Ben Blaschke, NRL.com, NRL.com
Eels v Bulldogs
A rivalry that had lost some of its sizzle in recent seasons is suddenly shaping as one of the more intriguing match-ups of Round 2 as Parramatta look to continue their hot start to the 2013 season and the Bulldogs try to prove that they will again be one of the teams to beat.
Eels fans have had a tough time of it in the three years since their 2009 grand final appearance, sinking to their first wooden spoon finish in 40 years last season, but the arrival of new coach Ricky Stuart has certainly lifted spirits out west.
Still, no-one could have predicted the explosive manner in which Stuart’s tenure would begin as Parramatta romped to a 40-10 thrashing of the Warriors last Saturday night.
No doubt the sight of the blue and gold sitting at the top of the NRL ladder – even if it is very early days, will be enjoyed by the club faithful this week.
Stuart promised to stiffen the Eels’ defence this season after they leaked an average 28 points per game in 2012 but it was in attack that they really shined against the Warriors with the form of Chris Sandow and Jarryd Hayne providing genuine reasons to be excited.
Sandow appears to have put the doubts that plagued him last season behind him as his lethal running game returned while Hayne has been largely relieved of playmaking duties to play a more traditional fullback’s role. He scored three tries as the ‘Hayne Plane’ made its welcome return.
The big question is: what can they expect from the Bulldogs?
As was widely predicted, the absence of forwards James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard and, most tellingly, Dally M Medallist Ben Barba proved too much for them last weekend as they crashed to a 24-12 loss to North Queensland.
However, the fact that they were up against a side expected to give the title a huge shake this season can’t be ignored.
Far from disgraced, Canterbury loom as a much sterner test of Parramatta’s finals credentials and they certainly won’t fall apart like the Warriors did under pressure. If anything, it is polish that the Bulldogs are lacking, with the onus now on halves Josh Reynolds and Kris Keating to spark them into gear.
The upshot is that both sides still have plenty to prove after Round 1 and with their fortunes gradually turning, this could well prove to be one of the epic clashes between two teams that have never offered one another much love.
A hamstring injury to Eels five-eighth Luke Kelly has seen lock Joseph Paulo switched to the No.6 jersey with Stuart preferring to keep Ben Roberts coming off the bench as an impact player. Matt Ryan comes into the starting side while back-rower Kelepi Tanginoa makes his NRL debut.
Canterbury coach Des Hasler has named an unchanged side to the one that lost to North Queensland last week.
Watch Out Eels: Former Manly impact weapon Tony Williams was relatively quiet in his Bulldogs debut last weekend, running for 94 metres from 15 hit-ups and failing to cause any major headaches for the North Queensland defence.
However, it’s never easy to live up to expectations first time out – just ask Sonny Bill Williams – and he will be looking to make a statement against the Eels.
‘T-Rex’ played just 16 games for Manly in 2012 but averaged 119 metres, produced 102 tackle busts and a team-high 34 offloads in that time, so he has plenty of improvement left in him.
Watch Out Bulldogs: It was a rejuvenated Chris Sandow who broke the backs of the Warriors last Saturday and if he produces that sort of form again this week the Bulldogs are going to be in for a torrid time.
Sandow endured a tough 2012 season at the Eels with the weight of expectation and an under-performing team proving too big a burden to overcome, but the early signs suggest he could blossom under Ricky Stuart. He kicked off the year with 93 metres from nine runs, two line-breaks, a line-break assist, a try and six goals for a tally of 16 points.
Plays To Watch: It seems that Reni Maitua has become a key part of Eels coach Ricky Stuart’s attacking blueprint. Parramatta showed a clear preference for shifting the ball to the left edge against the Warriors, with Maitua the primary target when the play moves quickly. He played a significant role in three tries last weekend – throwing a superb offload for Luke Kelly to send Jarryd Hayne away in the first half; finding space for Ken Sio to score midway through the second half; and breaking the line himself for Hayne’s third. Watch for Canterbury’s right-side defence to be tested.
Key Match-Up: Reni Maitua v Tony Williams. There is no doubt that these two are shaping as key men for their respective sides in 2013. One of the Eels’ new co-captains, Maitua really stepped up to the mark last Saturday with 108 metres and two try assists to his name. But he can expect a very different challenge against the raw power of Tony Williams who is arguably the most destructive player in the Telstra Premiership. We can see plenty of football heading to that side of the field on Thursday night!
Where It Will Be Won: In the forwards, which remains Canterbury’s greatest strength despite the absence of James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard. With Aiden Tolman in the front row, Tony Williams waiting on the edges and impressive youngster David Klemmer coming off the bench the Eels will face a tough task if they are to make it two from two to start the year.
However, the performance of captain Reni Maitua last weekend has reminded everyone that the former Bulldogs played a Test for Australia in 2006 while Parramatta’s bench looks particularly strong with both Fuifui Moimoi and Darcy Lussick (93 metres in 39 minutes) adding impact.
The History: Played 132; Bulldogs 70, Eels 57, drawn 5. The Bulldogs have won five of the past eight clashes, including the past four straight. Canterbury hold a 10-8 advantage at ANZ Stadium, winning most recently in Round 19 last year (32-12).
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton & Justin Morgan.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8.05pm.
The Way We See It: Last weekend’s results have given us plenty of food for thought. We certainly expected Parramatta to show some improvement from last season under Ricky Stuart’s tutelage but even against a woeful Warriors outfit we couldn’t have predicted they would score 40 points.
Canterbury’s loss to North Queensland was a little more predictable given they were missing a handful of key players and facing a high-quality side, but it leaves us with plenty of questions heading into this one. Are the Eels genuine finals contenders in 2013; and was it the class of North Queensland or Canterbury’s absentees that most contributed to their result last Saturday night? Time will tell.
For now, we’re going to play it safe and stick with a narrow Bulldogs win – although it’s clear that Parra won’t be easybeats anymore. Bulldogs by six points.