Round 5: Eels v Panthers preview
Undefeated local rivals clash in match of the round.
When these two sides met in the pre-season, they couldn't be separated over 80 minutes, scores being deadlocked at 22-all when the final siren sounded in Bega. This match in the season-proper shapes to be just as close, with Parramatta and Penrith two of just three teams who remain undefeated after Round 4.
Last week, the Eels just held on against Manly in what was their first real test of 2020, beating the Northern Beaches team 19-16 in a controversial Super Saturday thriller. Although they were able to get the win, coach Brad Arthur won't be happy that his side almost lost at the death after leading for the majority of the match. Jorge Taufua crossed for Manly in the 76th minute and Reuben Garrick was also able to cross in the final minute, however the final pass being ruled forward meant the Eels recorded their best start to a season since 1989.
The Panthers bounced back from a gruelling 90-minute draw the previous week to easily dispose of the Warriors in a 26-0 shutout last Friday at Campbelltown. Matt Burton was much improved, finishing with a try-assist and two tries of his own, and has been rewarded with keeping his spot in the 17 this week, named on the bench with Nathan Cleary back at half.
Parramatt receive a huge boost in the form of forward leader Nathan Brown returning at lock, after he missed Round 3 and 4 due to suspension. His inclusion means stand-in Marata Niukore moves back to the bench. This along with Ray Stone's inclusion in the number 15 jersey means Oregon Kaufusi and Brad Takairangi drop out of the 17.
They aren't the only team having a key player named Nathan returning however, with the rounds biggest inclusion in Cleary coming back into the side after paying the penalty for flouting social distancing protocols during the premiership break in April. Burton will shift to the number 14 jumper, pushing replacement hooker Mitch Kenny into the reserves. Liam Martin has been brought into the 17 for Billy Burns, however Ivan Cleary swapped the two an hour before kick-off last week and could do the same again.
The effect Nathan has on Penrith's attack will be accurately measured against Parramatta, who have conceded just 30 points in the opening 4 rounds. Although they scored 26 last week, it was against the lowly Warriors and 16 of them were off the back of opposition mistakes. Both these teams are clearly top eight contenders; however this match will show us if they're capable of going deep into the finals.
Who to watch: The resurgence of veteran Parramatta centre Michael Jennings has been quite something over the last couple of years. In 2018, Jennings was 30 years of age and looked like he wasn't up to NRL football either mentally or physically. Fast-forward to last week and he was one of the Eels' best, making 10 runs for 131 metres as well as a line break and 4 tackle busts. He may not be as fast as he once was, but he still has the skill - and now experience - to make an impact. The fact he's also going up against the side he made his debut with all those years ago, only adds to the drama.
For Penrith, it's hard to go past returning origin star Nathan Cleary. Throughout the opening two rounds Cleary provided the Panthers with much needed direction as well as averaging one try assist per game. His ability to sum up the situation with his kicking game will be a welcome addition as well as his field-goal prowess, something which cost the Panthers a competition point against the Knights a couple of weeks ago.
My tip: The Eels faced their first real test of the competition so far last week and passed with flying colours. Their defence was solid for the most part and their attack is up there with the best of the competition. That said, it won't be an easy task against Penrith, who bounced back well albeit against the Warriors. The inclusion of Nathan Cleary means this match will be close, but it won't be enough for the mountain men to get the win. Eels by 7.