Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Panthers v Eels
It’s a shame that a western Sydney derby such as this one should loom more as a battle to move off the bottom of the NRL ladder than a fight for higher honours, but after some forgettable years of late and a tough start to 2013 that’s exactly what we have at the foot of the mountains on Monday night.
With just three wins between them so far this season, the situation is already looking critical for Penrith and Parramatta as they fight to show that, at the very least, they are starting to make some sort of move in the right direction.
True, both sides have readily admitted that they are in a rebuilding phase but there are only so many years in a row fans can deal with the fact that their club is unlikely to figure in the finals race before the halfway point of the season!
That’s why this game is so important for the Panthers and Eels.
Penrith have seen more upheaval this year than any other club following the departures of Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings in the off-season and the arrival of a dozen promising but for the most part less-decorated players.
That they should lose one of their more consistent performers in five-eighth Lachlan Coote to long-term injury already this year was a hit they couldn’t afford to take and their lack of surety was highlighted in a scrappy 8-6 loss to Newcastle last start in a game they certainly could have won.
While the Panthers boast a strong presence in the forwards through the likes of representative trio Tim Grant, Sika Manu and Sam McKendry, they lack experience out wide and could do with a few wins to give them the confidence they need to move forward with their plans.
Likewise, Parramatta have employed one of rugby league’s great motivators in coach Ricky Stuart this season – but do the players truly believe in their own abilities after their disastrous 2011 and 2012 campaigns?
The Eels certainly have their explosive moments, having opened the season with a 40-10 thrashing of the Warriors and led the Titans 22-8 two weeks ago before the home side’s comeback prompted a 28-22 loss and Stuart’s now infamous post-game blow-up about referees.
If Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow both fire they can be very hard to beat but if even one of them has an off night it is usually a very different story. Which will it be this week?
Highly rated youngster Matt Moylan makes his NRL debut at fullback for the home side in place of Wes Naiqama, while Travis Robinson plays his first game of the year on the wing with Josh Mansour joining Naiqama on the sidelines with injury.
Coach Ivan Cleary has also reshuffled his pack, with Nigel Plum moving to lock and Matt Robinson into the second row alongside Sika Manu. Clint Newton drops back to the bench with Nathan Smith returning to the 17 as well.
Eels coach Stuart has promoted Mitch Allgood to start at prop for the suspended Fuifui Moimoi, while in a direct swap from the Titans match Kelepi Tanginoa will start at lock and Ben Smith in the second row. Matthew Ryan is the new face on the interchange.
Watch Out Panthers: Parramatta centre Ryan Morgan has enjoyed a superb start to 2013 and looms as a real threat to the Panthers’ left-edge defence. Fast and elusive, Morgan has shown glimpses of his best in recent seasons but is quickly developing into a top-quality three-quarter in the Eels’ backline. A brilliant hole runner, Morgan has scored some spectacular tries this season including a wonderful opener in the Round 5 win over Cronulla and a great run against the Titans last start. He has made four line-breaks for four tries this season to go with his 18 tackle-breaks.
Watch Out Eels: With so many of their key players out injured, the best way to stop Penrith this week will be to work over their main big men in Tim Grant and Sam McKendry – but executing that plan will be easier said than done. Grant and McKendry have been in exceptional form in 2013, with the NSW prop averaging 127 metres per game and the Kiwi Test enforcer 113 metres per game. Penrith’s best chance to win will be to dominate through the middle, so expect them to focus their energies in the forwards.
Plays To Watch: The Chris Sandow show-and-go is a favourite play of the little half yet it is remarkable how often he slices straight through with this simple move. Sandow loves to drift slowly across field looking for a lazy defender, then explode into action and race through the gap. He did it twice against the Warriors in Round 1 to set up tries (the first disallowed for an obstruction) and again in the loss to the Wests Tigers two weeks later. Watch for him to exploit any opportunity presented again this week.
Key Match-Up: Luke Walsh v Chris Sandow. So much attacking responsibility sits on Luke Walsh’s shoulders right now given the absence of Lachlan Coote, Josh Mansour, Wes Naiqama and Blake Austin through injury. Walsh boasts an excellent kicking game but will be well aware that the Panthers have scored a total of just 16 points in their past three outings. Likewise, Parramatta desperately need Sandow to fire again. The diminutive No.7 has enjoyed a promising start to the year after his disappointing 2012 but the Eels’ hopes of staging a revival will fly out the window if he goes off the boil.
Where It Will Be Won: This could be one of those games where the men out wide determine who comes out on top and again, the big question is just how many points the Panthers have in them.
It will be interesting to see how young fullback Matthew Moylan goes given that coach Ivan Cleary indicated before the start of the season that he was keen to give the local junior a run in 2013. Notably, Dean Whare, Tom Humble, Travis Robinson and Moylan have just 58 games experience between them. Then again, there is no better time for them to show Cleary what they are capable of against an Eels backline that is exceptionally young in its own right. Aside from Hayne and Sandow, Ryan Morgan is their next most experienced back with 39 NRL games.
The History: Played 85; Eels 52, Panthers 32, drawn 1. The Panthers have won five of the past nine clashes including three of the past four – but the Eels boast a good record at Centrebet Stadium, winning 22 of 41 games, with one draw.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Reece Williams.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: We’ve seen some remarkable finishes in clashes between these two sides in recent years and that could well prove to be the case again this week with Penrith and Parramatta both desperate for a win. But we can’t help but lean towards the Eels given the injury woes that have decimated Penrith’s backline. The presence of Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow will prove decisive. Eels by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.