‘Someone has an agenda, and they are not going to break us, they will not break this group - we’ve worked too hard’
These were the proud & passionate words of a clearly insulted Brad Arthur in the aftermath of the Eels emphatic 40-4 demolition of the Canberra Raiders.
And how could anyone argue with him in this very moment?
There were no signs of any factions or mental fracturing caused by media reports, internal rifts, or claims of nepotism or favouritism within the club on Friday night, at least not within the playing group.
Of course, that does not mean these issues do not exist behind closed doors, however, most importantly none of these rumours, true, false or somewhere in the middle, filtered onto the field affecting the players, and any on-going concerns were clearly left there - behind closed doors.
If anything, Brad & the team seem to have been galvanised & motivated by these media spot fires.
What we saw was a spirited & united team, with an unbreakable focus, maybe not for the first time this season, but perhaps for the first time for an entire 80mins.
And how good was it.
In the preview for the Eels V Raiders sudden death final, Prof. Daz referenced the ‘Lord of the Flies’ & asked who would take control, the leader (Ralph) or the savage (Jack).
We’ve seen enough of both this season to recognise who is control within the first few sets, and it's fair to say it was the leader Ralph, played by any of Gutherson, Moses, Paulo, RCG, Papalli, Lane or Dylan Brown, who owned the night.
The Eels were borderline arrogant in how they played the ‘Eels’ second-phase game from the opening whistle and never wavered, true to their identity & DNA, a middle finger in the face of the extreme pressure this playing group, coach & club were under.
We were ruthless, and we made the Raiders pay for their errors.
This is what elite teams do, yet, they go on with it - the job is far from finished.
WHERE IT WAS WON: THE ATTACK
Statistics: 19 offloads. 8 line breaks. 1818 running metres. 530 post contact metres. Tackle busts 34. 7 Tries.
It was no secret to anyone, let alone Ricky Stuart, that the most proficient offloading team of 2022 would use this strength around the ruck against a big, powerful forward pack like the Raiders. At half time, we had completed 10 offloads to 1, and by full time 19 offloads to 9.
Turning the Raiders defensive line around constantly took its toll on the big pack, while also nullifying what Papalli & Tapine could do with the ball in hand.
Knowing the game plan & defending against it however, are two very different things.
Against the Panthers the Eels were tackled 28 times within the Panthers 20m line or ‘red zone’ for only one try. Against the Raiders the Eels were tackled in the red zone 23 times for 7 tries - with 4 of those tries orchestrated from within the red zone.
Of course, the Panthers defence has been the benchmark for two straight seasons, so to degree a sizeable difference in numbers could be expected, but this large a difference?
Perhaps we simply didn't throw enough variance at the Panthers in their red zone despite opportunities, some of which against 12 men, whereas against the Raiders there were clearly no signs of trepidation in our attacking mindset.
Coop Cronk described our attack as having ‘depth’ & being ‘very direct’.
Cooper went on ‘The best part about Parramatta is you think Paulo & RCG have to be the best players for Moses & that (Gutho, Brown) to get going, but their lateral movement made their back rowers the dominant figures in their go-forward’.’ This was proven by the fact Lane ran for 170m & Papalli 191m.
It wasn’t just a lethal mix of direct & lateral movement the Eels attacked with, they performed everything at speed, constantly changing the angles between decoy & ball runners.
Andrew Johns commented ‘They (Eels) look hungry, they are defending well & they have pockets of attack all over the park’.
There were also some impressive strategies used in set plays, an aspect that seemed vacant last week.
20th minute - Dylan Brown moves from the left to right side of the field to connect with Moses, and in the replay, you can see the two minds this puts the Raiders defence in as they try and man up on DB only for Moses to tempt Kris & Rapana in and hit Waqa Blake perfectly to make it 16-0.
24th minute - Matterson becomes a 3rd half. After using Papalli one side of the posts, Matto sets up for a raid the other side of the posts & puts Paulo threw a massive gap to score.
Impressively, before Matterson gets the ball, you can see Dylan pointing and directing him into position from the left to the right for the Papalli pass, before Matto - who clearly recognises the play - pushes Paulo through the gap the other side of the posts.
45th minute - As we work the ball through the middle through Kaufusi, Matterson & Paulo, you can see Penisini & Blake standing very wide on the far right. Paulo slightly changes the angle of attack and hits the defence before offloading, clearly his plan as soon as he receives the ball, to a flying Moses.
Due to Penisini & Blake forcing the Raiders defence wider, it opens up a huge gap between Wighton & Kris which Moses carves through easily.
This same move has been used on the other side of the field with a DB & Sivo combination - if the opposition defence jams in, Dylan hits Sivo on the outside. If the defence stays out he looks to either run or hit Shaun Lane with a short ball. It allows the Eels to use the width of the field & play the oppositions defensive decisions against them.
Billy Slater mentioned in review of the Moses try ‘I’ve branded their (the Eels) attack stale before, but this is how they need to play. Look at the lanes they get into, the width that they hold & then the spaces that that creates’. Slater continued ‘they are as dangerous as anyone’.
Brad Arthur was quizzed about this move in the presser by an observant journalist to which Brad uncomfortably shoots down the notion quickly and underplays its prominence, well done BA, this is great.
WHERE IT WAS WON: THE DEFENCE
The stats: The Eels missed 27 tackles compared to the Raiders 34, gave away 3 penalties to the Raiders 6 (who struggled to keep up with the speed of the ruck) and we also made 14 errors compared to the Raiders 10.
