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Dragons v Eels preview

There is barely a struck match between the Dragons and the Eels, so will Josh Dugan prove the spark? Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
Dragons v Eels
WIN Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

Winners and losers from respective one-point games last weekend, these two sides will have to dust themselves off and go again in an attempt to try to stay away from the foot of the ladder.

Locked together on three wins from nine starts, and with just eight points in differential separating them, there is barely a struck match between the Eels in 14th and the Dragons in 13th. And sitting precariously just one win in front of last-placed Wests Tigers but also one win behind eighth-placed Brisbane, a win here will be vital for one of these teams in their attempts to stay in sight of the top eight, while the loser will be flirting with the foot of the ladder.

The Eels defied form, history, expert predictions and basic statistics to emerge one-point winners over Brisbane last week. Despite Brisbane looking by far the better team over the prior month, and boasting a fantastic record at Parramatta Stadium, the Broncos couldn’t quite overhaul the blue-and-golds.

This despite the fact Brisbane finished in front in most key statistical categories – they had 53 per cent of the ball, made more metres, offloads, line-breaks and tackle busts, and scored one try more. Goal-kicking let them down though and a stunning field-goal on the stroke of halftime from Eels custodian Jarryd Hayne eventually proved the difference. 

Goal-kicking also proved an issue for the Dragons as well as they notched three tries to the Titans’ two on the Gold Coast, only to go down 15-14 with an Aidan Sezer field-goal and penalty goal taking the Titans past the red-and-whites. Unlike Brisbane, the Dragons did not boss the other stats, missing more tackles and making more errors while conceding more offloads and penalties. 

As you’d expect having finally notched their third win of the season, the Eels have gone for minimal changes. Bench prop Darcy Lussick has taken the early plea to a contrary conduct charge arising from his role in the fracas initiated by Bronco Josh McGuire last week and will miss two weeks. Junior Paulo takes his place on the pine.

Centre Ryan Morgan has not recovered from the hamstring strain that resulted in him being a late omission last week meaning Api Pewhairangi gets his second run in the top grade.

The big news from the Dragons camp is the club debut of troubled Raiders fullback Josh Dugan. It’s a significant new opportunity for a man who was about to make his Origin debut this time two years ago and he will be desperate to impress his new teammates and supporters. He replaces last week’s debutant Adam Quinlan who drops out of the side.

Coach Steve Price will also be relieved to welcome back Matt Cooper from a toe injury, meaning the experiment of playing Matt Prior at centre is over for now, with Prior dropping back to a five-man bench.

Watch Out Dragons: With State of Origin team selections now front of mind for both media pundits and every casual fan, it can only mean one thing – Jarryd Hayne coming into form. Unfortunately for the Dragons, Hayne already seems to be enjoying his most consistent form since 2009 and is growing into a leadership role at the club. 

Hayne will bring up his 150th game on Saturday and is the second-most-capped player at Parramatta behind only Fuifui Moimoi (174 games). Remarkably, Hayne is also now the second-most-capped New South Welshman of all currently active players in the NRL with 16 games in the sky blue, behind only injured Knights hooker Danny Buderus (21 games).

Hayne has seven tries this year to be equal fourth in the NRL, as well as 47 tackle-breaks (third) and five line-breaks while averaging 137 metres per game. But more than the numbers it’s the little moments – Hayne has pulled off a series of amazing one-on-one try-stoppers in the past fortnight which, combined with that remarkable field-goal last week, emphasise the fact that he seems to be in a good place mentally. If he’s able to take charge at the right times the Dragons will have a hard time minimising his impact.

Watch Out Eels: The Eels have been diabolical away from home this year. In four games at Parra Stadium they have three wins and have outscored their opponents 82-48. In five games away from Parramatta they have five losses and have been outscored 173-68.

The Dragons will be keen to put the Eels on the back foot early because, as we saw against the Roosters, Titans and Panthers, once the tide turns against the Eels they can concede big points in no time at all.

