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Eels v Storm
Parramatta Stadium
Monday 7pm

Talk about a kick in the teeth for the Eels – two heartbreaking golden-point losses in a row followed by a meeting with the competition favourites who slaughtered them 38-nil back in Round 5!

To compound matters the pacesetting Storm have conceded just single figures in seven of their past eight games – including their comprehensive 26-6 victory over top-four candidates Brisbane last week.

Meanwhile the Eels are still licking their wounds after ending up on the wrong side of the ledger against the Bulldogs, when two successful Trent Hodkinson field-goal strikes wrenched the competition points away from them at a sodden ANZ Stadium. That loss effectively ended their bid for a semi-finals berth. They now sit 14th on the ladder on 15 competition points, just a win and a half off the cellar-dwelling Titans. All that’s left for them is to harass teams with premiership dreams, starting this week with the Storm who are in a dogfight for the minor premiership with the Sea Eagles.

Momentum is with the Storm. They enter this round on an eight-game winning streak, during which time they’ve conceded just 54 points in total. They are poised to score 20 or more points for a fourth week in a row for the first time since the 2009 Grand Final.

Eels coach Stephen Kearney has made just the one change to his starting line-up, with Reni Maitua moving from the centres to swap positions with lock Justin Horo. Shane Shackleton returns on the bench at the expense of Joseph Paulo.

Meanwhile the Storm’s sole team change sees Matt Duffie return on the wing, pushing Beau Champion out of the squad.

The NRL has been big on omens recently. Keeping that in mind consider the following: Parramatta haven’t won the week after losing a game by one point or drawing since 2002. Countering that (well, to a small degree), the Storm haven’t won at Parramatta Stadium since 2006.

Parramatta’s first try-scorer can land themselves a place in the history books, with the Eels requiring just three points to record 25,000 points scored.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta have struggled for consistent territory all year and if they don’t make a stand here they’ll be swamped. Back in Round 5 they were monstered 1581 metres to 1029 metres, with the Storm recording nine line-breaks to zilch. Also, they missed 42 tackles that game – 10 more than their season average. Clearly if they are to be competitive let alone a chance of winning they need a serious turnaround in the basics.

Of the Storm individuals, we expect five-eighth Gareth Widdop to excel. Once his team-mates roll down the field Widdop will be presented with plenty of opportunities to make inroads or send players through gaps to score. The Eels have stacked their centres with forwards – a sure sign they have their fingers crossed they can limit the carnage. But Widdop has the class to prevail – he made a try assist and a line-break last game. To date he has 14 try assists and ranks second in the comp for line-breaks with 14.  

There are so many other threats we could list… but this preview would end up sounding like the plot of Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day.

Danger Sign: You can bet the Storm will be heading right. They’ve scored 34 tries down the right side of the field, the most by any side. The Eels’ left-side defence has conceded 27 tries, compared to 28 on the other side of the park.

Watch Out Storm: Only complacency and poor discipline loom as threats… plus maybe some doubt eating away in the back of the Melbourne players’ minds about following through to grand final victory without another loss.

You can guarantee the Parramatta crowd will be baying for offside penalties on every Eels hit-up and if the Storm don’t send a message to the officials that they are making every attempt to play it straight they could find themselves buried under a barrage of penalties (while not suggesting any unprofessionalism on the part of officials). Stats show the Storm have conceded the fourth-most defending penalties in the comp (102) while the Eels have given up the fewest with 72. 

Danger Sign: Dummy-half runs and one-off-the-ruck charges are the best ways of catching out a defence that might be a fraction too slow to realign. If Matt Keating, Fuifui Moimoi and Tim Mannah take on plenty of work early, the trap is being set.

Plays To Watch: Hayne’s no-look passes; Luke Burt chasing kicks; Justin Horo’s charges close to the try line down the left fringe; Nathan Hindmarsh’s tireless defence; Moimoi and Mannah running straight and hard; Billy Slater’s magic; Cameron Smith’s plotting; Gareth Widdop’s busts; Cooper Cronk’s kicks; Kevin Proctor’s angle running.

Where It Will Be Won: For the Storm it will be about playing it steady and to their strengths – while the Eels’ best chance might be shock tactics.

Parramatta don’t have a lot that will threaten the Storm. They make the third-fewest line-breaks (3.3) while the Storm concede the fewest line-breaks of all teams (2.1). While you can’t wave a wand and magically start making line-breaks, teams can control their second-phase play – given Parramatta offer the fewest offloads each game (8.3) they don’t have a lot to lose by throwing the pill around a little more in this game. The element of surprise could be their biggest weapon.

Jarryd Hayne’s shift to five-eighth robs the game of a ding-dong head-to-head clash – and also one of the biggest feuds in the NRL. But it would come as no surprise if he and Billy Slater locked horns at several stages, nor if a moment of brilliance from one over the other was a crucial play.

The History: Played 24; Storm 14, Eels 10. The Storm have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides, including a 38-nil victory in Round 5. The Eels have won the past three encounters at Parramatta Stadium and hold a 6-5 advantage at the venue.

Conclusion: The Storm squad of 2011 is proving every bit the equal of the unit that was stripped of a host of accomplishments due to the salary cap scandal. They may even be better.

Craig Bellamy must almost taste the sweet revenge of the minor premiership that is so oh close. There will be no complacency here. Providing they don’t disappear under an avalanche of penalties and lack of possession, they’ll be far too strong.

The Storm by eight points.  

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats