ALREADY this Round 5 clash looms as a crunch game for new coach Daniel Anderson and his struggling Eels. They’ve had a week from hell, having been smashed by the Roosters 24-6 last Friday, releasing outspoken halfback Brett Finch on Wednesday – and now they have a showdown with Wayne Bennett’s rampant Dragons.
The Eels sit in 11th place on four points (same as seven other sides) after points differential. They are showing all the consistency of last year – and that’s not a compliment. They weren’t in the hunt in a first-round loss (26-18) to the Warriors, then came out in Round 2 and outmuscled the Rabbitohs with an admirable display of steel. Round 3 saw them fight back from the dead at Parramatta Stadium to swamp the Raiders 18-16. But last week they were dominated by a Roosters outfit that was widely slammed for its inept showing the week before against the Wests Tigers.
So what to make of them? Who knows.
But how they back up given Finch’s defection (at the time of writing the Eels were wrangling over whether they would let him play for another NRL club or only play in the English Super League) will be telling.
Finch was a favourite within the team and now they have to get the livewire halfback out of their minds and focus on the might of the Dragons.
Finch’s replacement Jeff Robson has limited NRL experience; ironically, last year at Manly he filled in for Matt Orford when the Sea Eagles took on the Eels. He’ll feel pressure to perform but he’ll also know that a good showing might guarantee a short-term future at least.
Elsewhere, the injury to Joel Reddy paves the way for the return of Taulima Tautai on the flank. Weller Hauraki has been relegated to jersey no.20 on a six-man bench, with Todd Lowrie starting in the second row. Brendan Oake joins the bench too.
The Dragons have been the surprise packets of 2009. They have three wins and sit in third spot. They opened their account with a loss to the Storm in Melbourne in Golden Point, ground out a win over the Sharks, then simply stunned the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium last week.
After pulling a ‘swifty’ last week when reneging on his selection of Mat Head at halfback, coach Bennett has stuck with the side that bushwhacked the Broncos.
Darius Boyd starts at fullback, with Ben Hornby in the no.7. Brett Morris starts on the wing. Justin Poore’s return from injury shunts Neville Costigan off the bench, which is boosted to 18 men with the addition of Jason Nightingale (similarly back from injury).
Milestone watch: Eels fullback Luke Burt needs just one more goal to tally 400 for his career.
Watch out Eels: The Dragons are on a roll, dominating sides with few mistakes and massive territory. They have five players in the top 14 in the competition for metres gained: Michael Weyman (605 metres at an average of 151 a game to rank second), Darius Boyd (587 metres at 147 to rank fourth), Wendell Sailor (567 metres at 142 to rank sixth) and Ben Creagh (488 metres at 122 to rank 14th).
Overall, the Dragons are making 162 metres more a game than the Eels (1469 to 1307). That’s massive.
Watch out Dragons: To be honest, mental letdown is about the only thing that can get to the Dragons this week. Expect coach Wayne Bennett to have reinforced a positive vibe during their training sessions. His side are playing well across the park and only poor execution through a lack of focus will hinder their chances here.
Parramatta are showing good discipline in 2009, with 26 penalties conceded the fourth fewest in the comp; the Dragons need to be wary given they’re playing away.
Where it will be won: Selective offloads. Both sides are not throwing the ball around too expansively – the Eels, who in recent seasons have been known to toss the ball around like a hot potato, are averaging just 13 offloads a game, while the Dragons under Wayne Bennett have reeled in their offloads to 10 a game.
Whichever side offloads to good effect will win the day.
Last week Jamie Soward (three) and Beau Scott (three) offloaded beautifully for the Dragons, who scored points off enterprising play. But last week Parramatta offloaded 19 times – Feleti Mateo on seven occasions – and came up with next to nothing.
The History: Played 17; Eels 10, Dragons 6, drawn 1. Honours are even four games apiece over the past eight games, although the Dragons hold bragging rights after a 40-14 thumping dished out at ANZ Stadium in Round 25 last year. It was their biggest win over the Eels. But at Parramatta Stadium the Eels have the advantage, winning six of the seven games there.
Conclusion: Jamie Soward has really come of age under Bennett’s care. Labelled nothing more than a speed bump after Round 1 when Greg Inglis steamrolled him on his own try line, Soward gave a representative-class performance against Darren Lockyer last week to earn Man of the Match honours. He even cleaned up Karmichael Hunt with a devastating one-on-one hit that had fans blinking in disbelief. In attack he made eight runs for 173 metres and kept the Broncos back-pedalling with 17 kicks that yielded 651 metres. If he stays on song the Dragons will not only prove too strong for Parramatta but they’ll stay entrenched in the top four through to September.
Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Gavin Reynolds & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.