And what better man to help them do that than gifted fullback and club debutant Josh Dugan? Dugan was a controversial selection over Jarryd Hayne, his opposite number in this game, for the Blues fullback role in the 2011 series opener but Origin will be the last thing on Dugan’s mind. Of more concern will be regaining his 2011-12 form, which saw him bust more than six tackles per game over two seasons while averaging more than 134 metres per match.

Plays To Watch: Keep an eye on the second-phase play here. Parramatta seem to have adopted a ‘no-offload’ policy, which isn’t exactly paying dividends, while the Saints are among the most prolific offloaders in the competition. The Eels are a distant last with just 5.2 offloads per game while the Dragons are second with 12 per game, behind only the Titans – their conquerors last weekend.

In their win last week the Eels trailed in that stat by only 11 to seven, whereas the Dragons were well down, conceding 18 offloads to just five. Trent Merrin (22) is the second best in the league at getting the ball away mid-tackle while Jason Nightingale (13) Prior (11) and Chase Stanley and Bronson Harrison (both nine) are also racking up some numbers. Let’s see if coach Price has let his team know they need to get back into generating second phase to help them push downfield.

Key Match-Up: Mannah and Moimoi v Hunt and Weyman. Dan Hunt has been one of the real unsung heroes for the red-and-whites this season. While Merrin seems to earn the plaudits – and he has been enormous this year – Hunt has been quietly racking up 120 metres and 26 tackles per game from 45 minutes on the field. Weyman has spent most of the season off injured, playing just five games and starting just once, but he’ll be looking to recapture the form he showed in 2010 when he helped his side to the title and represented his state.

Meanwhile the Parramatta bookends have been two shining lights in a rather lacklustre pack this year. Mannah in particular looks to be close to career-best form, averaging 119 metres and 30 tackles from 46 minutes on the field. He was particularly impressive in the Round 5 win over Cronulla in the Johnny Mannah Cup and has consistently led from the front this year. Moimoi has been a handful, as always, and the pair will need to start the side off well versus Weyman and Hunt if the Eels are to notch back-to-back wins for the first time this season.

Where It Will Be Won: Given the way events unfolded for these two teams last week, kicking accuracy will be a vital factor. The Eels won despite scoring fewer tries while the Dragons lost despite scoring one more try than the Titans, so pure goal-kicking accuracy will be paramount.

It goes further than that though. Hayne showed the value a long boot can provide with a freakish play on halftime last week. Having been awarded a penalty on the hooter and just 30 metres out, Hayne hoofed it 50 metres downfield. With the siren having sounded and just the one play available, 30 out and near the sideline, Hayne calmly launched a field-goal attempt and watched it curl back between the posts. A three-point lead rather than two didn’t seem critical at the time but proved vital as the Eels hung on to win by one.

For the Dragons, the long boot of Soward was instrumental in driving them to the 2010 title. His accurate long kicks into space (usually launched from well behind the attacking line) regularly allowed his team to start defensive sets in good position. He also slotted penalty goals and field-goals from all over the park which helped the side out of plenty of close encounters. The Dragons will need him to regain that mojo for them to be a force again this year.

The History: Played 27; Dragons 13, Eels 11, drawn 3. These clubs have only met four times at Wollongong since St George merged with Illawarra, with the Saints holding a 2-1 advantage with one draw, although the last of those four meetings was in August 2007.

Although the overall stats look fairly even, the Dragons have had the wood over the Eels in recent years – Parramatta have won just one of their past 10 clashes over the red-and-whites (a famous Hayne-inspired victory at Kogarah in the 2009 finals series), with eight wins to the Dragons and one draw.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Allan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Dragons v Eels clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm.

The Way We See It: While one is coming off a win and the other a loss, Parramatta’s away record this season hardly inspires confidence. Dugan could provide the x-factor although he may well need some settling in time. It’s hard to tip either of these sides with confidence right now but taking home-ground advantage into account we’ll take the Dragons by six points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats. 
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