The battle lines have been drawn, the combatants chosen and the war zone has been prepped.
We are about to witness the western side of Sydney go hammer and tong against each other because come Friday night either you’re an Eel or a Panther in the harbour city… or you’re irrelevant.
One will be triumphant, the other despondent as the winner is in the box seat for a finals berth, while the loser will be relying on the good grace of the football gods and other teams to survive beyond Round 26.
This really does shape up as a huge clash, with the Eels carving up all and sundry to win six in a row, pushing them into contention at ninth spot, while the Panthers are barely in front in eighth, equal on points but ahead on differential.
The Panthers kept their finals dreams alive by extinguishing South Sydney’s last weekend but they will be well aware it will take a bigger effort to stop the surging Eels.
After starting last weekend’s game from the bench, both hooker Paul Aiton and prop Matthew Bell have been named to start, with Maurice Blair and Adam Woolnough returning to the pine.
Coach Matthew Elliott has otherwise kept things the same; however, he has added two extra reserves in Tim Grant and Gavin Cooper.
The Eels notched up win number six on the trot against the Wests Tigers last Friday night in a game with plenty of thrills and spills and while the Tigers came away battered and bruised, the Eels escaped without any major problems.
They will enter this crucial match with the same 17 – although Joe Galuvao has been named to start after losing that place to Ben Smith last week. And Luke Burt has recovered from the knee in the back which shortened his game against the Tigers.
Watch out Eels: The Panthers have probably four major cannons to fire in Frank Pritchard, Trent Waterhouse, Michael Jennings and Luke Lewis.
Teams facing the Panthers in recent weeks have shown you can limit the ball Jennings gets, while Lewis has been having a tough run with bumps and knocks, limiting his overall effectiveness. But the back-row duo of Waterhouse and Pritchard are looking super-dangerous right about now. Both have worked out they can rove around the field a little bit, rather than stay stuck on one edge, and it is causing all sorts of dramas for defensive lines.
Waterhouse has now upped his average metres to 100, while he has also added six line breaks, five line-break assists, three try assists, three tries, 57 tackle breaks and 37 offloads.
Pritchard, who destroyed the Rabbitohs last weekend, will be trying to prove he can put two dominant performances back to back. He is averaging 98 metres, has nine line breaks, 11 line-break assists, five try assists, six tries, 44 tackle breaks and 31 offloads (usually always quality). In the past you could warn the Eels to stiffen up the right side defence as Pritchard would attack exclusively down the left side, but with his new roving commission, everyone needs to be on their toes and ready to wrap up the ball.
Watch out Panthers: It might be obvious but it can’t be ignored. Jarryd Hayne is Parramatta right now.
Of course the forwards, particularly Nathan Hindmarsh, are making good yards to give Hayne space but the reality is Hayne is on fire… and then some. Last week alone he ran for 264 metres with a try and two line breaks plus a try assist. He broke seven tackles, produced four offloads and kicked two 40/20s! Somehow, some way, the Panthers need to shut him down as he now averages 173 metres, has a massive 27 line breaks, 10 try assists, 121 tackle breaks and 13 tries putting him on a collision course for a Dally M Medal.
The Panthers need to start by not kicking to him as often as possible.
Where it will be won: Going above and beyond at the crucial moments. In games like this it is the smaller and finer points of the game which make all the difference.
United States founding father Benjamin Franklin once said: “A little neglect may breed great mischief. For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost; for want of a rider the battle was lost; for want of the battle the kingdom was lost… thus, for want of a nail a kingdom was lost.” Well, apply that here and it’s a case of: “For want of the one percenters, the finals chance was lost!”
Just look at the Wests Tigers-Eels match last week when it took some Hayne magic to clinch the win. Sure, his chip-and-chase and regather was spectacular but look at the replay and you will see how it was allowed to come about. First Robbie Farah rushed up at Hayne but in his haste allowed himself to be wrong-footed, giving Hayne the chance to run. This minor detail started the chain of events and if Farah had put the pressure on in a manner where he could have still attempted a good tackle, things could be very different.
After eluding Farah, Hayne kicked ahead and here is where the next split-second ‘lazy’ decision was made. Tigers prop Keith Galloway saw the kick but instead of turning and chasing hard to maybe pick up the scraps or lend some support, he tried to manoeuvre himself with the smallest amount of effort and block the Hayne chase. But unhindered, Hayne regathered… and the rest is try-scoring folklore.
The side prepared to throw their bodies on the line at every single moment will prevail here, no doubt about it. This means chasing every kick hard, jumping on every loose ball with vigour and keeping the mind focussed solely on the job for 80 minutes.
The history: Played 79; Eels 49, Panthers 29, drawn 1. It’s game 80 between these two fierce western Sydney rivals, with the Eels aiming for win 50, the Panthers for win 30. Earlier this season the Panthers prevailed 38-34 in a high-scoring thriller which pushed their recent results over the Eels to four of the past six. At Parramatta Stadium the Eels have won 11 of 18 clashes but haven’t beaten the Panthers on the ground since 2005.
Conclusion: The form line gives the Eels the edge, particularly on their home turf with their screaming fans doing their best to ensure the referees see every indiscretion and others which don’t exist!
But the Panthers have beaten the Eels already this year and have the attacking power to match them. If Penrith are to stop the run they must be much better in defence. Yes we are aware Souths only posted 10 points on them last week but the ease in which they did so was concerning.
Stick with the Eels here although they have to lose sometime… don’t they?
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.