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Eels v Bulldogs preview

Eels v Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium
Friday, 7.40pm

What a difference a month makes. Cast your eyes back to the start of Round 20 – just three short weeks before this Friday's Eels/Bulldogs crunch game – and Dessie's Doggies were flying high in equal second (after being equal first a week earlier). The battling Eels, after a bright start to the year, had plummeted over the course of the representative period minus superstar fullback Jarryd Hayne to 13th, and were seemingly out of the finals hunt.

Fast forward three games and it's the Bulldogs, winless over that period to make it four losses on the trot, who are looking desperate. Meanwhile it is the Eels – level with the eighth-placed Dogs on 26 points but ninth on differential – who have the spring in their step after three-straight wins, all of them away from the backyard fortress.

As we wrote earlier this week, there is an excellent chance that the winner of this clash will go on to finish eighth and play finals footy, while the loser will end up in ninth and celebrate Mad Monday in early September.

With the Eels having not gone close to tasting finals footy since their amazing 2009 run, there is therefore a strong case to suggest this is their most important game since the 2009 decider.
 
They weren't entirely convincing in coming from behind to edge out the lowly Raiders 18-10 in steamy Darwin last week, but a win's a win. They'll need to step it up this week against a desperate Canterbury-Bankstown outfit.

They have a couple of changes; with Junior Paulo suspended Fuifui Moimoi returns at prop, Pauli Pauli returns on the bench in place of Peni Terepo, while Vai Tautai is in on the wing with Bureta Faraimo out.

The Bulldogs' stocks have plummeted in Lehman Brothers proportions. Four-straight losses over the past month has them clinging narrowly to eighth place – ahead of the ninth-placed Eels – on for and against. A loss here will certainly see them finish the weekend outside the eight, and fairly long odds to get back in there at all.

Last week's 41-10 loss to Brisbane was arguably the worst of the lot, although the 42-18 against Wests Tigers to kick if off wasn't pretty either.

Enough has been said and written about last week's brain snap from their five-eighth Josh Reynolds but the main thing as far as this game is concerned is he'll be watching from the sidelines serving the first week of a three-week suspension. His place is taken by promising youngster Moses Mbye.

Big bopper Sam Kasiano is out until the finals with a syndesmosis injury. Aiden Tolman moves to prop, Greg Eastwood starts at lock, Reni Maitua joins the bench and Pat O'Hanlon has been added as 18th man.

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Watch Out Eels: Tony 'T-Rex' Williams has shown some promising signs over the past fortnight, someone just needs to work out how to make him angrier. In his past two games the Big Dog has tallied around 270 metres at just over 10 metres per run, 10 tackle breaks, six offloads, two line break assists and a try assist. This week, against his former club – the one he debuted for as a winger back in 2008 – with his current club's season on the line, he shouldn't be short on motivation.
If he winds up like we know he can the young Parramatta forwards will have a job containing him.

Watch Out Bulldogs: You know what we're going to say, don't you? Well, we're going to say it anyway. He's in sublime – possibly career-best – form. He could be the most dangerous rugby league player on the planet right now. He has the most tries of any player in the NRL this year, with 17 (six of those in just his past three games). He has the most line breaks, with 21. The second most tackle breaks, with 108, the second most run metres, with 3,163 at an astonishing 186 per game, as well as 11 try assists, 13 line break assists, not to mention the 10 try saves (equal second best). Whether it's a plane, or a train, his name is Jarryd Hayne and right now he's the reason the Eels are still contemplating finals footy. He generally doesn't mind having a big game against the Doggies either. He was heavily marked last week and still won the game for his side. If the Eels are to win, it comes down to this man.

Plays To Watch: The Bulldogs have been criticised for being a bit too lateral and for their halves not getting involved enough. One of their ball-playing forwards in Sam Kasiano is out, but so is one of their halves, replaced by a promising youngster. Moses Mbye has looked good in his limited minutes this year but he's played mostly in the centres. His one run in the halves came with both senior halves off on Origin duty. Will he provide the spark and/or direction the side has been lacking lately? His combination with Trent Hodkinson will be both interesting and crucial to the outcome.

For the Eels, part of the strength of their recent run and in particular Hayne's form has been the ability of their halves to do their jobs. Corey Norman has been a great foil for Hayne and Sandow and provided a steadying influence. Sandow himself remains very much an instinctive player but his kicking game has been far more 'on' than 'off' in recent weeks, which has been critical. Let's see if he can use that boot to keep the Bulldogs down their end as he mostly managed with Canberra last week.

Where It Will Be Won: The kicking games of the respective halves will be vital. Toutai has had the odd struggle with his handling this year and is where the Bulldogs will need to aim their bombs. Hayne has had no struggles of any kind and the Dogs desperately need to keep the ball away from him as much as possible. For the Eels, Sandow is capable of producing some very ordinary kicks but has mostly kept those to a minimum – the Eels need him to continue to find pinpoint kicks in attack to maintain pressure and stop the big Bulldogs pack getting a roll on.

History: Played 135; Eels 72; Bulldogs 58; drawn 5. Parramatta’s win over the Dogs back in Round 14 – with both sides depleted through Origin representation – was the blue-and-golds' first over the blue-and-whites since 2010, snapping a six-game losing run (not to mention a 14-game losing run at ANZ Stadium), although they did win the four games prior to that.

What Are The Odds: Sportsbet are struggling to split the sides, with both the Eels and Bulldogs at $1.90. Parramatta started as $2.40 outsiders, but their winning form coupled with the Bulldogs’ heavy loss in Round 22 has evened things up in almost every market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm.

The Way We See It: Recent form certainly favours the Eels, but it's rarely that simple. With the season just about on the line for both sides it could come down to who handles the pressure better. The fact the Eels seem to finally be starting to re-learn how to win away from Parramatta also counts in their favour, as does the fact they have a slightly more settled line up. And then there's the Hayne factor. On that basis, and we may as well be throwing darts blindfolded here, we'll go with the Eels by four points to continue the Dogs' downward slide.
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