Such is the apparent mismatch of these sides it’s hard to believe that less than two years ago the Eels smashed the Broncos 68-22 to register their biggest ever defeat of Brisbane. But entering Round 7 of 2009 you’d have to say the chances of an Eels victory by even the narrowest possible margin would have to be extremely slim.
While the blue-and-golds are in turmoil, with their new coach Daniel Anderson having taken the extraordinary and bold step of questioning some of the players’ pride in their team jersey, Ivan Henjak’s Broncos continue to impress.
They won their first three games in solid manner, fell to the Dragons in an emotion-charged Wayne Bennett homecoming before re-railing their train to notch back-to-back away wins against the Roosters (28-24) and Panthers (38-18). Last week at CUA Stadium they made a lot of mistakes but hit the afterburners when they needed to, scoring three tries in succession in the first half, as well as two late in the second half to close out the game.
Andrew McCullough has been promoted from the bench to start at hooker, relegating Aaron Gorrell to jersey no.14. Their only other change is the omission of former boom youngster Dave Taylor, who makes way for Palmer Wapau on the bench.
Meanwhile the Eels have been simply woeful in recent weeks, with a hat-trick of meek losses preceded by unflattering wins over the Rabbitohs (14-8) and Raiders (18-16). In the past three rounds against the Roosters, Dragons and Bulldogs they’ve registered an alarming -62 points differential.
His patience gone, coach Anderson has finally wielded the axe, with NZ international Krisnan Inu his first scapegoat. Inu’s centre position has been filled by Taulima Tautai, while injured Eric Grothe has been replaced by Etu Uaisele.
Nathan Hindmarsh returns after a week of recuperation to partner Ben Smith in the second row, with Todd Lowrie reverting to lock. Weller Hauraki joins an extended bench.
Watch out Broncos: Sometimes stats can be misleading: while the Broncos have conceded the seventh-fewest points this season (109), worryingly they have missed more tackles in 2009 than any other side, averaging 37.8 a game.
Last week they missed 46 to the Panthers’ 33 but were still too good. But key individuals need to muscle-up – Sam Thaiday needs to do better than his eight missed efforts, so too Ashton Sims (four) and Justin Hodges (three). And if Darren Lockyer has been a little quiet recently it’s because opposition attacks are targeting him with success – he missed seven tackles last week. The Broncos need to find him a ‘minder’ or he will burn out pretty quickly.
Watch out Eels: Parramatta ranks worst for conceding tries from line breaks, having let in 15 of 23 tries conceded from busts. The Broncos? They are fourth-best in the NRL, scoring 10 of their 25 this way.
The Eels will need to watch the likes of Justin Hodges out wide and also starting hooker McCullough who showed against the Panthers last week he doesn’t mind dummying and running from dummy-half to slice the opposition open.
Where it will be won: Defence. While the Broncos have been poor in this department, surprisingly the Eels have missed the fourth-fewest tackles by any side in ’09.
They do need to up their aggression in the tackle however, as they currently have the fourth-fewest dominant tackles with 135 (compared to the Broncos’ 210). And while their ruck defence appears okay (202 tackles at marker, second behind the Storm) they are really being let down in broken play and in particular out wide, with their scramble defence has only managed 10 try-saves to rank worst in the NRL. Against a potent Broncos backline this will spell trouble.
The History: Played 38; Broncos 23, Eels 14, drawn 1. The Broncos have won five of the past eight encounters, including a nail-biting, lucky last-second 30-26 win at Suncorp Stadium in Round 11 last year when a Darren Lockyer chip kick proved decisive.
Conclusion: Recent history shows this will be an entertaining game with plenty of points scored. In fact in their last two games they’ve totalled a massive 146 points – and with both sides struggling with their defensive units you’d expect that to continue.
In the end it could boil down to brilliance; you’d want to be on the home side if that eventuates. They simply have too many guns in Hodges, Hunt and Folau.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm AEST (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – delayed 1am.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.