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Dragons v Eels
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday 3pm
Parramatta face one of the most daunting road trips in the NRL this Sunday – a journey to WIN Jubilee Oval. It’s a trip the Eels in particular don’t enjoy, having won just 12 of their 44 matches at the venue for a win rate of 27.3 per cent. It won’t get any easier this Sunday, with the Dragons currently going from strength to strength. 

The Eels’ spluttering attack will be right up against it to find a way through the St George Illawarra defensive line, which has been near impenetrable in recent weeks. The Dragons have conceded just 16 points in their past three full NRL games and despite being under the pump for long stretches against the Roosters, they never really looked like buckling.
It isn’t all hopeless for the Eels though – they are coming off a win, although by coach Stephen Kearney’s own admission it “wasn’t pretty”. That last-gasp victory over the Titans last Sunday broke a two-match losing streak, and was also the side’s first win without Jarryd Hayne in close to three years (at their fifth attempt).

That should hopefully give the rest of the side the confidence that they can win without their star fullback, which they will need to attempt again this weekend as Hayne serves out the second match of his two-game suspension for his headbutt on Bulldog Corey Payne.

It means the Eels go in with the same 17, with Carl Webb still sidelined, struggling with a calf injury. Billy Rogers retains his bench spot despite not being used at all by Kearney last week. Luke Burt again deputises for Hayne at fullback after an impressive showing last week.

Giving further hope to Parramatta is the loss of the Dragons’ own star fullback, Darius Boyd. Boyd limped off with a hamstring tear late in the win over the Roosters last week and hasn’t been named. Jason Nightingale moves to the custodian role, and Ratu Peni Tagive comes onto the wing to make his club NRL debut.

Nathan Fien and Michael Weyman have again been named in the starting side although both watched the kick-off from the bench last week as Dean Young and Trent Merrin saw out the early exchanges. Mitch Rein and Adam Cuthbertson have been added to a six-man bench.

Watch Out Dragons: The Eels always look a lot more dangerous when Fuifui Moimoi is on the field, while Tim Mannah has really lifted a gear in 2011. Last week crowd favourite Moimoi was on the field for 50 minutes, his longest stint of 2011, and it really boosted the Eels. He made 151 metres from 21 quality runs, and his 131 average metres per game in 2011 is well up on his 2010 average of 113 metres per game. 

With Mannah averaging 127 metres per game the two are currently third and fourth in that regard amongst all front-rowers, behind only Aiden Tolman and Luke Bailey.

Danger Sign: Moimoi has been playing the first and last 20 minutes of matches, and the Eels have been off the boil in between. But last week he played three spells, the middle one broken up by the half-time break – essentially giving him four short sharp bursts. If Kearney employs this tactic again look for Moimoi to take an early hit-up in every set to get the Eels rolling up the middle of the park.

Watch Out Eels: Incredibly, the Dragons missed just 15 tackles last week and marked their own goal line beautifully as the frustrated Roosters failed to capitalise on dominant field position for long stretches. With just 16 points conceded in their last 240 minutes of football, this is a team where every man knows his role and they are clicking together perfectly.

 In particular, Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper form arguably the best defensive centre pairing in the NRL. When sides can’t get through the middle the tendency is to shift the ball wide but with these two marking the fringes opposition sides have nowhere to go. Both are in peak form in attack as well – Cooper’s eight line-breaks are equal third most in the competition, while Gasnier’s five line-break assists are equal fifth best.

Cooper’s 15 tries for the club is equal most with Ben Creagh, and Gasnier is just behind them on 14. The pair are currently in a three-way tie with Ben Hornby for most tackle breaks for the merged club, with 475 apiece.

Danger Sign: Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby will look to shift the ball wide regularly to test out the Eels’ outside backs, who will need to be on their game in both attack and defence to match it with the form centre pairing of the NRL. 

Plays To Watch: Precision fifth-tackle kicks from Soward; cannonball-like runs from Moimoi; Gasnier’s big step and flick pass; Luke Burt chasing though on every kick as though the match depends on it; dangerous edge-running and offloading from Ben Creagh; Brett Morris to add to his try-scoring tally now the drought is finally broken.

Where It Will Be Won: Inside the Dragons’ 20-metre zone. The Eels have scored the least tries of any team so far this season, but all bar one of their 18 tries have been scored from inside their opponent’s red zone. The Dragons meanwhile have conceded just 11 tries from close range, a record bettered by only Brisbane and Melbourne.

The crucial thing here is how well the Eels test the seemingly impregnable Dragons’ defence. Mortimer and Robson will need take advantage of Boyd’s absence and test the inexperienced Tagive under the high ball. And the forwards, led by Moimoi and Mannah, will need to get them to close range first. 

The Eels have a huge task ahead of them but if they are to be any chance they will need to earn back-to-back sets and keep the pressure on.

If the Dragons keep the Eels away from their try line, and/or defend that line as stoutly as they have in recent weeks, it will be good night Parramatta.

The History: Played 22; Parramatta 11, St George Illawarra 10, drawn 1. As mentioned above Parramatta have won just 12 of 44 matches at WIN Jubilee, and just one from five since the St George Illawarra joint venture was formed. Their past two regular-season visits have resulted in them being on the wrong end of 37-0 and 30-0 hidings, although in between those two matches was the incredible 25-12 win in the 2009 finals series. Jarryd Hayne was the star that day… but of course he will be absent here.

The Dragons have beaten the Eels in six of the past eight clashes overall, emphasising their recent dominance between these two clubs.

Conclusion: The Eels were far from convincing in their last start win while the Dragons have been utterly dominant in their current four-match winning streak, and deserve their billing as premiership favourites. It’s hard to predict anything other than another Red V win here.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials –David Abood & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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