21/04/2024

The 'Battle of the West' rivalry continues on the biggest stage. (Image: Penrith Panthers - Twitter)

The Penrith Panthers battle it out on the biggest stage against the Parramatta Eels on Sunday the 2nd of October at Accor Stadium, continuing the ‘battle of the west’ rivalry for the premiership.

The Panthers defeated the Rabbitohs 32-12 after being down 12-0 to start the game at Accor last Saturday. Meanwhile, The Eels snuck away with scramble defence and capitalising on the offensive opportunities they had in the Cowboys’ half, scoring 24-20 in the North Queensland heat.

Regardless of who supports what team in the NRL, the fans are looking for a tough contest from start to finish. Although the Penrith Panthers go in as favourites, the Parramatta Eels have defeated them twice in the regular season.

The Panthers have had a dominant three-year stretch and the Eels are desperately eager to end the third longest premiership drought in history.

The Inner Sanctum takes looks at what must happen on both sides of the ball for each team to ensure they lift the Provan-Summons trophy.

For Penrith

Non-stop hard yards

Ivan Cleary has developed a revolutionary, game-changing style of set play, especially in the yardage department.

This season, the Panthers led the competition in yardage with 1,748 metres per game. They can put their foot on the opposition’s throat with their beautifully executed sets which promote fatigue in the defensive line and create opportunities to score.

What makes Penrith’s offence scary at times is its ability to be inside the 20 very often in a game, averaging 34.5 tackles inside the opposition’s 20-metre line per game.

Getting up the field has become seamless for Penrith. While it averages 26.7 points per game, it is Penrith’s playmakers that have been able to create the best chances of creating points, staying in one area of the field in a multitude of ways.

Penrith’s left-edge attack has been where it gets the majority of its points.

Dylan Edwards starts the set with a high-quality kick return before the back three combine and helps build from the first run.

The forward pack, specifically James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, and Spencer Leniu attack the middle third, dragging their team up the field before a speedy play-the-ball pickup from dummy half Api Koriosau picks up the pace in the open field.

Isaah Yeo looks to either continue building yardage or move the ball subtly on either side or back up the spine play where ball movement is crucial in deceiving specific defenders to move up or sideways incorrectly.

This usually helps the off-ball movement of Jerome Luai to creep up and create an out-the-back shape that allows him to mix up his change of speed in the hopes of getting the right defender to make a decision that the outside man cannot counter.

The trio of Luai, Villame Kikau and Izack Tago has been an incredible combination on the left edge. They perform their set play before one of the wingers Brian To’o, Taylan May or Charlie Staines finishes in the corner.

Expect the Panthers to create trick shot plays where they notice the defensive line moves too far in, usually coming in the form of a perfectly placed kick that considers the out-of-place fullback.

In the qualifying final, the Panthers noticed Clint Gutherson was up in the line away from the right side where Nathan Cleary was before he switched the play and placed a grubber kick for Dylan Edwards to score.

Outside of a couple of specific drawn-up plays for Parramatta, the Panthers’ yardage collection, possession, and non-stop continuous game will stay the same as it has been.

Line-speed, physical and in-your-face defence

The Penrith Panthers are the best defensive team in the league.

History books say that their defence will be the key to winning the trophy again when considering the number of things the Eels have to do to come out on top.

The Panthers only give up 13 points per game, while winning the yardage game by 350 metres per game, which is more than the rest of the league.

Not many times will any viewer of a Penrith game witness cracks in its defensive line.  However, Reed Mahoney has created three tries and a try assist in the three games against Penrith this season.

The partnership with Junior Paulo on the hit and spin play is a very unique play to Parramatta, which they hit on the money with in Round 20.

In the qualifying final, Reed Mahoney found spacing in Penrith’s try-line defence, passing it to Oregon Kaufusi for the try under the posts.

An interesting fact about Penrith this season is that 29 per cent of the tries it has given up have come from the middle of the field.

Mahoney’s around-the-ruck play will be pivotal for the Eels, as it appears to be an element of his game that Penrith has not been able to counter.