Last week against the Panthers we missed 25 tackles, gave away 3 penalties again & made 16 errors, interestingly we only coughed up two more errors last week. The timing & field position (Waqa Blakes dropped bombs) & level of opposition were more likely why the errors last week hurt us so much more.
To keep with the movie themes Prof. Day & HOE have brilliantly referenced throughout the season, I'm using the 1992 Horror Film ‘The Candyman’ to reference that part of our defence perhaps we are better off not mentioning.
In the movie, the Candyman is a ‘murderous soul with a hook for a hand and is accidentally summoned to reality by a student’s researching the monster’s myth’ - you see the more you research it, the more you try and understand it, the more you talk about it, the closer a large African American man is to appearing and seriously f**king up your night.
Sounds a little like our edge defence, doesn't it? The hook hand is a dead giveaway for who lives behind the mirror in the Eels case, especially after last weeks game against the Panthers.
So alike the movie, perhaps we better off just not mentioning the edge defence, not discussing it, and never repeating ‘Waqa’ into a mirror 5 times in the dark. Because if you do, Waqa suddenly appears in your defensive line charging out and missing all three attackers - as per the 13th minute of the Raiders game - and using his hook hand for ‘diffusing’ bombs.
I’ll work on the movie references…. But in all fairness to Waqa, its definitely not all on him, he’s certainly not the only victim of our edge and he's not the only one to blame.
But why it took this long to fix & why it's appeared so simple to fix? Who knows… While its still not perfect, it is sliding, it’s patient, it's moving in unison, there is communication & there is trust. So, we move on.
What we can safely mention is the Eels line speed and defensive intent, which were as good as we’ve seen at any time this season, was a big contributor in our victory.
Shaun Lane set the standard with opening tackle of the game which rocked Josh Papalli, and the Raiders form front row pairing never had any opportunity or time to play their own ‘power’ or offloading game (the Raiders rank second in the comp for offloads behind the Eels).
Ricky Stuart mentioned the Eels ‘suffocated’ the Raiders, and for the first time in history, I agree with Ricky Stuart.
Disappointingly, Ricky did not blame the referees once for the loss & was quite gracious in defeat. Which was literally the only disappointment of the night. While admittedly being a little satisfied by his clear devastation, Ricky’s press conferences are usually the blood that feeds vampiric Eels fans and I for one was left a little ‘hungry’.
There were so many, but a few standouts.
13th Minute - Gutherson
We all remember this one. Rapana beats Gutho & is being tackled by Penisini as Gutho works his way back to make the all important second effort to prevent Rapana scoring and levelling the scores 6-6. A huge moment in momentum as we head down the other end of the field and make it 10-0.
59th minute - Dylan Brown
It's not the 321 running metres, as impressive as that is.
Maika Sivo diffuses a bomb from Fogarty and hits the ground with force, Andrew Voss comments ‘Fijian Airlines hop on board, Make Sivo in full flight’.
After no doubt feeling the affects of the landing, Maika was a little slow to his feet. With the scoreline 28-4 & with just 20mins left, you could be forgiven for allowing him that extra few seconds to rise to his feet? The answer simply, ‘no’.
A determined Dylan Brown screams at a slow to his feet Maika to get up & play the ball.
It’s the inclination thats impressive here - that despite this game being all but over, and Maika diffusing a bomb perfectly, his job was not done, the Eels job was not done, and Brown wanted the ball. Secondly, this moment came when Moses was off the field, and Dylan was stepping up with his involvement & voice, something we badly lacked against the Panthers a week prior.
69th minute - Penisini
Jordan Rapana makes a break through the middle of the field and is well brought down by a chasing Will Penisini. Josh Starling then shoots from dummy half with the Eels defensive line still retreating, and despite his speed, is chased down & tackled from marker by Penisini. A few plays later, with Raiders on the attack & a chance for an overlap, Penisini shoots from the line and smashes Wighton - which is no easy feat for veterans let alone a rookie - who’s pass is forcedly poor and Eels shut the play down.
These kind of 2nd and 3rd efforts would've pleased Brad greatly, and a true sign of the maturity Will is playing with at such a young age & level of experience.
Enough has been said in regards to Brad Arthurs selections week to week this season, and regardless of which side of the fence you sit on here, I'm sure we are all a little over speaking of it.
Brad has earned the right to pick this 17 & our confidence to follow after a brilliant game plan & execution. However, there are a few aspects to Friday nights game that are hard to glaze over.
The Eels had 60% possession, a stat which nullifies a large dependance on the bench. If we can do that again, Brad himself can play off the bench & we’ll still likely win.
We also lost Tom Opacic to a hamstring injury & if Niukore fails the HIA he went through protocols for, who would’ve moved into centre for Tom?
It's all hypothetical, however the answer to that question is still concerning if it means moving a particular deck chair from a position he should be bolted down in.
So while its BA’s livelihood that will ultimately live or die by these selections, the issue there is, as fans, we live & die (in a supporter sense) by these decisions also.
We cant walk away to another supporter deal with a rival club in 2024 if this plan falls apart.
Brad has mentioned ‘taking our opportunity’ many times lately, ‘it’s up to us to take this opportunity’ he repeats, and it's very hard to argue the sentiment.
So, will Brad take heed of his own advice & ’take this opportunity’? Will he select the 17 players that give us the best possible chance of reaching a Grand Final?
Because for us, as loyal Parramatta Eels fans, it's been 13 years since we’ve had this ‘opportunity’ and we are more than ready to take ours.
Congratulations & good luck to BA & the players - we are all behind you.