Eels v Sea Eagles
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm
 
On paper this looks to be a mismatch as the high-flying Sea Eagles make the trip out west to Parramatta, who are now languishing just one point ahead of the cellar-dwelling Titans.

You could argue the Eels did their fans a favour last week – rather than having their hearts broken in the 80th, or even the 87th minute, they conceded a landslide in the opening quarter and were never in it. The 56-6 thrashing was the Eels’ biggest ever loss to the Rabbitohs in 115 games and will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for club stalwarts such as skipper Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt.

And their quest for redemption certainly won’t be an easy one – the second-placed Sea Eagles will be full of confidence coming off a runaway 36-8 win over the struggling Roosters. It would have been far more had Manly co-captain Jamie Lyon not missed six attempted conversions.

Manly’s last-gasp 22-18 win over the Eels in Round 15 now seems a lifetime ago. It was one of many this season the Eels could easily have won but right now they will be less concerned with avenging that loss than with reversing the embarrassment of last week.

Again coach Stephen Kearney has resisted the temptation to wield the axe, with the only two changes being the returns of two men who were late withdrawals last week – Jordan Atkins in place of Chris Hicks on the wing, and Reni Maitua back at lock, pushing Mitchell Allgood to the bench and Rory Brien back to Toyota Cup. (As an aside, former Origin prop Carl Webb has played his last game for the blue-and-golds after announcing his retirement during the week.)

The Sea Eagles have unfortunately lost co-captain Jason King for the rest of the season with a pectoral tear, which sees George Rose elevated to starting prop and Tim Robinson joining the bench. Michael Robertson has overcome his lingering concussion and assumes his place on the wing for Michael Oldfield.

This game will see Anthony Watmough become just the 13th player to record 200 appearances for Manly. Watmough made his club debut in 2003 after eight games with the Northern Eagles and will equal Paul Vautin for games played in the first week of the finals if he plays every game until then. It would see him join an elite crop of Manly running forwards that also includes Owen Cunningham, Steve Menzies and Terry Randall.

It’s a milestone week for Des Hasler, who celebrates 200 games at the helm of the Manly club.

Watch Out Eels: Few clubs are blessed with as potent a backline as the Sea Eagles. Will Hopoate showed last week why he will be so sorely missed next by not just Manly but the NRL as a whole, with another two tries, and Steve Matai also showed that he is far more than just a powerful defender, also running in two tries. In fact, most of Manly’s backline players have an incredible strike rate in 2011, led by Michael Robertson (11 tries in 14 games) Brett Stewart (10 in 14) and Hopoate (10 in 15).

They’re incredibly dangerous on both edges and with Brett Stewart capable of popping up anywhere and the young halves feeding out quality ball and deadly kicks it’s been virtually impossible for opposition sides to keep the Manly backs quiet all season.

Danger Sign: A particularly lethal combination for Manly recently has been the Stewart brothers combining on the right edge. Glenn runs wide and attracts multiple defenders, then pops an offload to Brett who screams through a gap to either score or put his outside man over. It won’t be too long in this game before the Eels have to try and defuse this play.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Three words: bounce back factor. It’s been a theme right since Round 2 when the Sharks recovered from a thrashing in Canberra to roll the premiers, and the Eels themselves turned around a big loss in Townsville to steamroll the Sharks in Round 11. They say every loss brings your next win closer, and Eels fans will be getting impatient.

They’ll be buoyed at hearing the Eels have bounced back to win the week after conceding 50 points all three times dating back to 1995.

One man maintaining or even lifting his incredible standards is Fuifui Moimoi. The Tongan wrecking ball just keeps aiming up and even in a side that was utterly dominated last week he made plenty of telling runs, carrying multiple defenders back with virtually every hit-up. Moimoi burst onto the scene against Manly back in 2004, pumping out seven runs for 74 metres in just 14 minutes to help the Eels to a 32-26 victory.

His season stats alone are impressive enough: Moimoi leads all props in terms of total (2564) and average (135) metres, but the stats don’t capture the quality of Moimoi’s runs, which invariably attract four or more defenders, push through the advantage line and are followed up by a quick play-the-ball.

The rest of the Eels’ pack needs to take a leaf out of Moimoi’s book to prevent a repeat of last week when Souths had gained close to 1000 metres by half time, more than double Parramatta’s tally.

Danger Sign: Regardless of the state of play Moimoi will take the first hit-up after a kick-off as if it’s his last. When he hits full pace five metres out from the defensive line, get ready for bodies to fly as Moimoi tries to singlehandedly drag his side downfield.

Plays To Watch: The above-mentioned Stewart-to-Stewart combo terrorising Parramatta’s left-edge defence; towering spiral bombs from Jarryd Hayne; classy finishing from Will Hopoate; big hits as Steve Matai runs into Parramatta’s two lock forward centres in Ben Smith and Justin Horo; Nathan Hindmarsh to be the first man in 2011 to make 1000 tackles (currently 984).

Where It Will Be Won: Manly look stronger across the park but the difference is perhaps most stark on the fringes. Manly have scored 35 tries out wide (19 left, 16 right) in 2011 compared to just 11 for the Eels (seven left, four right).

To make matters worse Manly are also fairly good at containing opposition wingers, conceding 19 tries on the fringes (nine left, 10 right) while the Eels have let in a whopping 35 (21 left, 14 right) making their edges the most vulnerable in the competition and rendering the Eels’ left edge one of the most fruitful scoring areas for opposition sides.

Most of the Eels’ problems against Souths came from line-breaks straight up the middle; this was out of character for Parramatta, who have generally defended well in the middle even while losing games. But even if they can get that aspect of their game in order their outside backs look to be outclassed by their northern beaches’ counterparts, who will test their sliding defence to the limit.

The History: Played 125; Manly 77, Parramatta 44, drawn 4. The Eels have won two of the past three but Manly has won five of the past eight. At Parramatta it’s pretty even – Manly have the edge by nine wins to eight.

Conclusion: Although Manly just got away with one earlier in the year plenty has changed since then. After several close losses the Eels capitulated last week and have now tasted victory just once in their past 10 matches, while the Sea Eagles have won 10 from their past 12.

If you need to tip a couple of upsets to make ground in your tipping comp there are better games than this to try it – from what both these teams showed last week it’s very hard to find any reason to tick the Eels’ box here. If you do, you’ll most likely end up ticked off. 

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – David Abood & David Munro; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
 
* Statistics: NRL Stats.