Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Penrith Panthers
The battle of the west is on again and while the Eels at this early stage are a couple of wins ahead of their local rivals you'd have to argue there's barely a struck match between them in terms of form.
The blue and golds have defended their way to three straight wins with a couple of big scalps but have struggled for fluency with the ball, leaving them as one of the lowest-ranked sides in terms of points scored after four weeks despite having the best defence of any team.
The Panthers were highly impressive in defeating what is arguably the form team of the competition so far, Brisbane, a fortnight ago and have been reasonably impressive and a little unlucky in their other three losses, having twice been beaten at the death.
The Eels have lost club captain Tim Mannah to a fractured shoulder blade with the inclusion of Peni Terepo the only likely change to last week's 17, while Penrith at long last welcome back captain Matt Moylan for the first time in an NRL game since a serious ankle injury against this very opposition at Pepper stadium in Round 12 last year.
He replaces Will Smith at fullback in an otherwise unchanged side, though Elijah Taylor and Jeremy Latimore have been added to an extended bench with ongoing doubts about whether Bryce Cartwright will overcome a thumb injury in time to take his place.
Watch out Eels: The return of Moylan will add another dimension to Penrith's attack but it's the return to form of tackle-busting winger Josh Mansour that has raised plenty of eyebrows, with the one-time Test flanker almost dragging his side to a win over the Dragons last week with an eye-popping, match-high 256 metres from a busy 20 runs, with two line-breaks and five tackle breaks. Much like Parramatta's own left-edge specialist Semi Radradra, Mansour's presence means his side effectively plays with an extra front rower's worth of powerful hit-ups. Mansour has easily the most metres by any winger this year with 738 – the third most of any player after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Aaron Woods, and miles ahead of the next best winger, Marika Koroibete's 550.
Watch out Panthers: Penrith will really need to step up their tackling in this one. That may sound obvious but Penrith currently have the worst effective tackle rate in the NRL at just 84.6 per cent and their 38.5 missed tackles per game is easily the worst of any team. Meanwhile the Eels are the league's second best tacklers, completing at 90.8 per cent efficiency. But the real headache for Penrith here is that while they're conceding the most missed and inefficient tackles after four weeks, the Eels are *inflicting* the most. They have the most tackle breaks of any team at 32.8 per game and the third most offloads at 12.8 per game.
Key match-up: Beau Scott v Bryce Cartwright. Origin hardman Scott has brought the defensive starch that has suddenly turned the Eels into a miserly force at their own goal-line, while future Blue Cartwright may still be inconsistent but brings the attacking flair that can bust a game wide open.
Scott clearly makes his biggest contribution without the ball, running just 53 metres per week with 1.3 offloads and 0.3 tackle breaks per game, while whiz-kid Cartwright – who still has to overcome a dislocated thumb to take his place – makes almost 100 metres per game with three tackle busts and two offloads each week. Scott gets through a mountain of defence, with almost 36 tackles per game but Cartwright is no slouch either, making 24 tackles a week.
The history: Played 91; Eels 55, Panthers 35, Drawn 1. The Eels have got the chocolates in the past two meetings between these two clubs but Penrith have six of the last 10 results overall – with five wins from their past seven visits to Pirtek.
What are the odds: More than twice as much money has been wagered on the Eels to keep their winning streak going. Parramatta 1-12 is the way that punters are going while Michael Jennings has been better backed to score the first try than Semi Radradra for a change. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Jeff Younis and Shane Rehm. Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 3:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: A couple of personnel changes tip the scales back towards Penrith with Mannah out and Moylan in, and we can see this being the type of match that comes down to who claims one or two key moments. But with the blue and gold defensive wall holding some dangerous attacking sides out over the opening month we'll take Brad Arthur's men to claim a close one. Eels by four.