Dragons v Eels Preview

Wayne Bennett previews the clash

Dragons v Eels
WIN Jubilee Oval
Friday 7.35pm

E-X-P-L-O-S-I-V-E! That’s what fans can expect down Kogarah way on Friday night as the Eels look to apply the blowtorch to the slumping Dragons in their own backyard.

Daniel Anderson’s full-of-confidence Eels outfit will be aiming for their eighth consecutive win – which could claw them up the ladder to a possible fifth spot and a probable second bite at the premiership apple should they lose in the first week of the finals.

Meanwhile Wayne Bennett has been fronting the press stone-faced during the week, brushing aside suggestions his Dragons are on the way out following three successive defeats, the most recent a record 41-6 carve-up at the hands of the Rabbitohs last Saturday.

While it’s true they occupy second place on the ladder and could still win the minor premiership should they defeat the Eels and the Brett Kimmorley-less Bulldogs fall to the Wests Tigers in the game played simultaneously 10 kilometres away at the SFS, it’s also true the Dragons could slip to third place and surrender the advantage of advancing straight to the grand final qualifier with a win in Week One of the Finals.

What can we write about the Eels that hasn’t already been written? They are playing co-ordinated, expansive football fuelled by gallons of confidence. Jarryd Hayne is unstoppable – even with a ‘quiet’ game last week in their crushing 48-6 win over the Panthers he made decisive contributions, like two great try assists and a 40/20. The effect Hayne’s consistent play has on his team-mates can’t be overstated – guys like halfback Jeff Robson, hooker Matt Keating and lock Todd Lowrie are feeding off his energy and are making their own way in the rugby league world accordingly.

That presents both a problem and a solution for Dragons coach Wayne Bennett. If Hayne’s allowed any latitude at all it will have a flow-on effect to the rest of the Eels. But blot Hayne out and the Eels may not know what to do next.

Incredibly, for this stage in a season, both these sides have all their players available; both squads are the same from last week, with the only change being Parra’s Joe Galuvao dropping back to the bench with Ben Smith to start in the second row.

Four players have added motivation to cross the stripe in this one: at the moment Dragons Dean Young and Dan Hunt and Eels skipper Nathan Cayless and Ben Smith have yet to cross for a try. Should they go the 80 minutes without scoring they’ll be subjected to the dreaded ‘nudie run’ in post-season ‘celebrations’.

Watch out Dragons:
The message is simple: stop or limit the input of Hayne, whose explosive speed and incredible strength has seen him tally NRL-highs of 29 line breaks and 132 tackle breaks for the year.

Also, if the Dragons’ defence is lax and the Eels are permitted to continue to offload and set up their second-phase raids, the Dragons will struggle. The Eels’ seven-win streak has been built on razzle-dazzle and they’ve rocketed to the top of teams for offloading with 383 for the season (38 more than second-ranked Warriors). The Dragons need to pay particular attention to Nathan Hindmarsh (49 offloads – sixth in the NRL), Krisnan Inu (38 – 12th) and Nathan Cayless (37 – 13th). Then there’s Feleti Mateo, who has nine line-break assists from just 11 games.

Watch out Eels:
The Dragons have shown a preference for attacking the left side with their set plays (35 tries compared to 31 right) and although they’ve spluttered for fluency in recent weeks the Eels should expect waves of attack to be directed that way here. They need to be vigilant, given they are weaker on their right side, having conceded 37 tries to their left side’s 31.

Dragons winger Brett Morris has a chance at nabbing the top try-scorer’s gong – he’s currently equal second on 19 tries and trails injured Wests Tigers winger Taniela Tuiaki by two.

Where it will be won: Not allowing the other side to get into a rhythm – or knocking them out their rhythm early – in this regard expect the Dragons’ forwards to show more urgency in muscling up in defence than they have recently.

Pressuring rookie five-eighth Daniel Mortimer will be crucial to their chances.

Even though they are home the Dragons need to watch their discipline – they have conceded 151 penalties in 2009 – the fourth most – while the Eels are the third best-behaved giving up just 118.

If the Eels get away to a flier it could be another massacre – the Dragons haven’t scored a point in each of their past three second halves.

The history:
Played 18, Eels 10, Dragons 7, Drawn 1. The Dragons have won five of the past eight, including the past two. The Dragons were dominant 22-8 victors in Round 5 at Parramatta Stadium.

Significantly, the home side is undefeated at Kogarah in their two games played.

Conclusion:
Parramatta have won seven in a row and the Dragons are staring their fourth straight defeat. Despite those harsh facts the Dragons are the narrow $1.85 (Eels $1.95) favourites with TAB Sportsbet.
 
This is probably because no-one, the odds-makers included, can bring themselves to believe that St George Illawarra could possibly continue their fast descent to oblivion in season 2009.

Look, we all know what the Dragons are capable of – they were considered the benchmark in 2009 until only a few weeks ago. The question is can they shrug off their sloth-like play and sleepy attitudes and turn things around in the space of a week?

Also, the question remains whether the Eels can maintain their intensity for an eighth straight week.

Our guess is the Dragons will lift their game and the Eels will come back to the pack a little – which adds up to a fairly even, and incredibly gripping, contest. And one we’re not prepared to call.
 
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
 
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.