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Eels v Cowboys
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The script for this one has gone out the window after the Cowboys demolished the previously impressive Storm at home last Monday night.

Despite eking out a narrow victory over the Broncos at Suncorp in Round 1 the Cowboys were poor in losing at home to the Knights and not even the most optimistic fan would have predicted their second-half demolition over what is still a very strong (and previously undefeated) Storm outfit.
It will have the Eels looking somewhat more nervously towards this Super Saturday clash against a team they have traditionally had few troubles overcoming at home.

The Eels showed signs of improvement in a 12-all first half against the Bunnies before the 2010 Eels re-emerged after the break in a calamitous 20-6 second half.

Hopes of a blue and gold turnaround have been dented by a one-week suspension to crowd favourite Fuifui Moimoi for a high shot on Ben Ross, which allows ex-Cowboy Carl Webb to make his club debut from the bench. It also means Webb’s first NRL game since leaving the Cowboys will be against his former team.

A potentially bigger blow for the Eels is the loss of hooker Casey McGuire to a calf strain. His absence means youngster Anthony Mitchell plays his first game of 2011 while Matt Keating moves to the starting line-up.

In better news for the Eels, Joel Reddy returns in the centres in his comeback from off-season shoulder surgery, replacing Chris Walker who has a hip injury. Mitchell Allgood returns after a one-week absence with a broken finger in place of Billy Rogers.

Unsurprisingly Neil Henry is going in with exactly the same 17 that monstered the Storm last round.

Eels winger Luke Burt needs only one more try to equal Brett Kenny’s club record of 110, while Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen this week plays his 204th game for the club, moving him one clear of previous record holder Paul Bowman.

Eels stalwart Nathan Hindmarsh is also climbing the list of most-ever NRL games, joining Des Hasler and Kevin Walters for the 17th-most games in league history with 287.

Watch Out Eels: Cowboys’ superstar halfback Jonathan Thurston seems to play a lot better when other players around him are performing, which may explain why he is such a standout in State of Origin alongside Darren Lockyer and Cam Smith but has struggled to reach the same heights in club games in recent times. But with promising young five-eighth Ray Thompson growing in confidence and Aaron Payne providing solid support, the trio were dominant against the Storm.

Thompson contributed a try assist and a line-break assist, as well as a line-break and four tackle busts, giving the Storm defence an extra headache and allowing Thurston to produce the type of form we’ve seen at representative level in recent years.

JT pulled out three try assists, three line-break assists and five tackle busts in a performance that has put the Eels – and the rest of the NRL – on notice.

Danger Sign: The Eels’ left-side defence has really struggled, letting in eight of the 11 tries the side have conceded, while the Cowboys have scored eight of 13 with their right-side attack, meaning this is a real danger zone for the Eels. Watch for Thurston to fire some long balls out wide at the first hint of an overlap.

Watch Out Cowboys: Despite his team’s slow start to the year Jarryd Hayne already has four try assists, behind only Benji Marshall, Jamie Soward and Thurston. Two of those are from passes, and he could have had a third last week against Souths if the officials had been more lenient. His five line-break assists rank behind only Thurston (nine) and Marshall (eight), and he’s also averaging more than 130 metres per game without the aid of any long-range solo efforts (so far), which is ninth best among players to have played all three games.

Hayne has a mandate to choose his moments in 2011 after looking like he was trying to do it all himself last year. If the playmakers around him click into gear (a la Thurston and the Cowboys last week) we could see the Hayne Train come chugging back in to Parramatta Stadium.

Danger Sign: When the Eels are pressing the Cowboys’ line and Jarryd Hayne is just standing back and watching, you can be sure he’s looking for the perfect opportunity to inject himself. Watch out for a bullet cut-out pass or a surging solo run to the line later in the set.

Plays To Watch: Thurston’s shallow kicks behind the line; Carl Webb to ignore self-preservation as he tears into his former club; Ray Thompson to take the line on when you think the ball is going to Thurston, Luke Burt chasing every kick as though his life depended on it and equally Brett Kenny’s tryscoring record.

Where It Will Be Won: On the fringes. Parramatta are yet to concede a try up the middle so that part of their defensive line is working – but as mentioned above, the Eels have really struggled down that left-hand edge, while the Cowboys have excelled attacking that area. 

Add to this the attacking form of the Cowboys’ backs when it comes to line-breaks – Ashley Graham (five, ranked first in NRL) and Matt Bowen (four, equal second) are competition frontrunners at this early stage.

The Cowboys aren’t immune to an attacking raid on the flanks either, having conceded seven of their 10 tries on the outer fringes.

Whichever of these two sides masters the sliding defence and prevents their opposition creating an overlap out wide will lay the groundwork for a win.

The History: Played 25; Parramatta 15, North Queensland 9, drawn 1. Parramatta Stadium has been something of a graveyard for visiting Cowboys teams in the past – they haven’t beaten the Eels on their home patch since 2006. It’s also the site of the most one-sided game between these two clubs, a 62-0 thrashing in 2001 – although obviously plenty has changed since then.

Still, Parra have won the past four clashes between these two as well as boasting a much better overall record, so the boys from Townsville will have to run against the trend to win here.

Conclusion: Going from last week’s form this should be a no-brainer… but rugby league is never quite that simple. The Cowboys have a terrible record at Parramatta and haven’t won back-to-back games since Round 13, 2009.

The Eels are also capable of better than what they’ve shown over the past two weeks, while the Cowboys are no certainties to maintain last week’s form. Parramatta will actually start slight favourites here – but don’t be afraid to tip the away side if you think they can reproduce what they showed last week.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.