Eels v Wests Tigers
If there are two teams in the NRL that could be excused for casting an early, wistful glance towards Mad Monday, it is surely these two embattled clubs.
Rooted to the foot of the ladder, in last and second last (on differential), September football is no longer a mathematical possibility for either side, meaning each is playing only for pride and to try to belatedly give long-suffering fans something to cheer about.
For the Eels, if they can somehow earn at least as many wins in their final five games as they racked up in the opening 21 rounds of the competition, there remains a mathematical possibility of them dodging back-to-back wooden spoons.
In the unlikely event they are to mount a late surge, then this Friday night’s opponents are the team to whom they would realistically be looking to offload the unwanted utensil – but a win to the Tigers here would surely spell curtains for even that last forlorn goal.
Both teams bring woeful form into this one – they lost by a combined score of 76-12 last week and the last time either Western Sydney club gave the team song a workout was six weeks ago on 29 June when the Cam Smith-less Storm went down to the Tigers 22-4 during Origin season.
Since then it’s four losses and a bye for the black-and-golds but it’s been far longer for the blue-and-golds – three months, to be precise, and their Round 9, 19-18, Jarryd Hayne-inspired win over the Broncos on May 11.
They are presently in danger of equalling the worst performance by any team in the modern NRL era of just three wins, by the Magpies in 1999 and Rabbitohs in 2006.
They simply will not get a better chance this year to avoid that unwanted piece of history than a game on their home patch against the Robbie Farah-less Tigers. The Leichhardt talisman dislocated a finger last week, putting him out of this one, meaning coach Mick Potter has brought youngster Joel Luani into the starting side (back-up hooker Masada Iosefa is also on the injured list). A season-ending ankle injury to centre Chris Lawrence means Tim Simona moves to centre and winger Marika Koroibete returns from an awful dislocated elbow on the wing.
Despite formally announcing his departure from the NRL at season’s end, Benji Marshall has been named at five-eighth – although there is talk about that if the Tigers can clear some second-tier salary cap issues that youngster Luke Brooks could come into calculations for a halves position in Marshall’s place.
Meanwhile the big news, the only news out Parramatta way, is the return of that man Jarryd Hayne after a long eight weeks on the sideline with a hamstring strain. He pushes stand-in fullback Jake Mullaney out of the side while halfback Luke Kelly also returns from a hamstring twinge, pushing Ben Roberts to five eighth and Api Pewhairangi out of the side.
Watch Out Eels: The numbers don’t make pretty reading for the Eels: last for points scored (13.3) and line-breaks (2.8) per game, and worst for points (29.3) and metres (1444.5) conceded per game.
The Tigers will need their quality backline to take advantage of the highly suspect Parramatta edge defence. David Nofoaluma has been a revelation in his 10 games so far, quickly racking up a club-high 60 tackle-breaks (in fact of everyone with more tackle-breaks this year only Josh Dugan, with 63 from nine games, has played fewer than Nofoaluma’s 10 games).
Tim Simona has also been electric for the Tigers this year and the pair are level on a club-best seven tries apiece, each averaging more than 100 metres per game. If these two find some space it will be another torrid night for the Eels on the flanks.
Watch Out Wests Tigers: With Parramatta coming in on 10 straight losses you’d be entitled to expect this space to be blank but rugby league isn’t that simple. The 15th-placed Tigers are without their most important player in skipper Robbie Farah and arguably their second most important in Origin prop Aaron Woods, who is out for the season. Also gone for the season is Lawrence, who was a two-try hero in the last meeting between these sides, with several other players also in the injury ward. Don’t forget the Tigers trail every team other than the Eels in points scored (14.5 per game) and conceded (26.6 per game).
And while the Tigers are missing their key player, the Eels get their number one go-to man back. Despite his lengthy layoff Hayne still leads the Eels for tries in 2013, with eight, and is equal first at the club in line-breaks (seven) and line-break assists (five).
And let’s not forget the venue – despite their defensive woes the Eels still average only 20 points conceded per game at Parramatta, compared with 34 away, it’s the venue of their three victories this year and the Tigers have lost 12 of their past 13 away games.
Lastly, our stat of the day suggests the Eels don’t mind playing Wests: Parramatta average more points against the Tigers than any other opponent (24.2 per game).
Plays To Watch: Some vintage cannonball runs from Fuifui Moimoi – the big fella looked angry last week and one explosive 20-metre run had Sea Eagles tumbling like nine pins; stunning athleticism from Nofoaluma (was his freakish Round 20 try against the Sea Eagles the try of the year?); Darcy Lussick to continue his evolution into a modern-day NRL hitman (his monstrous shot last week against Brenton Lawrence will surely make the end-of-season highlights reels); and a glimpse at the future of Wests Tigers – lining up alongside players like Curtis Sironen and Nofoaluma will be highly rated youngster, debutant Luani, who has just been resigned for four years. And if the Tigers get their way he will be joined by a fellow NRL debutant in promising half Luke Brooks, who was also recently resigned for four years.
Key Match-Up: Darcy Lussick v Adam Blair. You may remember these two as key protagonists in 2011’s infamous Battle of Brookvale – Lussick sparked the all-in brawl when, playing for Manly, he slapped Melbourne’s Ryan Hinchcliffe, prompting Blair to run in and throw a wild uppercut at Lussick that saw him marched from the field only to jog after fellow sin-bin offender Glenn Stewart for a resumption of hostilities.
Lussick showed last week he doesn’t mind the rough stuff – will he go looking for Blair again?
Where It Will Be Won: The victors here will most likely be the side that doesn’t lose if for themselves. Despite the 16-0 scoreline against them, Parramatta made the running for much of the first half last week, throwing way more offloads (13 last week, season average 6) and having plenty of opportunities, but nine first-half errors and a lack of execution on key plays cost them dearly. Meanwhile the Tigers make more errors than any side in the competition, with 11.4 mistakes per week. Whoever can keep their mistakes under control and take their chances will make it pretty hard for the opposition.
The History: Played 27; Parramatta 15, Wests Tigers 11, drawn 1. The Eels hold an 8-5 advantage on their home patch but Wests have won six of their past seven against the Eels.
Match Officials: Referees – Henry Perenara & Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Justin Morgan.
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Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed, 9.30pm (NSW & Qld).
The Way We See It: This is actually a tough one to pick given the mountain of injuries at the Tigers and the respective home and away form of both teams. But the Eels showed some positive signs last week and have talismanic fullback Hayne to give them a lift. We haven’t taken the Eels for quite a while but we’ll give them a shot this week. Parramatta – by an unconverted Hayne try.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.