Parramatta Eels v Wests Tigers
Parramatta Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

There are no second chances for the 13th-placed Eels from now on, with the closeness of the 2011 premiership probably requiring they win all of their nine remaining games to sneak into the top eight.

The Eels sit on 13 competition points, with the cut-off zone likely to be between 29 and 30 points. If the latter is the case the Eels have to be faultless – improbable given their dismal application throughout the season to date.

Last week they butchered a crucial game against a severely under-strength Broncos outfit. After trailing 12-nil at halftime the Eels snapped out of their funk to draw level and looked the more likely to go on with the job until some woeful defence enabled the Broncos to escape with the win. The outcome left Eels skipper Nathan Hindmarsh swearing repeatedly in disbelief – who could blame him for such an uncharacteristic outburst?

It left them pondering their fourth consecutive loss, and the first time they’ve gone five games without a win since May 2004.

This week they get back Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah from Origin III (fitness permitting) but their inclusion isn’t the answer to the lethargy that is apparent throughout the squad.

Meanwhile Tim Sheens’ Wests Tigers spent last week resting up from their second bye, licking their wounds after back-to-back losses to the Storm and Bulldogs that have left them in a logjam at the bottom end of the eight. The Tigers hold down seventh spot on the NRL ladder but lead a pack of four sides on 18 competition points, with the in-form Sharks as well as the Rabbitohs just two points further back.

In a huge plus, this week marks the return of Australian Four Nations centre Chris Lawrence who has recovered from the horror hip dislocation he suffered in Round 3, as well as prop Todd Payten – but countering that they will again take to the field minus talisman-like five-eighth Benji Marshall who worryingly hasn’t recovered from the minor knee ligament strain he suffered in Round 15.

The Tigers were sluggish in their last outing against the Bulldogs in Campbelltown and know they can’t afford any slip-ups in coming weeks – especially against struggling sides like the Eels, and especially without Marshall. Plus, Parramatta average more points against the Tigers (24.8) than any opponent in the club’s history.

Eels coach Stephen Kearney has made a raft of changes. Should he back up, Hayne will slot in at fullback with Luke Burt moving to the left wing and bumping Etu Uaisele from the squad. Ryan Morgan returns at right centre, with Ben Smith to start at left centre for the injured Jacob Loko. Jordan Atkins takes Chris Walker’s wing position. Jeff Robson’s return at halfback pushes Casey McGuire back to the No.6 with Rene Maitua benched. Also, Carl Webb makes way for Tim Mannah at prop.

For the Tigers, Chris Lawrence’s return bumps Tim Simona from centre. Keith Galloway returns from the NSW Origin squad at prop, while Ben Murdoch-Masila starts in the back row for the Simon Dwyer whose nerve-damaged shoulder is still being monitored. Payten hits the bench for the concussed Liam Fulton.

Watch Out Eels: No side is more dangerous on the right fringe (the area midway between the right goal post and the corner post) than the Wests Tigers. They have crossed for 20 tries in the region to date – six more than the next most-prolific Melbourne Storm.

That’s a huge danger sign for Eels’ left centre Ben Smith – especially given the side has leaked 14 tries through that corridor, the second most by any outfit. But it’s a smart ploy by Kearney to plug the area with a solid defender.

A further danger is the fact the Eels concede the second-most line-breaks (3.3) while the Tigers make the third most (4.7).

The Parramatta long-kicking game has been good of late but they’ll need to watch for opposition charge-downs; the Eels have had nine kicks blocked so far, the second most in the comp.

Danger Sign: If Robert Lui and Robbie Farah keep hammering the right-hand side you’ll know the Eels are in for a working over out wide.

Right centre Blake Ayshford is a danger too – he doesn’t score a lot of tries or set up many (four and one respectively) but he has a team-high eight line-breaks and 49 tackle-breaks to go with 12 offloads. He’ll create the carnage and the playmakers will capitalise before the opposition can regroup.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Jarryd Hayne can win games single-handedly – and that’s just he might have to do here given the only-average attacking arsenal at the Eels’ disposal. Hayne is averaging 17 runs for 155 metres, with 15 line-breaks – more than three times the number of next best Jeff Robson’s four. He also has 10 try assists and 39 tackle-breaks.

Robson was a late withdrawal from the Eels’ line-up last week and his direction around the ruck was sorely missed. He’s contributed six try assists and four line-break assists to go with three tries.

The Tigers need to watch their error count, particularly in their own half. The Eels are relying on a deep kicking game to keep them in contests. To date they’ve punted the third-most metres (9859) by any side.

Cross-field bombs remain a concern for the Tigers – they’ve successfully defused just 38 per cent all year and have yielded a total of 14 tries to kicks, the third most by any side. 

Danger Sign: Given the Eels’ inability to pose a threat at the defensive line expect Robson to send plenty of aerial raids to the flanks of Beau Ryan and Mitch Brown.

Plays To Watch: Jarryd Hayne throwing everything into reviving the Eels’ flat-lining season – plenty of no-look cut-out passes and individual runs around the Tigers’ red zone (10 metres out); Robson chip-kicking for himself on the fringes; Fuifui Moimoi (122 metres) and Tim Mannah (118 metres) ripping in to give the Eels some sort of attacking platform; Farah showing the ball to his supports like a conductor wields the baton to his orchestra; Lui probing for holes as well as running wide and turning the ball back inside to supports on the fringes; Andrew Fifita locking horns with Ben Smith out wide.

Where It Will Be Won: In attack – and on what they’ve (not) shown to date the Eels will struggle to cause the Tigers too many headaches.

Parramatta have made the second-fewest fewest line-breaks by any side (3.3); worse, they’ve made the fewest half-breaks (just seven). This means oppositions are finding it easy to shut down their limited structures.

The Eels are also one of only two sides that haven’t made a line-break from a kick return – extraordinary given they have Jarryd Hayne in the No.1 and still-agile Luke Burt on one wing.

Also, once a formidable second-phase unit the Eels now ask fewer questions of defences, offering up the fewest offloads per game (7.8 – five fewer than the Tigers).

It all adds up to why the Eels are registering the second-fewest tries, with just 2.7 a game.

Meanwhile the Tigers lead the league for tackle-breaks (41.8 a game) – while the Eels are finding it tough to bust a paper bag, with their average 25 tackle-breaks the fewest in the comp.

The History: Played 22; Eels 14, Wests Tigers 7, drawn 1. Parramatta have won five of the past eight games – but the Tigers have won three of the past four, including a 20-18 nail-biter at Parramatta Stadium in Round 24 last year. The Eels hold a 7-4 advantage at the venue – but the Tigers are on the brink of a third consecutive victory at Parramatta Stadium – something neither Balmain nor Western Suburbs ever managed to achieve.

Conclusion: For the Eels, the remainder of the season is as much about seeing who’s worth keeping on board next year and beyond as it is about concentrating on the finals. There will be plenty of players whose futures will be under the microscope.

It’s a tough ask of Jarryd Hayne to be the primary attacking contributor just two days after a gut-busting Origin encounter but realistically he’s all the Eels have going for them.

Meanwhile the Tigers know a slip-up here could cost them dearly come September. They are on track for a semi-finals spot but their challenge is to push as high into the top eight as they can to avoid the chance of a first-week exit. They’re a bit hit-and-miss at the moment but they still look the likely winners. Wests Tigers by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Touch Judges – David Abood & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.