denominator in both was Arthur managed to get the game fought on his team’s terms.

The Eels concede the most line breaks in the competition and the Panthers the least, while creating roughly the same in attack. Parramatta need to make this into a grinding, low-scoring match and force Penrith to work for every point.

In Mitchell Moses, they can boast an exceptional long and short kicker, and lead the league in attacking kicks and forced drop outs.

Notably, in the last two meetings of these sides, the Eels have had great success from kick tries that have made Dylan Edwards, usually the most defensively assured fullback in the NRL, look shaky.

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In the 8-6 game, they forced four drop outs, five set restarts and had much more possession and field position, despite having much fewer offloads and conceding far more penalties.

What that shows is that the conservative, grinding style clearly worked as recently as last September, at least in negating the Panthers’ forward progress.

If the Eels embrace the mentality that this game will be very low scoring, they can use Moses’ kicking to manipulate the game situation to their ends and attempt to slowly encroach in field position and stop the Panthers’ attack from firing.

Kick long. Kick to touch. Force drop outs. That’s the foundation from which they can build upwards. If the Eels can make the Battle of the West into a real battle, they stand a chance.

Empower Paulo and Brown while counteracting Yeo

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This match will see the two of the major attacking philosophies of the NRL clash, and whoever imposes their attacking style more readily will likely create more opportunities with ball in hand.

Penrith operate with a clear middle service plan, in which the ball-playing lock, Isaah Yeo, is an active playmaker and the two halves, Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, are enabled to play wider.

Parra, on the other hand, use their pack very differently. Junior Paulo passes more than any other prop in the NRL, and Nathan Brown performs a similar role in the 13 jersey, engaging the line and tipping the ball on.

Instead of swinging both sides of the ruck like Yeo does – designed to create an extra man wider out – Paulo and Brown engage closer to the ruck and create space further in. It’s not an accident that Shaun Lane and Isaiah Papali’I are among the top edge forwards in the NRL for line breaks.

It’s crucial Parramatta implement their style and have the confidence to enact it. This is twofold: firstly, it creates the best chance of them making line breaks through central areas; and secondly, it forces Cleary and Luai, who defend in those lanes, to do far more tackling than they would otherwise like.

With a bench that includes two front rowers and two backrowers, Parra can be confident that they can keep that tactic up for the full 80 and really wear out the Panthers.

Defensively, they can also make Penrith’s life a lot more difficult. The Panthers have worked two key areas in their attack, aided by Yeo’s playmaking role.

There’s the long shift that is empowered by the 13 taking a first receiver role, and there’s the gap between the inside and outside defenders, which often sees Liam Martin, Viliame Kikau – and later in the game, Scott Sorensen and Spencer Leniu – break through.

The Gold Coast managed to nullify Yeo last week, forcing him to pass along the line rather than engage it directly, which in turn negated a lot of what the Panthers tried to do in attack. In the end, Penrith found another way to win – via Cleary’s kicking – but it showed a blueprint of stopping the Panthers’ Plan A.

Punch early – then keep swinging

It’s quite easy to say teams should just score early on against the Panthers, and quite another thing to do it. Penrith have played nearly 650 minutes of footy this year and trailed for less than 20 of them.

No team has managed to ask enough questions early on and change the narrative – but Parramatta can be the first. Last year, this was the blueprint that South Sydney – the last team to beat the Panthers –  managed to pull off very effectively in their first finals match-up.

The Bunnies took three penalty goals that kept the scoreline tilted in their direction one at 0-0, another at 6-6 and another 14-10. Moses should be taking notes.

By keeping the scoreboard ticking over in their direction, Souths created desperation that Penrith rarely face, and were rewarded with an error count from the Panthers that was 40% worse than their average.

Penrith have the second-lowest error rate in the NRL, because they are a very patient attacking side that backs themselves to score points over the totality of the game, even late on.

It helps in that regard that few teams ever create a situation where the Panthers need to chuck it and force the play: if Parramatta can build pressure early, they can ask a question that Penrith rarely get asked.

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Then, they need to keep the pressure up. This where the bench comes in. By picking four forwards, the Eels can push the envelope early and then attempt to set a pace that forces the Panthers to come with them for as long as possible.

That will be fine for some of the Panthers, but the likes of Izack Tago, Taylan May, Soni Luke and Jaeman Salmon are younger and have less experience than their Eels counterparts. They’ve not faced this in first grade before.

The youngest man on the Parra bench, Oregon Kaufusi, has 50 games of first grade and the least experienced, Makahesi Makatoa, is 29 and has played tough footy for years in the UK. This is a clear advantage area for the Eels.

They are one of the few teams that can match in the middle early on and then replace their front-rower with similarly hard-edged, grinding players. The talent levels might not be to the standard of the young Panthers, but in terms of experience, they win out.

Parramatta can take Penrith’s young players to deep water. That’s not to say that they won’t swim, of course, but it will be a new question for them. Arthur can hope the answers aren’t forthcoming.

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