Season 2010 picks up where it left off in 2009 – well, sort of. Yes the Storm defeated the Eels in a thrilling grand final but it was the two clashes between the Eels and Dragons in Round 26 and the qualifying final that really stirred NRL passions at the end of the season.
It’s history now that the Red V were flattened like roadkill as the Parramatta juggernaut obliterated them 25-12 just a week after Parramatta were smashed 37-0 – their biggest head-to-head defeat – by the Dragons in the last of the scheduled rounds. The shock finals loss bundled the Dragons out of the title race after they had won the prestigious minor premiership.
But that was last year. Now one of these sides will gain new bragging rights and receive a massive boost in confidence to kick off 2010.
There is plenty of early uncertainty surrounding the Eels – and the Dragons have helped create some of it. Last year the blue-and-golds won their trials but then started the premiership poorly, winning just two of their first seven games.
This year, their trial form has looked patchy – a 34-20 drubbing at the hands of the Dragons in Perth followed by a worrying 32-12 defeat to the Panthers. At their last outing a fortnight ago they were smashed 40-14 by the Roosters.
On face value, it doesn’t look good. But coach Daniel Anderson may be playing possum – he’s already quoted as saying he has no concern for trials and is concentrating on the real thing. Eels fans should hope that’s the case.
All eyes will be on Timana Tahu, who makes his return to rugby league in the centres after two years in rugby union, as well as NSW prop Justin Poore up against his former club.
Meanwhile the Dragons’ preparations have been typically Wayne Bennett-methodical. After thumping the Eels in Perth they secured a last-gasp win over the Bulldogs before again pulling it out of the fire to notch a draw in a high-quality Charity Shield clash with the Rabbitohs.
They’ve lost some grunt up front with Poore’s defection, while showman Sailor’s presence will be sorely missed. Matt Prior starts alongside Michael Weyman in the front row, with Dan Hunt and Jarrod Saffy adding force from the bench.
Watch out Eels: With enforcement of the ‘downtown’ rule aimed at giving kick-returners more opportunities to bust out and shine, the spotlight has mostly been aimed at Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne.
But a look at the stats from last year shows the Dragons’ back three of Darius Boyd, Brett Morris and Wendell Sailor were largely responsible for the Red V topping the NRL for most breaks from kick-returns.
Over the regular 24 rounds the Dragons amassed 18 kick-return busts (Morris made five) – seven more than their nearest opponent (the Rabbitohs) and a whopping double the number tallied by the Eels.
Sailor may be gone, but his replacement Jason Nightingale is no slouch at making a break or kick-return bust. Consequently, the Eels need to be on their game with their clearing kicks, or the Dragons’ runners will cause havoc.
Watch out Dragons: Wayne Bennett would still be having nightmares about how Hayne carved his side up in their 2009 premiership exit. The fullback’s blistering 30-metre solo effort, where he bamboozled and beat eight defenders to score in the qualifying final, ranks as one of the game’s best ever four-pointers.
Add to that the ‘downtown’ rule, and a Dragons side that has traditionally positioned their kicker Jamie Soward deep behind the line, and the scope is there for plenty of Dragons players to be ruled out of the play. If that happens, Hayne (average 172 metres in 2009) and Eric Grothe will do plenty of damage.
Also, Justin Poore will be fired up for a big game in front of his new home crowd. Poore averaged 111 metres for the Dragons last year but is certain to beat that number given the emotion of the occasion.
Where it will be won: Either the Dragons will grind out a win, or the Eels’ brilliance will carry the day.
The Dragons were accused of lacking creativity and playing too predictably at the end of the season. But the truth is their no-nonsense style got them to within a sniff of the grand final, and with basically the same troops, that’s how they’ll play it again.
Meanwhile the Eels are likely to remain a confidence side. If Tahu can contribute early, and starting lock Feleti Mateo (nine line-break assists, 39 offloads in 2009) conjures some magic, expect the Eels to put on quite a show.
The History: Played 20; Parramatta 11, Dragons 8, drawn 1. The past eight clashes are four games apiece, with the Dragons winning two of three last year. However, at Parramatta Stadium the Eels boast a 6-2 advantage.
Conclusion: Expect plenty of exciting passages of play in what should be a high-scoring affair. When two evenly matched sides lock horns it’s often wise to bow to home-ground advantage. Parra’s worrying early form aside, that’s all that looks likely to separate these teams.
Match officials: Referees Tony Archer & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Grant Atkins; Video ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld). Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 11.30pm.