Broncos v Eels Preview

Broncos v Eels
Suncorp Stadium
Friday, 7.35pm

This Friday night it’s desperation stakes for the Eels on what is always a very tough road trip to Suncorp Stadium. The ‘baby Broncos’ have surprised plenty this season with their rapid progress, aided by some senior stars who seem to have raised their game to another level. Brisbane have a great chance to cement themselves in the top eight with a win here then press ahead for a top-four – or even top-two – finish.

And although they are just four points behind the Broncos, Parramatta’s season is now in critical condition. In fact, it’s in the ER on life support and the doctor is calling for the defibrillator. Heavy back-to-back losses against the Roosters and Titans have destroyed the Eels’ points differential and their finals hopes have descended into “mathematical” territory – never a good place to be. The Eels can still scrape into the eight if they win their last four games but they will be depending on other results to go their way. Last year’s amazing run seems a very long time ago now, and it doesn’t get any easier on what has been a bit of a bogey ground for the Eels in recent times.

Parra have won just three of their past 11 matches up at Suncorp, conceding an average 27.8 points per game. But they will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Brisbane will be missing their talismanic skipper, after Darren Lockyer was ruled out for at least two weeks with a rib injury he picked up against the Cowboys, to be replaced by Corey Norman.

Antonio Winterstein returns from a week out with a leg injury, allowing Alex Glenn to move into the centres and pushing Matt Gillett into the back row. Ben Te’o has been named at prop after Nick Kenny was ruled out. Corey Parker again takes over as skipper and will be hoping for a big night with the boot as he looks for six more goals to reach 300 NRL goals.

The Eels may have to do without the services of key back-rower Ben Smith, who will be fighting a dangerous contact charge at the judiciary following his late shot on Titans skipper Scott Prince. If he misses out, Pele Peletelese or Manase Manuokafoa may come into consideration, with Brendan Oake still out with a thumb injury. Fuifui Moimoi has taken the early plea for a careless high tackle and won’t miss any game time, meaning Tahu’s return at centre at the expense of Jonathon Wright is the Eels’ only listed change.

Watch out Broncos: This game will be a momentous occasion for Eels skipper Nathan Cayless, who will break Brad Fittler’s record of 216 games as captain to become the most-capped skipper in NRL history.

The tireless Kiwi international is one of only four Eels to have played every game this season, and has the most hit-ups of any forward at the club this year. He trails only Feleti Mateo in offloads and averages more than 100 metres gained per game.

Cayless is a big game player as his exploits in captaining New Zealand to World Cup glory can attest, and he will be desperate to celebrate this milestone with a win and keep the Eels’ dim finals hopes flickering.

His fellow props Justin Poore, Tim Mannah and Moimoi all average at least 99 metres gained per game, and with Broncos centre-cum-back-rower Ben Te’o replacing Kenny at prop the Brisbane forwards will really need to muscle up to slow down Parramatta’s go-forward.

Watch out Eels: Beware the wounded Broncos. Brisbane are well accustomed to having to make up for the absence of senior players, and while losing Darren Lockyer would weaken any team the Eels won’t want to take 19-year-old whiz kid Corey Norman lightly.

Back in Round 14, in his first game wearing the No.6 jersey made famous by the likes of Lockyer, Kevin Walters and Wally Lewis, Norman produced three line-breaks, nine tackle-breaks, 176 metres and a try assist in a 50-22 rout against the Rabbitohs.

He will have plenty of help here from fellow young guns and pre-season no-names Matt Gillett and Josh Hoffman. Gillett has been an absolute revelation coming off the bench and will start in the back row this week, while Hoffman seems to get better with every outing. Between them they have racked up 20 line-breaks and 16 tries this year and have been crucial to Brisbane’s revival following a horrible two-from-eight start to the year.

Where it will be won: Goal-line defence. The Broncos have barged over from inside their opponents’ 10-metre line 38 times in 2010 to be ranked second in the NRL for short-range tries.

The Eels’ traditionally sound goal-line defence has leaked 39 tries from within the red zone this year to be ranked fourth-worst in the comp. Parramatta will need to turn this around and keep their goal line intact if they are to have any chance of taking home the two competition points.

The history: Played 41; Brisbane 25, Parramatta 15, drawn 1. Brisbane have had the edge recently, winning three of their past four and five of their past eight against the Eels, but it is at home that they have really shone, conceding just three losses to the Eels in the past 14 games at Broncos HQ.

It’s either an arm wrestle or a flogging when these two teams clash. Four of the past eight games have been decided by seven points or less, and in the other four the average winning margin is 30 points – including Parra's biggest ever win over Brisbane, a 68-22 hiding at Parramatta in 2007.

Conclusion: There is a massive amount at stake here for both clubs – every week is now a grand final for the Eels, and if the Broncos can keep their momentum going until Lockyer returns they have the chance to secure a home final.

It would be almost impossible to tip the Eels on their current form against a full-strength Broncos side at one of their bogey grounds, but the absence of Lockyer and Kenny may just give the Eels the opening they need.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.