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Eels v Titans
Parramatta Stadium
Sunday 3pm

Could things get any worse for the Parramatta Eels? Coming off their worst loss in five years down in Melbourne, the Eels were hoping to turn their fortunes around against traditional rivals the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium last week.

And for 25 minutes the script was panning out perfectly, with Jarryd Hayne twice dancing through the Bulldogs’ line. At 14-0 the blue-and-gold faithful were dreaming of a return to the heady days of late 2009, back when Hayne could do no wrong.

But one brain snap later Hayne found himself in the sin bin, and when Nathan Hindmarsh then allowed Bulldogs hooker Michael Ennis to bait him into throwing a punch, it was down to eleven-a-side footy; with the Eels’ two most important players on the sidelines, the blue-and-whites ran in four tries in 11 minutes and the match was as good as over.

The fallout from Hayne’s headbutt on Bulldog Corey Payne in response to a swinging arm continued long into this week. After finally looking like his old self, having started the year slowly, Hayne now finds himself cooling his heels for two weeks, after electing to take the early guilty plea.

The Titans, on the other hand, managed to reverse their 14-0 deficit in a gritty come-from-behind win over the injury-hit Tigers, running out 20-14 winners in a match where halfback Scott Prince made a welcome return to form. The Titans have now won two of their past three after a disastrous start to the year and will be desperate to continue their crawl up from the bottom of the ladder.

As a result of their recent improved form John Cartwright has gone in with an unchanged 17 for this road trip to Western Sydney, with William Zillman continuing in his new role as Titans five-eighth. Prop Matt White has again been named to start, although Michael Henderson actually started in his place last week and could do so again. Sam Tagataese joins a five-man bench.

For the Eels, Luke Burt drops back to fullback in place of Hayne, a position he has filled for the club plenty of times in the past – he was first-choice fullback for much of the two seasons prior to Hayne staking his claim on the spot. Jordan Atkins plays his second game for the Eels, taking Burt’s place on the wing. Although his previous match this season was in the 38-0 drubbing down in Melbourne, the former Titan looked impressive as he calmly dealt with a barrage of high balls.

Carl Webb has been added to an extended bench and could potentially push Billy Rogers or Mitchell Allgood out of the 17.

Two old-stagers rack up milestones in this game: Nathan Hindmarsh plays his 290th match and joins Darren Smith as the 16th most-capped player in league history; and Luke Bailey plays his 200th NRL game.

Watch Out Eels: The Titans’ forwards are currently gaining more metres than any other starting pack, with 529 per game. They are lead by Luke Bailey (141 metres per game) although Greg Bird (125 metres per game) and Ashley Harrison (109 metres per game) are also getting through plenty of work.

They made 372 metres more than the Tigers last week, and these three all ran for more than 100 metres whereas no Tigers forward crossed the 100-metre mark. Having your forwards rolling through the middle of the park creates time and space for the playmakers and Scott Prince in particular enjoyed the extra room to move, running the ball 12 times (double his season average prior to that game) with one line-break leading to a try, as well as kicking through for Zillman to score.

Danger Sign: Scott Prince looks to have been hampered by injury at times this year, but when you add his running game to his passing and kicking, he becomes the complete package. When he shows the confidence to take on the line it means the Eels’ defence now has all three options to worry about.

Watch Out Titans: It could be back to the drawing board here, and there’s no Jarryd Hayne there to create complacency amongst the rest of the team. When the Eels are struggling the mentality seems to be to just give the ball to Hayne and see what he can come up with. With him gone the onus is now on the likes of Daniel Mortimer, Jeff Robson and Casey McGuire to create the plays and take the kicks – and all are more than capable.

The Titans are the worst team in the league this year at defusing kicks, negotiating just 58 per cent or 19 of 33 kicks sent their way. In particular grubber kicks (7 out of 12 defused) chip kicks (3 out of 7) and cross-field bombs (2 out of 5) have caused the Titans’ backs some issues. The Eels’ kickers will need to exploit this if they want to get back to winning ways.

Danger Sign: It’s time for Mortimer to step up. The young half possesses the full array of kicks, and with Hayne gone he knows he needs to use them. Watch for him to probe the Gold Coast defence with grubbers and cross-field bombs when the Eels are in range.

Plays To Watch: Running, fending and offloading from Greg Bird; Luke Burt refusing to give up on any kick-chase; bustling runs and big hits from Ryan James; increased responsibility and more kicking from Daniel Mortimer; and a tackle-fest between Hindmarsh, whose 10,278 tackles are the most in league history, and Nathan Friend, who has made 3982 tackles for the Titans making him easily the club’s leading tackler. He is sure to pass 4000 in this match given he averages 46 tackles from his two matches at Parramatta.

Where It Will Be Won: Creativity. The Eels will have to come up with some answers for the absence of go-to man Jarryd Hayne, and the likes of Mortimer and Robson will have to find the right options close to the line to build pressure and force points, and distribute quality ball out wide to the likes of Atkins and Jacob Loko.

The Titans will be relieved that gifted half Scott Prince looks like returning to his best form, but with young Luke Capewell now at fullback in Preston Campbell’s absence and Williams Zillman still settling into his role as a running five-eighth, there will be a huge responsibility on Prince to run the show.

The History: Played 5, Titans 4, Eels 1. The only time the Eels have beaten the Titans was in the 2009 finals during that golden run to the grand final. The Titans have won on their sole visit to Parramatta Stadium, and in five matches between these two clubs so far the average winning margin is 17.4 – so don’t necessarily count on this being close

Conclusion: Both these teams are languishing at the foot of the ladder, with two wins from six starts, but only one of them currently looks like dragging themselves higher. The Eels aren’t out of this by any stretch but there is little home ground advantage on offer here and the Titans look more likely.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & David Munro; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.