Friday, 7:35pm AEST
A couple of weeks ago this game would have been a battle for the wooden spoon, but in that time Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen have suddenly kicked into gear.
The Parramatta Eels have not.
Ever since losing Brett Finch the Eels have lost their direction in attack, and structure in defence. Last week they “tried hard” against the Broncos, and still lost 40-8. It is becoming dire for Parramatta, with the Sharks’ equally abysmal start to the season the only thing saving the Eels from the bottom of the ladder.
On paper these teams are not separated by much – just a couple of freaks in the Cowboys’ no.1 and no.7 jerseys. But the way Parramatta are defending right now – or rather aren’t defending – those two players have the potential to break this game wide open.
Watch out Eels: Staring back at Parramatta’s talented but under-performing backline will be some very familiar faces. Four of the Cowboys’ outside backs spent their junior years at the Eels, and after being snapped up by other clubs or the Cowboys, have certainly reached their potential.
Ben Farrar, Ashley Graham, Willie Tonga and John Williams have all been in and out of first grade this season due to injury, suspensions and drops in form, but this week they head back to familiar territory at Parramatta Stadium together.
Each player is a noted try-scorer and their finishing ability will be needed by Thurston and Bowen, who are masters at creating long- and mid-range breaks. Taulima Tautai and Etu Uaisele are relatively inexperienced in the NRL and they can be exploited on the edges.
Parramatta’s defence through the middle is average at the moment and Thurston will be directing the ball through the Eels’ slow props for Bowen to bust through.
Watch out Cowboys: The one positive to come from Finch’s defection is the opportunity for Kris Keating to take on a greater role within the Eels’ attack. The blond-haired half is exciting and has broken through every defensive line that has come at him since Finch left. While he may not be a long-term solution at halfback, Keating has the potential to be a five-eighth when left to play his own game, rather than organise the entire side.
The Cowboys’ defence, particularly through the middle, needs to watch for Keating to combine with brother Matt, who is a smart playmaker out of dummy-half. The pair are quick and deceptive, and most of the Eels’ attack through the middle will come from the Keating brothers.
Where it Will be Won: The Cowboys’ and Eels’ packs have not been dominant this year, and therefore rely on the backs to do what they can to get around the opposition defences. Neither side has particularly mobile forwards, so watch for the smaller players including Bowen and Keating to burst through at will.
Cover defence then becomes the key. The Eels will be playing without Nathan Hindmarsh, one of the best defenders in the game, so if the Cowboys make a break the rest of Parramatta’s hard men will need to aim up and fill that gap.
For Parramatta, making the break is not a problem. Too often the final pass is going astray, or the support is not present. The Eels have made 26 line breaks this year, yet scored just 16 tries. The Cowboys have made only 20 line breaks, yet scored 27 tries.
The History: Played 22; Eels 12, Cowboys 9, drawn 1. The Eels hold the upper hand over the Cowboys – just. But at Parramatta Stadium they hold a decisive 8-4 advantage.
Conclusion: The Cowboys should win this one easily. They have strike power throughout their entire backline, and are just now finding their feet as an attacking unit.
Conversely, Parramatta’s defence is too loose and unstructured, and a player like Thurston will be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of uncommitted defenders.
The Eels need to go into this game with more self-belief… but the only way they will gain confidence is from an unlikely win.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gerard Sutton. Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood and Jeff Younis. Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30am Saturday.