Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Broncos v Eels
Friday, 7.45pm (AEST)
Fifty years ago Bob Dylan released his third album entitled The Times They Are a-Changin', an album tackling taboo subjects of the era such as racism, political upheaval, poverty and social change. Five weeks ago when the Broncos were humiliated 48-4 by the Warriors in their final trial match, the unmentionable thought of knives being sharpened for a radical change at Red Hill was a distinct possibility. Pressure was firmly placed on Anthony Griffin's shoulders.
Now take your pick out of these series of clichés – 'the rest is history', 'a week is a long time in rugby league, 'take each game as it comes' or perhaps, 'don't judge a book by its cover' is more your style. Whatever truism you'd like to pick, the Broncos have ticked them all off their redemption list in the time since their diabolical display across the Tasman.
Apart from those in the inner sanctum of the Broncos, not many would have predicted Brisbane to be sitting around the summit of the NRL ladder, second to the Dragons only on points differential after four rounds. Of course anything can change in an instant, but oh boy… if you're a Broncos fan, the times they are changin' for the better at Red Hill.
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If they are starting to look more like the Broncos of old then how fitting that Round 5 marks the NRL's Heritage Round. And Brisbane will be marking the occasion by wearing a replica of their 1997-98 premiership-winning jersey, with players from those highly successful sides making an appearance before kick-off.
However amidst all the hype, there's another team coming to town in Parramatta, who are playing much better than their 12th position on the ladder suggests. Strong wins over the Warriors and the Panthers, plus an unlucky loss to the Sea Eagles, is almost enough to forgive the Eels for their shocking Round 2 performance against the Roosters.
Whether or not the times are changing at Parra remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the Eels are desperate to avoid a hat-trick of wooden spoons and their coach Brad Arthur looks like he's capable of lifting his side from the bottom rungs of the NRL ladder.
One milestone that will be achieved is that for the first time in Broncos history the club will be represented on the field by co-captains, with Justin Hodges returning from his achilles injury to stand alongside Corey Parker. It's a welcome boost for a team that has exceeded the expectations of most in the opening month.
It may be a momentous night for Parker as he is also on the verge of racking up 1,000 points in the NRL. The loyal clubman has played 281 games and scored 994 points for the Broncos, scoring a try on debut as a fresh-faced – and shaven-haired – 19-year-old against the New Zealand Warriors in Round 6 of 2001.
Intriguingly, the Eels now haven't won a match away from Parramatta in 20 trips (including three 'home' losses at ANZ Stadium and Mudgee in 2013). However their last away win happened to be at this Friday night's venue of Suncorp Stadium against the Broncos back in Round 21, 2012. And what's more, the Parramatta clipboard holder for that game was then-interim coach Brad Arthur. A positive omen perhaps?
Watch Out Broncos: The Eels' electrifying left-edge of veteran centre Willie Tonga and flying Fijian winger Semi Radradra shapes as a dangerous duo for the Broncos to contain. This combination, most notably Radradra, has been in scintillating form for Parra since the start of the season, scoring eight tries between them.
Radradra has scored seven of those four-pointers with the sole Tonga try coming from an intercept last weekend against the Panthers. Although Tonga's 'second coming' at the Eels has been decimated by injury (20 starts for two tries since the beginning of 2012 is testament to that), his footwork still has the ability to bamboozle defenders and create opportunities for Radradra on his outside. After marking Brett Morris last Friday, the task doesn’t get any easier for Broncos' winger Dale Copley, as the 22-year-old is tasked with containing the 'Semi Trailer'. If the Broncos can snuff out the Eels' attacking raids down the left edge of the field, it's hard to see where Parra will score their points, especially if the rest of Brisbane's defensive line is on song.
Watch Out Eels: The Broncos forward pack is on a roll at the moment, churning out plenty of metres through the middle in Round 4 with the likes of Matt Gillett (145 metres), Corey Parker (139m) and Sam Thaiday (85m) particularly impressive against the Dragons and also in the opening rounds. Throw in in-form hooker Andrew McCullough and add big boppers Josh McGuire, Martin Kennedy and back-rowers Todd Lowrie and Alex Glenn into the mix and you have a pack as strong, powerful and mobile as any in the competition.
