Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Wests Tigers v Eels
If last week’s second round of the competition taught us anything, it’s that we have a long way to go before can truly distinguish the contenders from the pretenders in 2013.
Cue Exhibit A – Friday night’s clash between Wests Tigers and Parramatta.
A week ago the Tigers looked more rabble than rugby league outfit, having succumbed meekly in their season opener against Newcastle and with questions mounting over just what new coach Michael Potter could muster from a side that massively under-achieved in 2012.
But with key playmaking duo Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall taking control they looked a different side last week, powering to a 28-18 win over Penrith to put the demons of that Round 1 disaster to bed.
Just what to make of this latest incarnation of Wests Tigers remains a mystery – particularly given that we don’t yet know what to make of Penrith either – but last week’s win did remind us that they still boast the raw attacking threat to score plenty of points on their day.
The performance of Farah was particularly noteworthy. One of the few Tigers players able to hold his head high in the 42-10 loss to Newcastle, Farah proved the difference against Penrith as he set up a try for Marshall with some quick thinking and laid on two more tries with well-timed short balls for his big men.
No doubt he will have featured heavily in Parramatta’s video sessions this week as the Eels prepare to make the daunting trek to Leichhardt Oval.
In contrast to their opponents, Parramatta came out all guns blazing in Round 1 to score an emphatic 40-10 win over the Warriors but fell short last Thursday against a severely depleted Bulldogs outfit.
Execution proved costly for the Eels given the mountain of possession they enjoyed in the second half and the fact that they failed to score a single point after the break is of some concern.
However, given their massive failings of the past two seasons, it’s clear that Parramatta is already a much-improved outfit in 2013. Two spritely performances from halfback Chris Sandow to start the year is exactly what Eels fans have been wanting to see, while Jarryd Hayne took the rare step of openly criticising his own performance against the Bulldogs as he struggled to make an impact. He is seldom quiet two weeks in a row.
A western Sydney derby at Leichhardt is inevitably a passionate affair and this one promises much the same.
Keith Galloway’s pectoral injury sees Aaron Woods come into the Tigers’ starting side this week, with coach Potter adding Ava Seumanufagai, Masada Iosefa and Sauaso Sue to a six-man bench.
Meanwhile Ken Edwards comes into the Parramatta squad in the second row in place of injured co-captain Reni Maitua. Ben Roberts has been named in the starting side at five-eighth after coming off the bench last week.
Watch Out Tigers: What a difference an in-form Chris Sandow makes to the Parramatta cause! Last season he produced just nine try assists all season (from 23 appearances) as the Eels limped to the wooden spoon. This year he has already produced four from just two games and has looked dangerous every time he has touched the ball in games against the Warriors and Bulldogs. In fact, last week’s loss to Canterbury wasn’t for any lack of trying on Sandow’s part – he set up all three of Parramatta’s tries and kicked for a game-high 389 metres (including a 40/20). He will again pose a threat on Friday night.
Watch Out Eels: The Tigers love to spread the football in fast, sweeping movements to their edges and Parramatta will need to ensure that they don’t give the opposition wingers too much room to move. In fact, the numbers notched by former Eel Joel Reddy and speedster Marika Koroibete last week were remarkable: Reddy ran for 153 metres and Koroibete a whopping 223. It won’t be lost on Tigers coach Potter that Canterbury scored two ridiculously easy tries in the first 10 minutes on Parramatta’s right edge last week – the perfect scenario, perhaps, for Koroibete to match the four tries he scored against the Eels the last time they met.
Key Match-Up: Jacob Miller v Chris Sandow. The Tigers have been grooming Jacob Miller as their long-term No.7 for some time now and based on his composed display against Penrith last week he is starting to repay the faith. Miller could well be the man that proves the perfect foil to the brilliance of his halves partner Benji Marshall.
Sandow is a very different sort of player. Lightning-quick off the mark, he boasts an explosive running game which he has used to great effect so far this season. But although they are different in their approach, there is no doubt that Miller and Sandow are key men in this match-up.
Plays To Watch: Keep an eye on Tigers captain Robbie Farah when they are attacking close to the line. With plenty of tricks up his sleeve, he is lethal when running from dummy-half but will often run to the left looking for holes before utilising one of his many plays once he has summed up the situation.
In fact, Farah caught the Eels out twice in this exact manner when they met last season. Their first try of the match saw Farah drift left before firing the ball to Marshall who threw a flat short-ball to a flying Adam Blair to score. Then later in the half they set up for the same play but Farah threw the ball behind Keith Galloway for Chris Heighington to score with a second-man play.
Where It Will Be Won: One of the big questions surrounding the Tigers this season has been whether they boast the forward depth to make an impact in this competition and with Keith Galloway sidelined with injury they will be tested against a Parramatta side that has performed well though the middle this season.
The Tigers will rely on a particularly young front row that includes starting duo Aaron Woods (two tries, 20 hit-ups and 144 metres last week) and Jack Buchanan (99 metres) as well as Matthew Bell and Ben Murdoch-Masila.
The History: Played 26; Eels 15, Wests Tigers 10, drawn 1. The Wests Tigers hold an advantage in recent history, winning six of the past nine clashes between the sides.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
The Way We See It: The jury is still out on both of these sides although we do like what we’ve seen from Parramatta in their two outings against the Warriors and Bulldogs so far – even if they couldn’t quite get the job done against last year’s grand finalists a week ago.
On form, they could prove a touch too solid for the under-strength Tigers but we can’t ignore the Leichhardt Oval factor. The Tigers always lift when playing here and will be extremely tough to beat. Eels by two points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats