Waqa Blake's crucial NRL grand final backing after Eels horror show

Waqa Blake had a torrid time dealing with Nathan Cleary's high balls in Parramatta's defeat to Penrith in week one of the NRL finals. Pic: Getty
Waqa Blake had a torrid time dealing with Nathan Cleary's high balls in Parramatta's defeat to Penrith in week one of the NRL finals. Pic: Getty

Parramatta star Waqa Blake would be excused for having nightmares about the prospect of coming up against Nathan Cleary's Penrith Panthers again in Sunday's NRL grand final.

After all, Blake was kicked into submission by Cleary in week one of the NRL finals, in what was a bombing exhibition from the Panthers star.

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Cleary tormented Blake all night with a series of booming high balls that brought about a number of crucial spills from the Parramatta ace.

Penrith capitalised a number of times from Blake's mistakes and they'd be remiss not to employ the same strategy against the Eels winger on Sunday evening.

Eels coach Brad Arthur must have been tempted to shift Blake into the centres and somewhat out of the firing line of Cleary's aerial bombardment, particularly with regular centre Tom Opacic ruled out with a hamstring injury.

Blake is primarily a centre and has said it is his preferred position, but Arthur won't be tempted to reshuffle his backline.

The Eels coach says Blake has done more than enough this season to justify his spot on the wing.

"Last time we played these guys Waqa had some difficulty under the high ball but you don't tip blokes out on the back of one game," Arthur said.

"He's been loyal to our team and we've got to be loyal in return.

"Waqa has an ability to finish tries and he is a big strong body out of the backfield who carries the ball hard. We want to leave him there."

Parramatta 'devastated' for injured Tom Opacic

Arthur said his players were "devastated" about the loss of Opacic, hailing the impact he has made on the Eels since joining the club in 2021.

"We wanted to give him every opportunity (to play)," Arthur said.

"We're devastated for Tom.

"I remember the day before his debut he guaranteed the group he would be ultra reliable and every day he has taken the field he has been that for us.

"It is sad for Tom, but he is still part of the 22 (man squad). We'll never forget what he's done to get us to this point."

Seen here, Parramatta centre Tom Opacic is attended to by a trainer during the 2022 NRL finals series.
Parramatta centre Tom Opacic has failed to overcome a hamstring injury in time for the grand final. Pic: Getty (Mark Kolbe via Getty Images)

Bailey Simonsson will hold onto the centre berth after impressing in his first NRL game in the position in their preliminary-final win over North Queensland last week.

Simonsson, who featured in Canberra's 2019 grand-final loss, and teammate Ryan Matterson are the only two Eels to have played in an NRL decider.

Eels hoping to end 36-year premiership drought

For the rest of the Parramatta squad the experience of playing in a grand final remains a novelty as they seek to end a 36-year title drought.

That lengthy wait was reflected in the fact Eels supporters swamped the NRL fanzone in the Sydney CBD and considerably outnumbered their Penrith counterparts.

"I've encouraged the group to make sure that we just enjoy the occasion," Arthur said.

"We could be on the other side looking in and wondering what it's all about.

"We need to make sure we are having time away from footy and then (we are ready) when it's time to get the job done."

Parramatta's 27-8 loss to the Panthers in week one of the finals came off the back of a head knock for Mitch Moses that saw the Eels superstar leave the field for the final 20 minutes.

The Eels will head into Sunday's decider buoyed by the fact that they were one of the few teams to beat Penrith in the regular season - a feat they accomplished twice in 2022.

with AAP

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