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Bulldogs (Winner 2) v Eels (Winner 8)
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.45pm

It’s being billed as the ‘Sydney Showdown’ – with a crowd of more than 70,000 expected to flood Homebush for a massive sudden-death clash between arch-enemy western suburbs rivals. That will bust the previous record for a Sydney finals game outside of a grand final, set in 1963, by as much as 15,000

You want sub-plots? The Eels’ star five-eighth Daniel Mortimer has a father who bled blue and white for Canterbury. And the Bulldogs’ captain Andrew Ryan bled blue and gold for Parramatta for his first three NRL seasons from 2000.

Not to mention the sides’ intense grand final battles in 1984 and 1986 which saw the Bulldogs and Eels triumph respectively.

But that was then and this is now. The in-form Eels, with nine wins from their past 10 games, remain on track to become the first NRL side to win a premiership from eighth place. During that time fullback Jarryd Hayne has emerged as the dominant player in the game by a considerable margin, and the Eels have also unearthed true star talent in young Mortimer.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs are still smarting from having lost the minor premiership by ‘default’ – having been deducted two competition points for an interchange breach that many of their fans argue had no effect on the outcome of their Round 2 win over the Panthers.  

They’ve won six of their past seven, their only blemish a 34-12 hammering from the Wests Tigers when they were missing halfback Brett Kimmorley with a cheekbone fracture. Three weeks on from that night Kimmorley is ready to resume his playmaker’s role here.

These sides have met twice this year; the Bulldogs thumped the Eels 48-18 in Round 6 at ANZ Stadium, before the Eels returned serve winning 27-8 at the same venue in Round 20.

That loss was the Bulldogs’ only defeat at ANZ Stadium in 2009.

It’s an extra special game for Parramatta back-rower Nathan Hindmarsh – he’ll play his 259th game in the blue and gold, equalling the legendary Ray Price for second-most games behind Brett Kenny’s 265.

Watch out Bulldogs:
You’d expect Kimmorley will be a little tentative coming back from his injury, so it’s likely the Eels’ big boppers will test him out early. Look for Fuifui Moimoi (117 metres a game), Nathan Hindmarsh (100 metres) and Nathan Cayless (109 metres) to aim at the halfback in the defensive line; if they can rush up on him quickly it may fluster his playmaking into error.

Kimmorley, five-eighth Ben Roberts and hooker Michael Ennis will need to make sure their clearing kicks are to open space or to left winger Luke Burt, allowing the Bulldogs’ kick-chase plenty of time to rush up on Dally M medal winner Jarryd Hayne, who will get the ball at first receiver or run out of dummy-half.

The Eels are the NRL benchmark at creating second-phase opportunities, their 16.5 offloads per game the most by any side. They provided a textbook example when they beat the Bulldogs 27-8 in Round 20. There wasn’t much between the sides’ completion rates and possession percentages but the blue-and-golds offloaded 22 times to the Bulldogs’ 12 and ran their opponents into the ground. Scarily, they’re capable of more – their 37 offloads when climbing over the Broncos in Round 16 remains the most by any side in 2009.

Watch out Eels: Watch for some unplanned creativity from enigmatic second-rower Greg Eastwood. We reckon he could prove the game breaker. He has shown he can conjure a well-timed try assist or even put in grubber kicks that will catch oppositions off-guard.

And then there’s Bulldogs fullback Luke Patten who is averaging 136 metres a game, including 50 crucial kick-return metres to get his side out of trouble. Plus he has a team-high 102 tackle breaks and 34 offloads in 2009.

In the battle for territory, props Ben Hannant (134 metres average) and Michael Hodgson (99 metres) will lay the platform up front.

Lock David Stagg could figure in best and fairest points – he is making a team-high 44 tackles a game and is a huge spark of their second-phase play with a team-high 42 offloads in ’09.

Also, the Bulldogs love the left side, where centre Josh Morris (19 line breaks, 21 tries) and winger Bryson Goodwin (20 line breaks, 19 tries) roam. Just as they defended the Dragons’ left-side assaults recently, Eric Grothe and Joel Reddy will need to be at their best when making crucial reads.

Where it will be won: Don’t expect the Eels to detour from the road they’ve paved with gold over the past couple of months. That means watch them make the ball sing!

Nathan Hindmarsh (49 offloads), Feleti Mateo (43), Nathan Cayless (41) and  Eric Grothe (33) will be prominent in keeping the attack flowing, allowing Hayne room and position to do his best. The brilliant fullback is averaging 173 metres a game – and, believe it or not, 201 from his past 10 games – plus he’s made an NRL-high 32 line breaks and 167 tackle breaks. Not to mention 13 try assists.
The Eels’ defence has also been particularly good of late – in a dominant display against the Titans they missed just 21 tackles, well down on their 29.5 average misses for 2009 (they rank the fifth steeliest in the NRL).

Meanwhile unheralded 27-year-old halfback Jeff Robson has been solid and his nothing-fancy teaming with five-eighth Mortimer – or, should the 20-year-old fail to recover from his hip injury, Feleti Mateo – will be needed to keep the Eels’ momentum flowing.

For the Bulldogs, Kimmorley must play an upbeat game from the kick-off. If his team-mates sense he’s not tentative they’ll grow in confidence immediately – and it will deliver the Eels a mental blow.

The history: Played 125, Bulldogs 66, Parramatta 54, drawn 5. The Eels hold a commanding head-to-head advantage, winning six of the past seven clashes between the sides. But the Bulldogs hold a 6-5 advantage at ANZ Stadium.

Conclusion: Jarryd Hayne is helping the Eels to massive territory each game. The Parramatta side ranks second of all NRL teams for metres gained with 1390, while the Bulldogs post a healthy 1310 (ranked 10th). The key is whether Hayne is allowed to leave his imprint or not. If he is, the Bulldogs could be in all sorts of trouble.    

But we reckon it will all come down to fatigue. The Eels have had a dazzling ride and everything has gone right for them recently. They must be getting tired – indeed there were signs last week against the Titans.

There’s no doubt they have the artillery to advance to the grand final but the Bulldogs have shown the ability to hang tough throughout the year. That may be enough to see them win through to the grand final on October 4.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David Abood; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.45pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.
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