Trent Robinson didn’t need the millisecond he took on a cold June night, and rarely for him, was faintly exasperated at having to repeat himself when the question came again.
“Offload to change of angle is their game and we should’ve known that,” he said after Parramatta had rattled five first-half tries past the Roosters.
“We just didn’t move fast enough on those plays.”
Those plays Robinson spoke of are why Andrew Johns believes the Eels will be there on October 2, 80 minutes from ending Parramatta Jesus’s 36 years in the desert.
Penrith remain at prohibitive odds to be there too, and rightly so. Just 10 losses in three years, and a defence that’s given up just 12.8 points a game make them one of the best sides of all time by both measures.
But those distinctly rolled blue-and- gold plays, and a few other rugby league basics performed to all-too rare precision, are why the Eels trouble Penrith – and are gunning for a third straight win over the otherwise all-conquering premiers.
Junior Paulo offloading ability ranks among the best in the NRL.Credit:Getty
Power ball plays
Ivan Cleary sits in the same boat as Robinson, he knows what’s coming on Friday night. But only so much.
The Panthers were forced to scramble like never before in their winning run when the Eels defeated them twice this year – 22-20 in May, and 34-10 in late July after Nathan Cleary was sent off.
Typically, Penrith’s water-tight defence concedes 212 passes and 9.1 offloads a game this year, according to Champion Data.
Parramatta pushed 243 passes and 19 offloads in round nine, and another 250 passes and 18 offloads in round 20, doubling the second-phase play Penrith usually encounter.
It’s also a marked increase on the 13.3 offloads the Eels average this year.
“We talked about it a month ago as a team,” captain Clint Gutherson says.
“We got together and said there’s no regrets, we can’t back off with that and go back into our shells.
“Offloading and playing off-the-cuff, that’s when we’re at our best and that’s what we want to do. We want our forwards and back-rowers offloading because it breaks teams up.
“We go out there with a footy-first mindset and that’s what we have to do against Penrith.”
Back-rower Shaun Lane points out that the same approach has been one of few to trouble Melbourne in recent years given both champion outfits are “such well-structured, well-trained teams that focus on attrition and discipline”.
Parramatta’s own practice of turning Lane, Isaiah Papali’i and Ryan Matterson back against the grain, though, is the key to picking Penrith apart, particularly when Dylan Brown’s running game is on the defender’s mind.
The Steeden gets a shot of steroids when the Eels edge men take an unders line as Robinson and the Roosters could see coming a mile out, but still couldn’t stop.
Matterson’s 66th-minute try against the Panthers in round nine was the inverse, and what makes the Eels, at their best, so dangerous.
Both he and Gutherson shaped for the same unders play as they had for an hour previous, drawing Cleary into the bait and when Matterson shifts accordingly, the back-rower goes into the clear for a game-turning try.
Moses in command
While forward-based footy is Parramatta’s best asset, Mitchell Moses’ booming right boot gives them the scope to showcase it.
Cleary’s send-off for up-ending Brown in round 20 forfeited Penrith’s counter to the Eels No.7, who has produced some of his best long-range kicking performances in recent clashes with the Panthers.
Last year’s finals epic between the western Sydney rivals started with a Moses bomb that had the normally uber-reliable Dylan Edwards in all sorts.
A similar thumping floater went the same way in May, with Waqa Blake and Brown both latching onto kicks Edwards couldn’t defuse for tries.
Moses kicked for 703 and 754 metres respectively in both games, well above his 2022 average of 413 metres.
Two 40-20s were added to Moses’ tally in round 20, and continued Parramatta’s recent trend of eking almost 200 metres more a game out of Penrith than they usually concede.
“[Moses] can make a bad set out of your own into a really good one by kicking it 55 [metres] on the fly and landing it a metre out from the try line,” Cooper Cronk said this week on The Matty Johns Podcast.
“The test for Mitchell is, can he win this game off the back foot? Because you come up against Penrith – the best defensive team we’ve seen for a long time – that play-the-ball speed drops by half a second.”
The best defence is a good offence
Without the ball too, Parramatta have made giant strides from 12 months ago when their edges couldn’t read a picture book and oppositions eyed the tryline with relish.
Leaks and clock-offs do remain, like last week’s two tries in the final four minutes against Melbourne.
Parramatta have managed to keep a lid on Penrith’s attack in recent clashes.Credit:Getty
But Penrith have been kept to less than 14 points just 11 times in the past three seasons, and Parramatta have been responsible four times.
Hooker Reed Mahoney speaks of “growing an extra leg” and “playing a long game of footy” when it comes to Penrith games, while Moses says the Eels’ success is simply a matter of “staying with them”.
The Eels’ up-and-in defence clicks into gear against the Panthers’ long shifts when it has struggled against other sides. As a counter, both Viliame Kikau and Cleary have grubbered early against a rushing line for tries in the past three encounters.
As much as anything, the Eels have enjoyed a significantly greater share of possession than the 29.4 completed sets teams usually see against the Panthers.
With an extra 4.5 and 6.5 sets of six where they let the ball sing in two clashes this year, the Eels effectively starved the premiers of possession time while working Penrith harder too – a pay-off that doubles when Parramatta’s time to defend comes.
As Robinson said three months ago, that’s their game after all.
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