Bulldogs v Eels
Sunday, 3pm (AEST)
With almost the entire NSW Blues backline between them, the Bulldogs and Eels clash on Sunday is suddenly cast as the 'Battle of the Back-ups'.
Opposing coach Des Hasler and Brad Arthur have been forced to reach far into their reserves, with the former naming a makeshift halves pairing in Reni Maitua and youngster Damien Cook, while the latter has turned to reserve-graders Vai Toutai and Ryan Morgan.
The Bulldogs will be aiming to snap a worrying two-game losing slide that included being on the end of their first beatdown of the year – a 32-10 mauling in the pigpen that was Brookvale Oval last week. It was their second loss in a row to a 2013 grand finalist, prompting immediate questions over their credentials as a genuine premiership threat.
The loss of regular halves pairing Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson to Origin is a particular headache for Hasler, who will also has promising playmaker Moses Mbye sidelined for around six weeks with a foot injury. Strike weapon Josh Morris (knee) and centre Chase Stanley (knee) will be gone for a similar period, while Aiden Tolman is also out with injury. Second-rower Tony Williams is on deck however, with the Game I Blue squeezed out by the returning Greg Bird.
Parramatta, meanwhile, are gunning for their fourth win in five games after they held on for an impressive 18-16 victory over the Cowboys.
The win continued their unbeaten run at Pirtek Stadium this year, but that doesn't even come close to their equally bad record at Homebush, where they haven't tasted success in almost four years.
And it won't get easier on Sunday, when Arthur will be without the services of Origin stars Jarryd Hayne and Will Hopoate. Centre Willie Tonga is also in camp with Queensland, but he's been named by Arthur to return by the weekend. Ken Sio's steps into Hayne's boots, which gives Vai Toutai a recall, while Ryan Morgan comes in for Hopoate. Hooker Isaac De Gois also gets his first game at Parramatta after moving from the Shire during the week.
Note NRL Junior and Officials passes will be accepted to all Round 14 games.
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Watch Out Bulldogs: To get an idea on the offensive mentality Eels halfback Chris Sandow is in right now, his 14 runs against the Cowboys last week was a season-high, as were the 72 possessions he had. In fact, the rejuvenated playmaker has run the ball at least 11 times in five of the nines games he's played.
Watch Out Eels: Bulldogs fullback Sam Perrett was supposed to be a fill-in, a temporary No. 1 for whichever fullback the club could scour the market for. But the Mr Reliable has played every single game so far this year, posting up these more-than-handy numbers: 158 metres per game, 17 runs per game, and a team-high 43 tackle busts.
Plays To Watch: It's not hard to see why rookie Pauli Pauli hasn't missed a game since debuting in Round 4. Along with sidekick Junior Paulo, the Eels are doing a great job of isolating their manchildren with defenders, and the big men are using their height and strength to offload to supporting players on the way through.
With the Bulldogs lacking a genuine halfback – Maitua is a second-rower while Cook is a utility – expect skipper Michael Ennis to take a bit of the kicking load off his inexperienced halves. Not renowned for his general play kicking, Ennis has done so six times in the past three games.
Where It Will Be Won:
With the forward packs of both squads largely untouched, this will boil down to which team shows more fluidity in attack. The Bulldogs are missing their five-eighth and halfback, but the Eels also have a new fullback and hooker. Whichever spine holds their side together best should come out on top.
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The History: Played 146; Canterbury-Bankstown 79, Parramatta 60, drawn 7. After a lean four-year period where the Eels won eight of nine between 2007-10, the Bulldogs have gone unbeaten since, winning their past six. The blue-and-whites topped 30 points in four of those victories, including 40-12 beatdown in their last meeting.
What Are The Odds: Just as many bets for the Eels as for the Bulldogs in the head-to-head market at Sportsbet.com.au, but nearly twice the dollars being placed on the Doggies.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm (AEST)
The Way We See It: Parramatta's record at Homebush scares the living daylights out of us, but so does their most recent game without their main man in Hayne, when they were blacked out by Penrith. Put the two together and it should equate to an easy Bulldogs win.