For Parramatta

Forward pack carries, swiftly passes and support

Parramatta has developed a winning brand of play that it seemed to not have found with this playing group.

After trying to copy and paste Penrith’s successful offensive system in the qualifying final, the Eels have had two high-quality wins since.

The duo of Junior Paulo and Ryan Matterson play according to isolating defenders while getting yardage or shifting the ball to their halfback in a good position.

Matterson against Canberra in the semi-final is a prime example of the ball playing that Parramatta has been able to build within the forward pack.

The play before, Matterson gave it to Isaiah Papali’i who almost scored. However, the Raiders scrambled defensively to get there in time. Now the defensive line has to spread out on the longer side.

Using Regan Cambell-Gillard as a decoy runner, the Eels can hold up a defender just for a perfect amount of time to engage the outside defender, which helps put Paulo in open space.

Parramatta against North Queensland maximised the tackle count multiple times, scoring 24 points.

The Eels are one of the most efficient teams in the league inside the opposition’s 20-metre line this season and will need more than their direct attacking to counter the best defensive team in the game.

The forward pack need their metre-eaters to move up the field and be able to maximise and create high-quality opportunities.

The three biggest metre eaters are Regan Cambell-Gillard, Ryan Matterson, and Isaiah Papali’i. Against the Cowboys, they attacked a set Cowboys defensive line, which created play-the-ball speed that they did not have as often during the regular season.

This produced a lot of offloads, which Parramatta for multiple years has led the NRL in, averaging 13.5 offloads this year. Matterson averages 2.1 per game (third in NRL) while Paulo averages 1.8 (ninth in NRL). 

The halves combination also gets a decent amount of touches, averaging 46 per game.

Their split amount of touches has allowed Dylan Brown to develop a controlled open space movement game that allows him to generate more touches than the majority of the five-eights in the league.

Brown often creates a fast-paced combination with Mitchell Moses, dragging the back-rower of the opposition of their ideal spot that allows Moses to receive an out-the-back pass from Brown to create a play on the outside.

Penrith’s line-speed defensively will make this play really difficult to create. However, if Parramatta can create enough opportunities for its halves to create scoring opportunities in the 20-metre range in Penrith’s end, it has a chance to really upset Penrith.

Urgency and kick chasing 

The Eels’ defence has been at its best when they are playing in unison and shifting out when the ball movement tricks their edge players.

The Eels this season have conceded 48 per cent of their tries on their right edge.

It has been a really bad weakness for many seasons for the Eels, however, it has gotten better.

Parramatta’s defensive performance against Penrith is at its best when Penrith shifts left and Parramatta utilises the sideline as an extra defender to let Waqa Blake hold his position and Marata Niukore slide to let Mitchell Moses release from a decoy run that sometimes occurs from Viliame Kikau.

Parramatta has also found success on the same strategy as Penrith’s, but with quicker-paced ball movement.

Jerome Luai in a fast-paced ball movement set action likes to engage a middle forward defender with Izack Tago’s lead run. When Penrith run this action, Waqa Blake typically shifts to his inside defender, pressuring Kikau to force a poor quality pass to Stephen Crichton on the wing.

Parramatta has also struggled in kick chasing, due to good formation of the forwards being screeners for Nathan Cleary to kick on the right side, as that opens up the floating bomb and places the ball flat on his hand and his leg power to kick the belly of the ball. 

If the Eels are going to stop the Cleary offensive system, they are going to need to put the effort into this aspect of the game.

Against the Eels in the qualifying final, Nathan Cleary had 23 kicks for 627 metres and presented a variety of unique kicks that the Eels simply couldn’t counter defensively.

It is often said defence wins championships and to put this in terms of what Penrith have built its identity from, it has only conceded 20 points in the two finals games it has played this year.

Last year playing all the finals rounds including the grand final, the Panthers conceded 48 points total (12 points per game).

Expect this game to use every second of the 80 minutes total to decide the true victor of this very heated rivalry.

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