Eels v Wests Tigers
If you'd told us all those months ago when the 2014 draw first came out that when we got to Easter in Round 7, the Monday afternoon clash between the Eels and Wests Tigers, who finished last and second last in 2013, would be arguably the match of the round between two sides in red hot form and both sitting in the top five ... well, we'd have suspected you as a candidate to be taken away by those fellows in long white coats.
But here we are, and how good is it to see two well-supported western Sydney clubs in great form and entrenched in the top half of the ladder.
It was hard to get a handle on the Eels after their up-and-down opening month, although there were promising signs. However, after breaking a 20-game away duck in Brisbane then holding out the premiers in a performance that smacked of desire last week, we're prepared to say they’re a changed side under Brad Arthur in 2014. It doesn't mean they'll win the comp or even necessarily make the eight, but they're a long way from the rabble of 2012-13 and will trouble plenty of good sides this year.
Unsurprisingly they have named a similar side to the one that edged the Roosters 14-12 last week, with the only change being the return of Darcy Lussick from a four-match suspension on the bench at the expense of Peni Terepo, with Fuifui Moimoi moving from the bench to take Terepo's starting spot.
The Tigers are the other surprise packet of 2014, with a similar four-win-two-loss record to the Eels, including highly impressive victories over Souths and Manly. They were far too good for a disappointing Cowboys outfit at Campbelltown last week even without regular five-eighth Braith Anasta and in-form fullback James Tedesco.
Anasta returns from a one-game suspension, pushing Blake Austin to an extended bench, although Tedesco is still some way from returning from his ankle injury. But in a massive blow, captain Robbie Farah – arguably the form player of the competition over the opening six rounds – has been ruled out after dislocating an elbow late in the game against the Cowboys, meaning rookie Joel Luani comes in for his first game of the season.
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Watch Out Eels: The Tigers' impressive wins to date have been built largely on consistent momentum in the forwards. Origin prop Aaron Woods is having an outstanding year but unlike last season is getting far more support from an energetic and physical bench.
The likes of Martin Taupau and James Gavet in particular have been in outstanding form, combining for 190 metres and 45 tackles last week, with Taupau contributing three tackle breaks and two offloads. They were even better the week before against Manly, combining for 260 metres, with Taupau adding six tackle breaks and a line break. With that sort of impact coming off the bench the Tigers are really taking to the new, fast-paced rule interpretations this year.
Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Eels had a real team effort against the Roosters, with no real superstars in terms of stats but it's hard to go past in-form fullback Jarryd Hayne as the danger man. Although he set up the side's first try with a trademark precision cut-out ball to winger Ken Sio, it was his eye-catching work at the other end of the field that stood out most.
Hayne defused three certain tries, the first in the Roosters' first set as a great defensive read on a runaway Boyd Cordner saved the Eels' blushes, then again later in the half when he stripped the ball away from a try-bound Sonny Bill Williams. However it was the final one, a desperate ball-and-all tackle, again on Williams, that defied belief when he held up the giant Kiwi back-rower over the line with just over two minutes to play and the side clinging to a two-point lead. With the co-captain setting the standard, the rest of the troops are sure to take his lead.
Plays To Watch: Eels halfback Chris Sandow produced a couple of poor kicks last week but the good ones – a precision midfield chip for a flying Hayne that would have led to a try if Terepo had held the offload, and another precision chip for Sio's second try – were all class and guaranteed to have him trying similar feats this week.
For the Tigers, Farah's absence leaves a gap in the playmaking meaning halves Anasta and Luke Brooks will need to stand up and be counted. Expect Brooks to pull out some crafty kicks of his own close to the line and Anasta to launch his share of spiral bombs.
Where It Will Be Won: The first 20 minutes. The Tigers have started like a bat out of hell in every game except the most recent win over the Cowboys, racing out to early two or three try leads at some stage in the first half of every other game. But in their two losses to date – against the Dragons and Warriors – they have finished up more like a wet blanket as those two teams came home over the top of them. Even at Leichhardt, a Manly comeback was well on the cards in the second half before the Tigers were able to pull away again.
And for the Eels – they've scored the first try in all four of their wins but conceded the first four-pointer in both their losses. Obviously whichever team has the most points after 80 minutes gets the chocolates but whoever wins the opening salvos is clearly a far better chance of doing that.
The History: Played 27; Parramatta 15, Wests Tigers 11, drawn 1. Although this is technically a "home" game for the Eels, their recent record at ANZ Stadium is diabolical: they've lost their past 13 there, going back to mid 2010, although all those matches were played against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs (with one against the Dragons) – all fair teams over that period. The Eels won their last meeting against the Tigers but the black-and-golds won the four before that.
What Are The Odds: Punters want to be on an outsider here, with more money coming for the Tigers ($3) at Sportsbet.com.au and very little for the Eels ($1.42) despite the latter being the clear favourites.
Match Officials: Referee – Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee - Grant Atkins; Touch Judges – Chris Butler & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 4pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: This should be a humdinger of a match but the Tigers' chances are clearly hurt by the absences of Farah and Tedesco, which has us leaning towards the high-flying Eels, who we'll tip to break their almost-four-year ANZ Stadium duck with a four-point win.