Not only have the Broncos' forwards been laying a strong foundation for their smaller men to work their magic, they have also been chipping in on the scoreboard – scoring seven out of Brisbane's 17 tries this season. Gillett has scored three tries so far with Thaiday bagging a couple. Expect these key forwards to direct plenty of traffic towards Parramatta halfback Chris Sandow in order to test out his defensive frailties and tire him out for when the time comes for him to attack.
Plays To Watch: When will the Ben Barba of old stand up? Fans and teammates of the diminutive fullback are still wondering when he'll replicate his Dally M form of 2012. Visions of Barba in Broncos' colours bursting onto a kick return and weaving his way through a countless wave of opposition defenders to score a length-of-the-field try have yet to become reality.
Brisbane's new fullback is yet to cross the chalk this season, but does he need to be scoring tries to be effective? With four games now behind him, the Norths Mackay junior is slowly finding his feet at the Broncos and his attacking combination with halves Ben Hunt and Josh Hoffman is starting to gel.
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If the 24-year-old is not scoring tries he's helping create them by presenting himself as a decoy in the attacking line. The presence of Barba lurking behind the attacking line on Brisbane's offensive shifts causes concern and confusion in the opposition's defensive line. The defenders become drawn to him, therefore stretching the opposition and opening up other opportunities so Brisbane's outside backs can reap the rewards.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence, defence, defence. All NRL followers should know that when the Eels are at their electrifying best they're hard to stop. However, when they're not on their game (as the whole of 2013 season and the 56-4 Round 2 drubbing against the Roosters showed) they can be bitterly disappointing. (Although on the plus side for Parra, minus the Roosters calamity where they only scored four points, they are averaging 28.6 points per game so far this season and look like a much-improved outfit.)
Another positive for the Eels is that if you forgive them once again for their Roosters display, they are only conceding 18 points per match; this is compared to the 30.8 points they were leaking on average last season. However with that being said, even the most ardent Eels supporter must be dreading the next time when they ship 30 or more points in a match, something they did on 13 of 24 occasions in 2013.
On the other side of the defence ledger, the Broncos started the season brightly by only conceding 12 points each game in the opening two rounds. That high standard has not quite been met in the two rounds since, conceding a total of 50 points against the Roosters and Dragons. The plus side for Brisbane is that their attack seems to be clicking with 62 points scored in the past fortnight. The Broncos seem capable of scoring more freely now this season compared to 2013; four rounds in they are averaging 24 points per game in contrast to the 18.1 points they were managing last year.
With both sides seemingly capable of piling on the points, the side that can frustrate the opposition with an 80-minute defensive display will most certainly hold out for the win – unless Jarryd Hayne decides to kick another field goal on the stroke of half-time like he did in Round 9 against the Broncos last season where the Eels held on to win 19-18.
The History: Played 48; Broncos 29, Eels 18, drawn 1. Parra fans are spread far and wide so little wonder that when the boys come to town there is a healthy smattering of blue and gold sprinkled throughout the Suncorp Stadium stands. Perhaps one of the reasons they bust out the merchandise so readily is that the Eels have a very respectable 11 wins from 24 visits to Brisbane, including three straight in 1998-99 and two of their past three. Interestingly, only seven players from the Eels team defeated 22-12 by the Broncos in Round 23 last year will line up on Friday night.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet.com.au have the Broncos at $1.35 – playing at home and playing well – and the Eels at $3.30. Punters also sniff an upset here with the 65 per cent of the money on Parramatta.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Adam Gee; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: This game really depends on which Eels outfit shows up. If they can hold the Broncos out for the first 20 minutes of the match, then they will derive the confidence they need in order to pile the points on themselves and set sight towards victory. On the other hand the Broncos have finally hit their straps much to the delight of their fans; however a leaky defence in the past fortnight has given Brisbane extra motivation to lift to another level against the Eels. With the legends of the 1997-98 premiership sides watching on and in front of a parochial home crowd, the Broncos should be inspired and prove too strong on the night. Broncos by 10 points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.