Eels v Panthers preview

Eels v Panthers
Parramatta Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

If Penrith needed any extra motivation to atone for their woeful first-up start against Newcastle, they have it with a quick turn-around and a match-up against fierce rivals. The Eels and the Panthers will come together in a ding-dong battle of the west to kick off Round 2 – on the back of Round 1 performances that defied early predictions.

The Eels were favoured to lose in New Zealand against the Warriors but instead they prevailed 24-16 to start the Stephen Kearney era on a high.

The Panthers were favoured to take down the Knights in Penrith but instead provided an inept display – including 50 missed tackles – to get flogged 42-8 on their own patch of grass.

So naturally the Eels come into the clash heavily favoured this week – particularly since they smoked the Panthers just a few weeks ago in the trials.

They come into their first home match of the season in seventh place on the ladder and have just one forced change from the team that climbed over the Warriors. Chris Walker is out injured, with premiership winner and former Kiwi international Paul Whatuira coming in at centre.

Their new coach has obviously instilled more discipline with the ball in hand, as the Eels failed to register a single offload against the Warriors – a far cry from their usual second-phase driven play of the past few seasons. (In fact, it was the first time in recorded stats history that the Eels haven’t made as much as a single offload – how’s that for Kearney telegraphing his coaching plans for 2011?)

The Panthers, who sit dead last after their shellacking, will not be happy to hear only one team in history has won the competition after entering Round 2 in 15th place or lower (Canberra 1989).

Coach Matt Elliott hasn’t wielded a heavy axe, although Sandor Earl is gone from the wing with David Simmons coming in and Masada Iosefa is no longer on the bench – his place will be taken by debutant Sarafu Fatiaki.

Watch Out Eels: Wounded pride in professional athletes usually inspires big performances. The Panthers were dismal in the opening round but with a skipper like Petero Civoniceva you can be assured of a different attitude come Friday night.

Civoniceva himself is one the Eels must watch. He may be well into the veteran category but the rock-hard prop will almost certainly improve on the 79 metres he gained against Newcastle. The old dog did pump out three offloads against the Knights, showing he still has some skills, and word is he has been working on his pre-line passing also so the Parra boys can’t just assume he’ll tuck it under the jumper and run.

Danger Sign: If Petero takes two hit-ups in an early set of six, the Eels boys are in for a torrid afternoon. Assuming the side has more discipline with ball in hand you could almost put your house on Petero gaining triple-figure metres.

Watch Out Panthers: It may have been 4597 days since Casey McGuire has represented the Eels at Parramatta Stadium but the crafty hooker has certainly added some spark to the side. The Eels halves are often criticised for their lack of penetration but with McGuire in the mix, opposition defences now have another option to seriously worry about.

Against the Warriors the No.9 showed some crafty touches and he will create another kicking option going forward. Also, he is a vital cog in setting up an Eels’ staple attacking play: Panthers defenders better be ready around the ruck as when McGuire senses they are tiring he calls in Robson or Mortimer and Hayne to put on an inside pass. McGuire passes wide to one of the halves, who then cuts the ball straight back in to a flying Hayne up the middle. If the forwards assume the ball is going wide, the hesitation is enough for Hayne to breeze on through.

Danger Sign: If Panthers forwards are making multiple tackles in a row and you see a long Eels backline set but Hayne is still behind the ruck… look out – here comes the ‘Hayne plane’.

Plays To Watch: Nathan Hindmarsh shaping to hit the ball up only to pass the ball wide prior to contact; Luke Burt to do something tricky like a surprise one-on-one steal; Hayne to launch numerous 40/20 attempts; Michael Gordon to come in scouting for the ball like former Dragons great Nathan Blacklock; Trent Waterhouse to run directly at Mortimer or Robson; and, of course, the kick plays described below.

Where It Will Be Won: The attacking kicks and defence to them is the key in this encounter. The Eels did well to beat the Warriors but don’t be fooled into thinking they have their attack in order. In truth the Eels were still a little pedestrian in attack and had to resort to the boot to score two of their four tries. They are extremely likely to rely on the attacking kicks of Jarryd Hayne and Daniel Mortimer once again here.

Hayne can hoist spiral bombs better than most if not all players in the competition and one had to feel a little sorry for Warriors rookie Glen Fisiiahi when he dropped one which led to a Luke Burt try. Mortimer is very adept at cross-field bombs and can also hoist the ball up and under – although his edge comes in the form of his terrier-like chase.

As for the Panthers, well they allowed in three tries from kicks against the Knights last week, which doesn’t bode well. BUT – we are talking about the side that scored 42 tries from kicks in the regular season last year. Luke Walsh and Lachlan Coote particularly usually have an uncanny connection in this area – Walsh kicks, Coote pounces.

The team prepared to commit, to dive on loose balls and help out their mates with legal protection will be on the path to victory.

The History: Played 81; Eels 51, Panthers 29, drawn 1. The Eels have won four of the past six between the two clubs, including the most recent two games. Wins have come in pairs in recent times, which means the Panthers are due a two-game streak of their own against the Eels.

At Parramatta Stadium the Eels have won 12, the Panthers seven – although the Panthers won two of the past three at the venue. But remember: the Eels also punished the Panthers in a trial match earlier this year.

Conclusion: You can’t really tip the Panthers with any confidence after their Round 1 effort. Of course it might have just been an anomaly and the real Penrith will show up this week… but a hiding like that dents confidence.

The Eels on the other hand will come in with plenty of confidence and will want to continue ‘the high’ for their home fans.

It’s not a ‘lock’, as the Eels have plenty of improvement required, but you still need to lean their way.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.