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Wests Tigers v Parramatta Eels
Sydney Football Stadium
Sunday 3pm

When it comes to rugby league there’s not much that beats a Sunday afternoon at the Sydney Football Stadium for a match between two traditional Sydney-based rivals. Regardless of their spots on the ladder you know the intensity will be there from the players and the fans will turn out in force.

As it happens the Tigers have a golden opportunity to consolidate a spot in the top eight, and even virtually assure themselves of a finals berth, with a win here taking them to the usual top-eight safety mark of 30 competition points.

What’s more the in-form Tigers could potentially finish this round inside the top four, with the Warriors facing a tricky road trip to Penrith, the Cowboys running into an in-form Rabbitohs side and the Dragons right up against it in Melbourne. If those three sides lose the Wests Tigers will need to win and make up a 25-point differential on the Cowboys and amazingly could finish the round in fourth spot!

The Tigers are running hot with five straight wins for just the fifth time in their history (their last loss coming against the Eels in Round 18) including victories over top sides Manly, St George and North Queensland. With no fresh injury concerns coach Tim Sheens has unsurprisingly elected to stick with the 17 that took the points against Penrith last week.

The Eels are playing only for pride, with the finals long since out of reach, but they will be desperate to stay ahead of the last-placed Titans who are just one point behind and this week have a winnable game at home to the struggling Raiders.

In a complete reversal of Wests Tigers’ fortunes, Parramatta has lost five on the bounce since that Round 18 fixture. Aside from a disastrous loss to Souths a fortnight ago the Eels have competed strongly in that five-match sequence and led for long periods in those four other losses. They’ll back themselves here and have gone in with an identical 17 to the one that started last week (Justin Poore actually never made it onto the field in that game, withdrawing late due to dizziness and leaving the side with 16 players, although he should be fine to compete this week).

There are some impending point-scoring milestones for each side’s goal-kicker: Benji Marshall needs just four more points to overtake Brett Hodgson (786) as the most prolific scorer in Wests Tigers’ history; and Luke Burt is only one conversion away from passing 150 points for the fifth consecutive season.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Eels have won five of their past six away games against the Tigers and have played better this season than their current ladder position suggests. But they’ll still need to find a weakness in a Tigers’ side that is in good form and high on confidence.

Coach Stephen Kearney may direct his halves to look to the skies because the Tigers are the second worst team in the NRL in terms of defusing all types of kicks, and one area where they particularly struggle is the cross-field bomb, defusing just 38 per cent or 12 out of 32 such kicks. Only the Cowboys and Bulldogs (both 32 per cent) fare worse. And the Tigers are actually the least proficient among all teams at defusing regulation bombs, successfully negotiating just 66 per cent or 27 out of 41.

The Eels’ halves will need to go high regularly to try to force a mistake from the Tigers’ backs.

Danger Sign: Eels’ five eighth Jarryd Hayne is renowned for his massive boot and needs to test the Tigers’ backs with some floating spiral bombs whenever the Eels are in range. Even when they don’t directly lead to a try an opposition mistake can hand the Eels a repeat set, allowing them to build pressure.

Watch Out Eels: There are some glaring holes in the Eels’ defence that Kiwi five-eighth Benji Marshall will be only too happy to exploit. The Eels have conceded by far the most long-range tries this season with a whopping 16 conceded from inside their own half and a further 21 from between the 20- and 50-metre lines, making them the worst in the league in both stats. Their fringes also look particularly vulnerable with only Canberra letting in more tries out wide than the 36 that have been scored down the Parramatta flanks. Marshall is second in the league behind Jonathan Thurston for both line-break assists (20 – all from passes) and try assists (also 20), showing he has the necessary skills to take advantage of these defensive weaknesses.

In-form winger Beau Ryan (three tries in his past four games) will be one player looking to benefit from some Benji magic: a try in this game would represent the third time in his career he had scored in three successive matches. The last time these teams met at the Sydney Football Stadium Ryan played fullback and recorded 24 runs for a career-best 248 running metres. He has scored eight tries from 13 appearances at the venue, making it his equal-most prolific ground.

Danger Sign: Just because the Tigers are working it out of their own half doesn’t mean Marshall will be afraid to try a flashy pass – look for the long cut-out or no-look inside ball inside the Tigers’ half to put the likes of Ryan, Blake Ayshford and Tim Moltzen into space.

Plays To Watch: Cannonball runs from Fuifui Moimoi punching the Eels downfield; in-form Tigers back-rowers Gareth Ellis, Liam Fulton and Chris Heighington creating havoc on the edges of the ruck; Jarryd Hayne’s massive boot clearing the Eels out of trouble; Marshall’s massive sidestep putting Parramatta defenders in two minds.

Where It Will Be Won: So much here comes down to the battle of the two high-profile pivots. Although Hayne made his name at fullback and has played relatively few top grade games in the No.6 jersey, there are a stack of similarities between Hayne and Marshall. Both players seem to provide the spark when their teams are performing well, both seem to shoulder plenty of the blame when their teams are playing poorly, and statistically both are responsible for a huge amount of their side’s tries.

Hayne is equal fifth in the NRL for try assists with 17, just three behind Marshall, and his 19 line-break assists put him just a fraction behind second-placed Marshall’s 20. A key difference at the moment is that for Hayne those electrifying cut-out balls aren’t quite finding the mark, while for the Tigers’ pivot the casual no-look flick pass is hitting the target.

Hayne will also need players around him, like halfback Casey McGuire, to provide the kind of support Tigers’ hooker Robbie Farah gave last week. Farah played one of his best matches of the season with two try assists and a try. Tellingly for the Eels, McGuire and hooker Matt Keating have just three try assists between them for the year, despite playing 19 and 16 games respectively.

The History: Played 23; Eels 15, Wests Tigers 7, drawn 1. The Eels have had the wood over the Tigers since the merged club’s 2000 debut. Parramatta have also won five of the past eight clashes including the previous match-up this year, prevailing 22-6 in Round 18. At the Sydney Football Stadium it’s one win apiece, although the Eels have no fear of travelling to play the Tigers – as mentioned they have won five of their past six away games against their Western Sydney rivals.

Only two of the past eight clashes between these sides have been decided by 12 points are less so don’t count on this necessarily being a close one.

Conclusion: Given the form of each side the Tigers will start deserved favourites and have more to play for this weekend. The Eels have the troops to trouble the Tigers if they finally click and put in a good 80-minute performance so they can’t be discounted. However, if Benji and co. get on a roll then this could get ugly for the blue-and-golds.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Henry Perenara; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.