Full Time
7:50pm Thu March 2, 2023
Round 1 - CommBank Stadium, Parramatta / Burramattagal - Crowd: 17301

Round 1: Eels v Storm preview

Heavyweights from past years set to open season 2023 with a bang

There's no denying that the Eels and the Storm have been two of the more dominant teams in the NRL in recent years (try decades for the Storm), so what better way to get the 2023 NRL season underway than getting them to square off at CommBank Stadium in a rematch of last year's final round encounter for a spot in the top 4?

Last year for the Eels was their equal best in terms of success since 2009, yet still ended in heartbreak, as their fans have become so accustomed to. Many have been quick to write off the Blue and Gold as having no chance of even making it back to the Grand Final, let alone winning it, with some pundits even tipping they'll fail to make the finals altogether due to the turnover in personell experienced over the off season. 

In my opinion, much of this has been overblown. Parramatta's backline from last year's finals run remains completely intact, while key spine members Gutherson, Brown and Moses are all back and will be richer for the big game experience. Papali'I and Mahoney are two big losses no doubt, but if the Eels can get 70-80% of their production out of replacements Hopgood and Hodgson respectively, this is still a team that is capable of making deep finals run. 

Between injuries in the backline and the departure of veterans in the forwards, the spine of the Melbourne Storm is the only position group that remains unchanged from the side that was bounced from the finals in week 1 last season. As has been the case almost every pre-season since Bellamy took over as coach, there have been detractors who question the ability of the Storm to remain among the competition's elite. 

While writing off the Storm always comes at a risk, it is hard to make a case for them being able to make any noise in the finals this season. Papenhuyzen will once again be out for a good chunk of the year and their backline simply lacks the experience and class necessary to compete with the top sides, while their back row and bench stocks are, on paper, the worst they've been in years. 

The Storm still have at least a top 3 spine in the NRL, and for that reason they will more often than not take care of the poorer sides and make the top 8, but ultimately, I believe their ceiling is to bow out in week 1 or 2 of the finals again.

For this game, the 17 named from both sides is relatively evenly matched across the park. Both the Eels and the Storm have 3 great spine players and two great starting front rowers, while both back rows and locks drop off in quality due to injury and suspension. The interchange benches of the two sides also offer little impact and will likely have the primary function of giving the starters a rest rather than providing an X-factor. The Eels probably have an edge in the backline, however their defence in that area has been suspect over the years, and the Storm have the spine to take advantage should the opportunity arise. 

Last meeting: Round 25 2022 - Eels 22 Storm 14

Who to watch: One of the biggest question marks hanging over the Eels in 2023 is their ability to replace star hooker Reed Mahoney, who while still providing great performances on occasion, undoubtedly regressed in 2022. Josh Hodgson is the man chosen to fill the void, and staying healthy will be half the battle for the former Raider, who has suffered two ACL tears in the last 5 years. People are quick to discount him due to his age and injury history, however Hodgson's play style isn't one that requires a heap of mobility; a lot of his value comes from being able to beat opposition defences through quick analysis of the in-game situation, be it spotting an overlap and switching the direction of the play or identifying a fullback out of position close to the line and putting a grubber in. Hodgson won't feature on many highlight reels in 2023, but he can still be a good addition to the Eels. 

For the Storm, it's another veteran coming off an ACL injury in prop forward Christian Welch. It was clear how much the Storm missed Welch's leadership and impact last year, and with other experienced big men such as the Bromwich brothers, Felise Kaufusi and Brandon Smith all having departed in the off season, Welch's job becomes that much more important, especially considering this will be his first full season as captain. As earlier mentioned, both teams have great starting props, and winning the battle up front will be pivotal for both teams in giving their halves as much of a platform as possible to work their magic. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Welch plays; in 2021 he averaged 49 per game but played for 61 in his lone 2022 appearance. He is coming off a major injury so Bellamy may well want to limit how much of a workload he takes on, but the Storm can ill afford to spend extended time without a leader in the forward pack.

The favourite: The Storm are two-point favourites over the Eels in this one.

My tip: The Eels have owned the Storm as of late, winning their last four matches against the men in purple, and they were underdogs in every single one of them. I'm tipping their backline advantage will play a part in the trend continuing. Eels by 8.