Cowboys v Eels
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Maybe once the dust settles on this Super Saturday clash up in Townsville the two sides can get together for a drink and have a chat about how it feels to be on the wrong end of a football lesson from St George Illawarra, because that’s exactly what each of these teams experienced in their previous outings.

The Cowboys didn’t come away from their red-and-white touch-up quite as badly as the Eels did – they maintained pressure for long periods and at least managed to get themselves on the scoreboard, although the 22-8 result at Kogarah last week was a good indication of the way the Dragons’ defence in particular bossed that game.

Parramatta had the bye last week and will be hoping it has helped them to get over the 30-0 drubbing they took at the same venue a week earlier. There were few positives in that game for the Eels, who looked completely outclassed, prompting skipper Nathan Hindmarsh to declare that it is now officially “panic stations” for the Eels.

Parramatta’s only change from the game is the addition of Jarryd Hayne, who has completed a two-week suspension for his head-butt on Bulldog Corey Payne in Round 7. He returns at fullback with Luke Burt shifting to the wing and Etu Uaisele dropping out of the side – an indication that he may have fallen behind Jordan Atkins in the Eels’ backline pecking order.

The Cowboys also have just the one change – Glenn Hall returns from a corked thigh to start in the second row, pushing Tariq Sims to the pine.

In the event that Parramatta fail to register a point, it would be the first time since 1974 that they have been held scoreless three times in a season. Even if it doesn’t happen this week, there’s still plenty of time left…

Watch Out Cowboys: It’s that time of year – rep season, the time when that sleeping giant they call the ‘Hayne Train’ traditionally wakes from his slumber. In 2009 he was the Blues’ best in the State of Origin series and it sparked an amazing form surge for both Hayne and the Eels.

Hayne will be champing at the bit after missing two club games through suspension; meanwhile he had a good game for City Origin last week, playing solidly and scoring a try.

Despite missing two games he leads the club this season for try assists (five), line-break assists (six) and metres per game (138). The Eels managed to snatch a win over the Titans without him but they were lost against St George Illawarra and there’s no doubting his importance to this side. The Cowboys will be hoping he leaves his traditional rep-season revival until at least next week.

Danger Sign: Whether in or out of form Hayne has a knack of putting runners over the line with his bullet cut-out pass – but when he finds himself in space through footwork and sheer speed, that’s when you know the cards are falling Hayne’s way.

Watch Out Eels: The Cowboys have completely reversed their dismal 2010 form to sit fifth after nine rounds, just out of the top four on for-and-against. There are a few reasons for this but clearly the biggest factor is that man Jonathan Thurston. ‘JT’ was incredible in a beaten team last week – his 131 running metres and game-high 10 tackle-breaks would be massive for any player but for a halfback is almost unheard of – and he did all that just two days after playing a Test match for Australia.

His 17 line-break assists for 2011 has him comfortably leading from second-placed Benji Marshall (11) and his 13 try assists also leads the competition, just ahead of Jamie Soward with 12.

Danger Sign: The partnership and communication between Thurston and fullback Matt Bowen has been crucial to the Cowboys’ fortunes this season. When these two link the communication seems almost telepathic so when you see Bowen calling for a kick and Thurston obliging, the play is on and it will spell trouble for the Eels.

Plays To Watch: Furious opening-exchange hit-ups from Fuifui Moimoi; Thurston going to the line to put the Eels’ defence in two minds; the Jarryd Hayne cut-out pass; bench impact from the Sims brothers; short kicks from Daniel Mortimer close to the line; lots of runs, in particular dummy-half runs, from Ashley Graham and Kalifa Faifai Loa – the Cowboys wingers are fifth and sixth in the competition this year for average metres with 143 and 142 respectively.

Where It Will Be Won: Attacking play. Thurston has every attacking option down to a fine art in 2011, whether he’s passing or kicking or taking on the line himself, and as a result the Cowboys are behind only the Storm for tries scored this year with 35.

By comparison the spluttering Eels’ attack has found the tryline just 18 times to be dead last in the category, four behind the Panthers. In fact, the entire Eels’ side has fewer line-break assists (13) and try assists (12) this season than Thurston has on his own! The Eels are also the only club left in 2011 not to score a try originating in their own half.

The club’s recent signing of Rabbitohs playmaker Chris Sandow has put both Jeff Robson and Daniel Mortimer on notice that they will need to earn their spots for next year. With Hayne back the team is close to full strength and the playmaking contingent will need to find a way to match the prolific Thurston if the blue-and-golds are to prevail here.

The History: Played 26; Parramatta 16, North Queensland 9, drawn 1. Parramatta have a good overall record against the Cowboys and have actually won the past five straight against the Townsville boys – although four of those have been played at Parramatta. This record is also aided by the fact that North Queensland were one of the few clubs to fare worse than the Eels in 2010.

But the Cowboys were on a four-match winning run before running into the red-hot Dragons at Kogarah last week, their last loss coming at Parramatta in Round 4 – a defeat they will no doubt be looking to avenge on their home patch.

Conclusion: Despite Parramatta’s recent dominance over them the Cowboys have looked far better this season. If the Eels’ playmakers kick into gear they can steal a win here, but the Cowboys look a safer bet.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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