WIN Jubilee Oval
Like Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day, Eels coach Daniel Anderson will awaken this Sunday, turn and silence his alarm clock and think: “Not again!”
Because waiting for his side for the second week running will be Wayne Bennett’s Dragons. At Kogarah. Where they absolutely savaged the Eels with a 37-0 whipping that righted their premiership campaign and punctured the Eels’ bubble of seven straight victories.
And to make matters worse this game is doe-or-die for the Eels. Do they have any chance?
Well, of course they do. The Dragons, rebounding off three losses, showed in Round 26 that a week is a long time in football and Parramatta will be strengthened by the return of powerhouse second-rower Nathan Hindmarsh and bullocking winger Eric Grothe Jnr who missed last week’s game with injury and illness respectively.
Jarryd Hayne will be up on confidence – as if he needed it or it were possible – after being deservedly named the game’s benchmark player with a Dally M medal handed to him on Tuesday night.
The positive the Eels need to take out of last week’s loss is the fact they now have a blueprint on how the Dragons will come at them. Coach Anderson just needs to find a way to counter that. And that’s what he’s been working on all week.
With all troops on deck expect them to leave nothing in the tank.
The worrying stat for the Eels is that in two encounters in 2009 they’ve yielded 59 points to the Minor Premiers while scoring just eight.
Meanwhile the Dragons similarly have everyone available. Narrowing their focus on this game is the fact a win will see them skip straight through to the Grand Final qualifier in a fortnight.
It’s a special afternoon for Dragons skipper Ben Hornby, who becomes the first player to run out for 200 games for St George Illawarra.
Watch out Dragons: Wayne Bennett’s plan to restrict Jarryd Hayne worked a charm last week, but given Hayne’s undeniable brilliance is it asking too much for a repeat here?
Having averaged 213 metres and eight tackle breaks a game in his previous seven games, the Eels ace was restricted to “just” 137 metres and broke just one tackle. And he didn’t make a line bust – for the first time since Round 14. They need more of the same.
Wayne Bennett may have concerns about the ‘unknown’ factors of Hindmarsh and Grothe who watched from the sideline last week. Hindmarsh ranks seventh in the NRL for offloads with 49 and is largely responsible for the blistering second-phase plays that have swept the Eels to the finals.
Grothe meanwhile was missed in defence down the Eels’ right corridor, where Brett Morris swooped to score a hat-trick of four-pointers. The competition’s leading tryscorer won’t get things quite as easy this time around.
The Dragons need to be mindful of an Eels ‘pet’ play of kicking early for winger Luke Burt on the left flank. They tried this last week and it presented a danger situation – but they conceded a penalty when Burt was adjudged in front of the kicker. If they get it right it can earn points against the run of play.
Watch out Eels: The Dragons scored four tries down the left side last week, one in the centre of the field and one on the right. This follows the pattern they’ve followed all season – they’ve now punched out 39 four-pointers there compared to 32 on the right. Winger Grothe and centre Joel Reddy need to detect and correctly read the Dragons’ plays early – they’ll either hit Ben Creagh on the edges, or else involve halfback Ben Hornby in a run-around sweep that sees the ball shift to Darius Boyd, Matt Cooper and Morris.
Where it will be won: The kick-chase and, consequently, the kick-return games of both sides will be crucial.
The Dragons kept Jarryd Hayne quiet last week because they targeted Luke Burt’s wing with their clearing kicks and then monstered him on the chase. This delivered Hayne into dummy-half; the Dragons knew the fullback would run. And they were ready and waiting for him.
Early dominance, and the territory that goes with it, is a must. The team that gets on top early is always likely to come up with fewer errors and more metres than their opponents. And this was the case last week: the Dragons rolled out a whopping 1508 metres and kept the Eels to just 1233. And the Eels bumbled to 19 errors to the Dragons’ six.
The history: Played 19, Dragons 8, Eels 10, drawn 1. The Dragons have won six of the past nine, including the past three. The Dragons were dominant 22-8 victors in Round 5 at Parramatta Stadium and smashed the Eels 37-blot last week. And the home side is now undefeated at Kogarah in their three games played.
Conclusion: Parramatta will be more competitive than they were last week without Hindmarsh and Grothe. They tried to promote their usual second-phase play (they made 22 offloads, five more than their season average) but plenty of those were attempting “catch-up” footy.
They’ll play it like they have the whole back half of the year – committed and flamboyant.
Meanwhile, did anyone sneak a peak at Jamie Soward’s running stats last week? Zilch. Not a run. Not a metre gained. He just stood back deep at the ruck and picked off huge metres to give his side a massive territorial advantage. Will that be the game plan again?
And what about Dragons centre Matt Cooper? One of the most gifted runners in the game ran just three times in 71 minutes on the left edge. Surely he’ll get more involved this week…
That’s the great – and frustrating thing – about trying to analyse a game like this. It doesn’t matter what we anticipate, we know we can expect the unexpected.
While we’ll stop short of picking a winner we will say it won’t be close – recent history and the past two finals series (average winning margin 20.6 points) points to that. That means it will be exciting for some…
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Alan Shortall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.