Eels v Dragons
Parramatta Stadium
Friday 7.35pm
 
It was just five weeks ago that the competition pacesetters shredded the Eels 30-nil at Kogarah and the performances of the teams since then won’t be leaving Parra fans hopeful of extracting revenge.

In fact, Eels fans will be hoping there’s no truth to the saying ‘things happen in threes’ as the past two games between these sides has seen 30-nil scorelines in favour of the Red V! And the Eels haven’t scored against them in 177 minutes of game time!

Last week the Dragons notched nine in a row by holding off the Tigers at home – their longest winning streak since entering the NRL as a joint venture. (But what might excite Eels fans is that the Dragons led 16-nil after 25 minutes and actually lost the remainder of the game 18-8.) It was also a joint venture-record sixth straight win at Kogarah.

They achieved the victory with tired legs; seven of their eight State of Origin players backed up, with Dean Young the only player rested, while winger Brett Morris suffered a hamstring strain and didn’t play the second 40.

Meanwhile the Eels fell short against the Knights in a dour struggle in wet conditions at Ausgrid Stadium – their third loss in their past four games with a home win over the 14th-placed Sharks a fortnight ago their only return. They sit perilously in 12th place on 10 competition points. They’re inhabiting the most hotly contested area of the premiership ladder, just a win away from the eighth-placed Wests Tigers and ninth-placed Knights but behind the eight ball with a damaging -86 points differential that has them relegated below the Panthers and Rabbitohs.

This week coach Stephen Kearney has dumped centre Chris Walker and moved Ryan Morgan to the right side of the field, with Jacob Loko returning at left centre. The only other change sees Carl Webb oust Anthony Mitchell from the bench.

The Dragons have had to make three changes. Centre Matt Cooper is out for 4-6 weeks with eye socket, cheekbone and wrist fractures sustained in back-to-back tackles against the Tigers last week, while Morris’ injury sees him replaced by Peni Tagive on the left wing. Dean Young returns at hooker with Nathan Fien on the bench.

Although no replacement for Cooper has been named it’s expected Kyle Stanley will fill in.

Should the Dragons notch their tenth straight win it would also be Wayne Bennett’s 400th victory as a coach.
Mind-blowing Stat: During their 10 wins in 2011 the Red V have been behind on the scoreboard for just 72 seconds in total.

Watch Out Dragons: Coach Bennett’s charges are showing disconcerting signs of stress late in games that will one day bite them hard.

The Dragons have conceded just five first-half tries all season. That’s five in just 11 games! Truly phenomenal defence. And their combined scorecard in first halves is a massive 106-18. But… they’ve let in 15 tries in the second halves of their games, including two last week. While that’s not a lot in 11 matches it does identify the Dragons drop their intensity in the second 40.

Hayne remains the danger man. He missed their Round 8 clash through suspension and will be keen to leave his stamp against a favourable foe. In the first week of the 2009 finals series he scored a dazzling try, ran 208 metres, made three line-breaks and 17 tackle-breaks. In the Eels’ two defeats last year he was kept relatively quiet – but the last time he took the field against the Red V, in the Eels’ 30-nil loss in Round 12, he still managed to gain 212 metres – and without a line-break!

Danger Sign: Hayne hasn’t made a line-break against the Dragons since 2009 and made just five tackle-breaks against them in 160 minutes last year. So far this year he’s averaging three tackle-breaks a game but his line-break stats remain low, with just two made. If he gets clear early it could be the portent of joy for Eels fans.

Watch Out Eels: Five-eighth Jamie Soward destroyed the Eels in Round 8, with three monster line-breaks and three try assists. Soward is the master at sensing a disorganised defensive line. In their last match-up he exploited the Eels who failed to move up as a unit, with individuals rushing up too quickly out wide and leaving holes on the inside.

The Round 8 clash was also arguably the best Mark Gasnier has played back in the NRL – he terrorised opposition centre Jacob Loko with a game-high 17 runs for 173 metres with nine tackle-breaks, a line-break and a whopping five offloads that left the Eels flatfooted and floundering. He’s held that blockbusting form (the only lull being kept quiet by team-mate Darius Boyd in Origin I). Against the Tigers last week Gasnier made 16 runs and 181 metres. He also scored a trademark four-pointer in the corner, with the opposition hanging off him until it was all too late and the tryline loomed.
Centre Loko and winger Luke Burt can’t afford to let Gasnier mesmerize them or they’ll be in for a super-tough evening.

Danger Sign: Gasnier’s centre partner Matt Cooper also played a blinder against the Eels last outing, scoring two tries and making two line-breaks. That hints at a weakness down the Eels’ right-side defence and if Gasnier and Cooper’s replacement start making inroads early the scoreboard attendant will be kept busy all night.

Foot-stat: Gasnier needs just four tackle-breaks to become the first St George Illawarra player to crack 500.

Plays To Watch: Jamie Soward exploiting holes in centrefield; Ben Hornby’s support play; Gasnier cutting loose out wide; the Dragons testing out Jarryd Hayne’s nerve with towering bombs in front of the Eels’ goal posts; Origin interchange team-mates Trent Merrin and Tim Mannah locking horns; Jeff Robson’s spurts at the Dragons’ defence from close range; Hayne’s cut-out balls for Luke Burt and Jordan Atkins.

Where It Will Be Won: Field position. The one thing the Eels can take out of their recent 16-nil defeat is that they were never on equal terms with the Dragons. They were swamped in the territory statistics 1697 metres to 1293, with the Dragons making almost a full four sets more runs at them. They also did well to stay in the contest against the Knights last week; incredibly they completed a woeful 21 of 41 sets (51 per cent) but pressed the issue to the final siren.

The only way the Eels have a shot here is if they ‘blindside’ the Dragons – and we don’t mean attacking the short corridors. They need to reverse their last-clash return and swamp them with territory.

When the Eels were at their best in 2009 they succeeded on the back of a rampaging Hayne, who inspired the team into excellent go-forward. Hayne is still doing his bit, averaging 146 metres, but they only have two other triple-figure contributors in Fuifui Moimoi and Tim Mannah (122 metres) and they are playing barely more than half a game each.
It’s time the rest lifted and dragged them off their lowly 1240 metres a game (second fewest in the NRL).

And they need more power – as a unit they rank the lowest for tackle busts with just 23 a game. They need to run and they need to show heart. If they do it will come as a surprise to the opposition and they can add another dent in the Dragons’ only apparent weakness – they are conceding 1367 metres a game, the fifth most by any side.

Constant long raids will keep the Dragons back-peddling and given their weary playing personnel they just might crack. Whether they crack often enough is the question.

The History: Played 23; Eels 11, Dragons 11, drawn 1. The Dragons have won six of the past eight games and have held the Eels scoreless in their past two victories. Things get slightly better for the Eels when they play at home, where they hold a 6-3 advantage.

Conclusion: The Eels need everything to go their way if they’re to stop the Dragons from notching 10 wins in a row. When sides assemble streaks like theirs it’s easy for fans to start clutching at straws looking for an end to the run. But that’s more likely to occur in coming weeks, with clashes against the Broncos and Sea Eagles, than this week.
Ten in a row it is.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.