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We need to talk about Parra’s middle defence

As befitting a Battle of the West, and the first game of the finals, narratives abound from the meeting of Penrith and Parramatta.

Nathan Cleary made a magnificent return, slotting seamlessly back into the Penrith No.7 jersey as if he’d never been away. For every hero, there has to be a villain, and that was Waqa Blake. His was a long night as Cleary continually bombed him, and he continually dropped the ball.

Tactically, the game was exactly as we might have expected. This is week one of the finals, so the game has to be a grind, and these are the two grindiest grinders in the NRL, so it stylistically suited both to engage in a middle battle early on.

The first half was that, but the second was more open as the Eels tired and couldn’t keep up. Naturally, our five talking points from Penrith have to start there: why did Parra lose the grind, and then the game?

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Bang average set metres for Eels

Parramatta have a real problem in their middle defence. Though their points against is one of the best in the NRL, their ability to contain metres is nothing special at all. Obviously, at the pointy end, that isn’t going to be good enough.

That has often been the case in recent weeks, with Parra able to generate 50m per set with ball in hand but then giving up similar distances on D. So what happens when they meet a defensive side that doesn’t allow them to make metres so readily?

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Clinton Gutherson of the Eels makes a break during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

They were outground. The grind was solid early on, and clearly both teams thought that it was going to continue: both sides attempted first half field goals.

But even before it was split open after the break, the trend was in. Penrith averaged 10m more on every set than their opponents, the net result of which was a slow movement up the field that saw them go 60/40 in possession and generate five sets worth of tackles in the Eels 20m zone.

Eventually, that told. If you lose each set of the grind by 10m, it becomes a creeping barrage towards your own line that eventually turned the game for the Panthers.

Slowly Slowly Catchy Eely

Before the game, I highlighted the importance of Parramatta slowing Penrith down in transition to negate their set starts. Instead, it was Penrith who managed to take their time.

The stats bore this out. Through the first hour – when both teams were full strength before Mitchell Moses left with a concussion – the possession, which is measured by time, was 50/50, but the opportunities, measured by number of sets, was massively slanted to the Panthers at 30 sets to 21.

Leg speed is a difficult concept to measure, but the indicators of it were only going one direction. For Parramatta, they were being slowed down in the ruck, while for Penrith, they were hitting their front. In a game as grinding as this was for 60 minutes, these things add up significantly.


When Parramatta won here in May, they out offloaded Penrith 18-2. This time, that was 9-2. They won it still, but by less than last time and with 25% fewer than their season average.

The Eels are the best offloaders in the comp, based on their power game through the middle, but they were unable to generate anywhere near the amount of second-phase play.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Brian To'o of the Panthers celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

There’s a chicken and egg element to this: did they chose to play for conservatively and reduce their offloads by choice or were Penrith far more effective in blunting a key weapon?

In a game like this, where margins are tight and you need to be at your best, it usually suits to be laser-focused on what makes you an effective team and not to deviate from the best version of yourself. One suspects that an air of caution entered into the plan, to the detriment of the Eels.

Api days are here again

The role of interchanges is always going to be crucial. Typically, I would have said for Parramatta, who had struggled to keep up intensity with their forwards and regularly waste their 17th man.

Instead, it was Penrith who got creative with their subs. Api Koroisau was left on the bench to start the game with Mitch Kenny elevated to a starting spot.

He was then introduced to the game while the Panthers were down to 12, and instantly helped his side to manouevre the ruck and see out the deficit, before going on to complete the game.

Parramatta have tried this too, but with Marata Niukore starting at lock and Ryan Matterson coming on. That plan was disrupted by the Will Penisini HIA, and left the Eels interchanges lacking.

The strength of this tactic is that your key player – the one who comes on – gets a 20 minute stint, then half time, then the second half, allowing them to be fresher closer to the end.

Watch out for it in later rounds.

It’s all gone Waqa

Waqa Blake endured a torrid night on the wing, struggling badly with the kicking of Cleary. There’s no great tactical insight to be found in kicking the ball to the guy who keeps dropping it.

There did seem to be a conclusive plan for the Panthers set ends, though it might not have initially been to target Blake.

For the first two kicks of the night, Cleary was allowed to kick under no pressure and kicked both straight down the throat of Maika Sivo.

This isn’t a bad idea at all: for all his power, Sivo is conclusively not a good kick returner, ranking 50th of wingers in 2022.

But when Cleary was forced to go the other way, he hit paydirt. With a month on the sidelines, he’s had plenty of time to practice his kicking and put every second of it to work on his return.

When you’re locked in an arm wrestle, handing over easy errors like Blake did is too much to overcome.

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