Eels v Dragons
For the second time in a month the embattled Eels get to play host to a side that isn’t travelling drastically better than themselves – and it should be a welcome change of pace after their tussle with the big boys ended in embarrassment last week.
That trip to Melbourne turned in a result that was sadly predictable for long-suffering fans. Despite being first to score and opening strongly, the Eels couldn’t stay with the merciless Storm, who ran in seven tries in the final 27 minutes to inflict a 64-4 thrashing.
The 60-point defeat was the proud club’s second-biggest loss and a bitter pill to swallow after the side had shown positive signs in the prior fortnight, challenging Brisbane in Brisbane and defeating fellow battlers West Tigers the week before.
The colossal hit to the Eels’ differential also effectively extinguished the last ray of hope that the club could dodge back-to-back spoons, meaning motivation will be a key challenge for the club in these final two rounds. They will welcome the chance to play at home where their defence has been much tighter – only Manly in Round 21 really got away from them – and it is also the venue of all four of their wins this season.
The fact they are at Parramatta may be a relief to the players but only came about through a late venue change – the game was scheduled to be the second of the two Parramatta are contracted to play at ANZ each year but concerns over the likely Monday night attendance between the two bottom-ranked teams resulted in the switch.
The Dragons are in a similar boat to Parramatta, with little to play for other than pride, and are currently the side on the longest losing run in the competition – five games have passed since their surprise win over the Rabbitohs in Round 19, although the average margin of the intervening losses has been far smaller than what the Eels have been experiencing.
They will still be disappointed in the manner they seemed to be ambushed by a new-look Tigers side last week as highly rated debutant Luke Brooks orchestrated a fairytale debut. Despite scoring first through bustling forward Leeson Ah Mau the Tigers ran in the next four in a dominant first half. And although they regrouped at the break to narrow the gap to one try following four-pointers to Adam Quinlan and Ben Creagh, the Tigers again ran away from them.
Eels coach Ricky Stuart will be relieved to welcome back talismanic fullback Jarryd Hayne, who returns to his accustomed position in place of stand-in custodian Jake Mullaney who has been left out. Stuart has otherwise relied on the same side he named last week, although that unit experienced a late reshuffle among the forward pack – so don’t be surprised if Fuifui Moimoi goes back to the bench again for the likes of Pat O’Hanlon.
For the Dragons, four of their six wins this year have actually been away so this road trip shouldn’t worry them too much. In the only change, youngster Josh Drinkwater comes onto the bench in place of Craig Garvey.
Watch Out Eels: This is the type of scenario that will have winger Brett Morris licking his lips in his 150th NRL match. His left side of the field is easily the most fruitful when it comes to Dragons attacking raids – 30 tries have come on that side compared to just 19 on the right side and 12 up the centre. Parramatta are fragile on the fringes at the best of times and that right-side defence which will be marking Morris has leaked an astonishing 49 tries. It’s only one more than Parramatta have conceded on their left side – but to put it in perspective, it’s also one more than the ladder leading Roosters have conceded across their left side, right side and centre defence all combined!
Morris earned a double getting outside the Sharks’ edge defenders a fortnight ago – he’ll be eyeing another here to bring up 100 career tries, making himself and father Steve just the third father/son centurions combination, after Bill and Brett Mullins and Steve and Mat Rogers.
Watch Out Dragons: They may have been a rabble in Melbourne last week but the Eels are last-start winners at home. In a major boost, Hayne returns in his preferred position at fullback after a long layoff – the Round 11 match against the Titans at Mudgee was the last time Hayne ran out as Eels custodian this year.
Despite only playing 14 of the side’s 22 matches Hayne is still equal top at the club for tries (eight), line-breaks (nine) and top for line-break assists (seven). If the Eels are going to come out on top it could come down to that man Hayne.
Plays To Watch: Jason Nightingale’s awkward running style to challenge defenders while his fearless leaps defuse any high balls the Eels decide to test him with; Darcy Lussick to go looking for some meaty hits; Jack de Belin chopping down defenders with what is becoming one of the competition’s most effective tackling techniques; Fijian powerhouse Semi Radradra to add to his three tries in five games after being the only Eel to score a point last week.
Key Match-Up: Ken Sio and Vai Toutai v Brett Morris and Charly Runciman. Ryan Hoffman had little trouble running through Sio and Toutai last week and the pair will have a job to do containing seasoned tryscorer Morris and young Runciman, who has been playing centre inside Morris for the past few games. They combined to put Adam Quinlan over last week and troubled the Sharks with a brace the week before.
Sio and Toutai will need to be communicating in defence to try to keep Parramatta’s leaky right-edge defence intact but Sio has been a tryscorer for the Eels over the past two seasons, with a club-high 13 last year and eight – equal best with Hayne – so far this year. Morris and Runciman will also need to be on their games in defence.
Where It Will Be Won: Enterprise and second-phase play. It’s something the Eels have been very poor at backing themselves to do over the past two seasons but it’s also when they look their most dangerous.
Meanwhile the Dragons have been better at doing it but poor at making it count – they currently top the competition for offloads (14.3 per game) and are third for running metres (1418 per game) but are 14th for line-breaks (just 3.2 per game) and 15th for tries scored (a measly 61). They’ll need to find a way to make those offloads and metres count, while the Eels will need to show more of what they showed against the Tigers and Broncos to erase memories of last week’s horror show.
The History: Played 27; St George Illawarra 14, Parramatta 11, drawn 2. The Dragons have been a real bogy team for the Eels in recent times – the blue-and-golds have triumphed over the Red V just once in their past 11 meetings (a famous Hayne-inspired win in the 2009 finals series).
Match Officials: Referees – Chris James & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Jon Stone; Video Referees – Matt Cecchin & Matt Rodwell.
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Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: This is a tough one to pick given the form line of each side isn’t exactly great. The Eels have been better at home and Hayne will help but after last week it’s almost impossible to tip them. The Dragons have yet to lose six in a row as a merged club and we’ll take them to keep that record alive and end a five-match losing streak by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.