In-form Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson will be hoping to reverse a horror result against Parramatta in the corresponding game last year. Copyright Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos. Credit: Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos. Copyright: Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos.
Eels v Warriors
As far as false starts go, the Eels' 18-0 shutout of the Warriors in last year's corresponding fixture – also a season-opener at Parramatta – was as tantalisingly bogus an advertisement as you could get.
The Eels showed a remarkably resilient defence in the victory, sending tongues wagging as the home side gave its long-suffering supporters reason to believe in their team once again.
The only downside was Ricky Stuart's post-conference guarantee that despite the win, "there will be tough times ahead".
It was about the only thing Stuart got right last season.
Parramatta went on to lose a record-breaking 16 of their next 18 games and finish the season with the wooden spoon. The Warriors, meanwhile, proved once again to be consistently inconsistent, ending a promising season just one win out of the top eight.
Yet again the new year marks a clean slate for both sides, who are in desperate need of a good start to make good on their pre-season goals of moving up the ladder.
New Eels coach Brad Arthur has enjoyed a solid and busy pre-season, earning a big victory over a the Wests Tigers reserve grade side in Alice Springs and showing signs of life in the Auckland Nines before finally losing a tight one against Manly.
For the Warriors, their visit to Parramatta marks the first time they've boarded a plane all summer – if that's indeed what they still classify as summer over there.
Matt Elliott's men enjoyed the benefits of trials against the Titans at North Harbour Stadium (a 36-18 loss), against the Broncos in Dunedin (a 48-4 win) and against the visiting Wigan Warriors side in Hamilton (a 46-22 loss).
But the most positive result out of their pre-season came at the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines, where Shaun Johnson and new recruit Sam Tomkins put together a whole reel of highlights material between them that will once again have fans salivating over the club's finals prospects.
While the appointment of Arthur came late in the season, Parramatta still managed to recruit some talented pieces in the form of Corey Norman, Nathan Peats, Justin Hunt and Lee Mossop, all of whom fill in some gaping holes on their roster.
The most significant choice in Arthur's first line-up of the season is his preference of the steadier Luke Kelly over the enigmatic Chris Sandow, highlighting how the highly-rated mentor isn't afraid of making the tough decisions.
Watch Out Eels: If the early signs surrounding the Johnson-Tomkins combination are anything to go by, then the outlook for the Warriors will at least be electrifying. Not only did they put on a clinic in the Nines, but Johnson backed it up with a five-star performance in the Warriors' demolition of the Broncos a week later, scoring a try and kicking four goals. Time will tell whether the pre-season form will translate into early season wins for the under-achieving side, but at the very least it will be entertaining.
Watch Out Warriors: Johnson's early form had opposition teams in a spin, but Jarryd Hayne's World Cup campaign had Australia's rugby league rivals scurrying for any hole big enough to hide in. It was the best month of football the Parramatta talisman has showcased since the Eels' fairytale run to the 2009 grand final and should he carry that form into 2014, their chances of moving up the ladder improves significantly.
Plays To Watch: It will be interesting to see how the combination between Norman and Hayne shapes up in attack, with both players enjoying the opportunities at second receiver. Hayne's attacking output at centre for the Kangaroos just might be enough of an incentive for Arthur to play his star just that little bit wider in attack.
For the Warriors, the sweeping movements between Johnson and Tomkins are key. Look for them to exploit the full width of the field and use their powerful men on the edges to crash over for tries.
Where It Will Be Won: After the first 20 minutes. Both benches include front row tradesmen in Darcy Lussick and Jacob Lillyman; and they also contain offensive sparks such as Joseph Paulo and former Eel Feleti Mateo.
But it's the firepower on the rest of the benches that will be of most intrigue. The Eels' duo of Peni Terepo and Kelepi Tanginoa showed their exuberance and vigour at various stages last year, while Suaia Matagi and Sam Lousi helped prove that the Auckland Nines was as much about the mobility and strength of the forwards as it was about the thrill-seekers in the backline.
Whoever wins the game, you can guarantee their interchange will have had an impact on the outcome.
The History: Played 31; Eels 18, Warriors 13. The Eels have lost six of the past nine against the Warriors, but their only match last season – the corresponding season-opener, also at Parramatta – was an 18-0 shutout of the visiting side. The win proved to be a false hope, however, as the Eels went on to lose 16 of their next 18 games.
What Are The Odds: Outside the Roosters, the Warriors are the only other 'away' team to start favourites this weekend. Money is flooding three to one in their favour with Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Michael Wise & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Foxsports 1 – Live 6.30pm (AEDT)
The Way We See It: Hard to pick this one. The Warriors look like embracing their unpredictable style of play with more unpredictability in the form of Sam Tomkins, while the Eels begin life under a disciplinarian not unlike Des Hasler. Like all close games, we'll go for the home side by 2 points in a thriller.