Parramatta halfback Chris Sandow has rocketed back to top form in recent weeks and will prove a handful for the Dragons' halves on Saturday. Credit: Renee McKay. Copyright: NRL Photos.
Eels v Dragons
Saturday, 3pm (AEST)
Forget the 3pm kick-off for a moment. All eyes, ears, iPads, smart phones and computer screens are on the Twittersphere, where the final team line-ups will be found an hour before kick-off, all to find out whether Benji Marshall makes his highly publicised return to the NRL.
We should know by then whether Dragons CEO Peter Doust has agreed to hand over some moolah to the Wests Tigers, but all the financial hullaballoo at that point is moot. The real money question centres on whether 'Mr Flick Pass' really has arrived with a second wind - and whether he can transform that second wind into a full-blown gale.
Either way, there will still be a game to be played out Parramatta way on Saturday afternoon and if the form guide is anything to go by, prepare the stomach linings for a massacre because both sides had their respective games last week decided by halftime.
Thanks to a couple of standout performances from attacking linchpins Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow, the Eels were in control for the majority of their 42-24 mauling of the Sharks last Monday night. And if they had adhered to coach Brad Arthur's year-long plea and decided to play a lick of defence in the second half, the scoreline wouldn't have been nearly as flattering for Cronulla.
In the Dragons' case, defence was clearly optional from the kick-off as they stared down the barrel of a 38-6 embarrassment that coach Steve Price had every right to label 'soft' in the post-match press conference.
It was as though the early season pacesetters were still dancing the streets of Wollongong and celebrating the signing of Marshall two days prior, because the famous Red V quickly became infamously red-faced as the Bulldogs poured on seven tries to one.
Eels talent Junior Paulo retains his spot in Arthur's side, meaning veteran Fuifui Moimoi gets another week in the reggies, while Jason Nightingale and Will Matthews come in for Nathan Green and Mike Cooper respectively.
That's how the teams look for now... but all that can change at 2pm on Saturday afternoon.
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Watch Out Eels: Trent Merrin is the Dragons player tackled most inside the opposition red zone and with 14 offloads to his name, it's not hard to see why. His deceptive footwork and ability to create second-phase footy makes him as dangerous as his new teammate Marshall. And now with two instinctive halves – the other being five-eighth Gareth Widdop – who are leaders in slicing through jagged defensive lines, having Merrin out there is like having a third half.
Watch Out Dragons: Hayne and Sandow got all the plaudits post-game, and deservedly so. But it was unsung hero Darcy Lussick who began like a house on fire, setting the tone with an early shot that forced an error and set up their first try. In the end the former Sea Eagle tallied just 79 metres and 18 tackles but we assure you – every single one of them was quality. Lussick may not be your high-profile workhorse who churns out accountant-like numbers every game, but he's the bloke who's never afraid to upend the bloke who does.
Plays To Watch: It's not so much a play as it is strategy, but by now it's no secret that Price is employing wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale as his third and fourth props on the field. The Dragons lead the league in dummy-half runs, with Morris (44) and Nightingale (31) making plenty of darts out of dummy-half when Mitch Rein (65) doesn't.
The Eels are a little bit more unpredictable, and a lot of that has to do with Chris Sandow's instinctive and brash play. However, there is a recurring theme to their left-side shifts, and it primarily involves Hayne keeping the opposition right winger honest with a long ball to in-form winger Semi Radradra early on.
Where It Will Be Won: Parramatta have been forced to make the least amount of tackles, and take the least amount of line drop-outs of any NRL team so far this year. We all know how dangerous they are with plenty of possession, but if the Dragons can mount even a little on Saturday, we'll find out how much ticker this new-look Eels team really has.
The History: Played 29; Eels 12, Dragons 14, drawn 3. It's not pretty reading for the Eels, whose breakthrough 26-22 victory in Round 25 last year was the first win in their past eight games against the Dragons. The 8,910 crowd at Parramatta Stadium was also the lowest between the two teams since St George and Illawarra merged in 1999.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Matt Rodwell.
Televised: FoxSports 1 – Live 3pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The Eels are undefeated at Pirtek Stadium, and after the Dragons' no-show last week, common sense tells us to go with them by 14 points. But there's nothing common about Benji Marshall, and to be honest, he looks like the kind of bloke who likes a dramatic entrance. So if he's on the team sheet at 2pm, we expect a tighter affair.