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Eels v Broncos
Parramatta Stadium
Friday 7.40pm (AEDT)

It has been nine long years since Brisbane ventured south to Sydney to start a premiership campaign – and you can bet the new-look Eels, with all eyes on big-bucks recruit Chris Sandow at halfback, will be out to remind the visitors what they haven’t been missing.

Adding to the Broncos’ assignment is the fact they haven’t beaten Parramatta without Darren Lockyer in their ranks since June 2004. That’s some significant, unspoken pressure on the shoulders of Corey Norman who has been given first dibs on the famous No.6 jersey for the opening rounds of the premiership ahead of bench utility Ben Hunt.

It will be a tough ask though: the sensation in the lead-up to this clash is the unavailability of Eels star Jarryd Hayne who has failed to recover from the knee ligament strain he suffered in the side’s trial against the Panthers a fortnight ago. Hayne’s absence, along with the injury to Kangaroos tourist Willie Tonga (hamstring) leaves the Eels’ backline horribly exposed. Luke Burt (fullback) is virtually the sole familiar Eels face, with Ken Sio set to notch just his second NRL game on one wing while Australian Schoolboys rep Cheyse Blair will debut on the other flank. The new centre pairing of Ryan Morgan and Esi Tonga boasts 50 NRL games between them. New addition Ben Roberts partners Sandow in the halves.  

Eels coach Stephen Kearney will be desperate for an improved performance after the gold-and-blues showed ring-rustiness in their two trial matches – losing 20-12 to the Wests Tigers without several key figures including Hayne before a 26-10 defeat to Penrith a fortnight ago. Prop Tim Mannah also sustained a knee injury in their last trial although he has been passed fit and will start the game alongside Mitchell Allgood; Fuifui Moimoi and Justin Poore will be injected off the interchange bench.

Meanwhile the Broncos opened their trial account with a 28-22 victory over North Queensland almost a month ago, with Corey Norman engineering a comeback after the understrength side trailed 18-16 at halftime. They then lost 18-16 to the Titans before falling 34-30 to the Storm in a showcase trial in Hobart a fortnight ago. That last hit-out came at a cost, with veteran prop Petero Civoniceva rubbed out for one NRL game following a high tackle on Ryan Hinchcliffe in the closing five minutes.

Consequently, coach Anthony Griffin has named captain Sam Thaiday up front to partner Ben Hannant, with Josh McGuire, Scott Anderson and Matt Gillett on the bench. This sees Ben Te’o make his return from injury in the second row. Utility Ben Hunt rounds out the 17.

Fans can expect plenty of points from the Broncos – they need 30 more to register 500 at Parramatta Stadium and are currently averaging 22 at the venue from 21 outings.

Watch Out Eels: Thaiday is the perfect choice to lead the Broncos into the post-Lockyer era and he’ll relish the call up to prop in Civoniceva’s absence. There isn’t a player in the NRL who oozes more passion and you can be certain ‘Slammin’ Sam’ will be out to lead by example. Last season the wind-him-up whirlwind led all second-rowers for runs (average 16.4) and game time (78.9 minutes) and his bruising defence (32 tackles a game) caused opponents to hesitate before half-heartedly running his way. His 116 metres a match was third behind dynamos Greg Bird and Anthony Watmough. And Thaiday is no stranger to the front row: he played six games there last year adding 97 metres and 28 tackles in 57 minutes a game. He’ll play more minutes than is usual for a prop here, which will keep the bench fresh.

Meanwhile the Eels could prove their own worst enemy: coach Kearney will need to have radically overhauled their spluttering attack over the off-season if his side is to worry the Broncos. Last season Parramatta were clumsy and clueless with the ball in hand, recording the fewest tackle-breaks (28.2) and offloads (7.8) of all teams as well as the second-fewest line-breaks (3.1).

Danger Sign: Whoever plays on the left wing for Parramatta can expect a torrid evening under the high ball – the Broncos scored more tries from kicks than any other side in 2011 (26) and the right corner was their preferred target, notching 26 tries compared to 16 on the left. One of Darren Lockyer’s and Peter Wallace’s pet plays was a bomb for enthusiastic chaser Jharal Yow Yeh; Lockyer made 12 try assists of the boot, with Wallace contributing nine. With Lockyer retired Wallace will kick high and wide more often – and he may not wait to make it a last-tackle play. The worry for the Eels is they defused just 35 per cent of cross-field bombs in 2011 – the fourth-worst record in the league.

Watch Out Broncos: Chris Sandow’s unpredictability makes him a huge threat – last year he contributed nine try assists of the boot and eight from passes, showing his versatility. He will definitely take a huge weight off their go-to man of the past few seasons Jarryd Hayne, but without Hayne this week you can be certain Sandow will try every trick in his bag to spark his new side.

Danger Sign: Last year the Eels scored a greater percentage of tries from kicks (23 of 65) than any other team. One of their pet plays is to kick across-field behind the opposition backline early in the tackle count, with their outside backs chasing hard. New halves Roberts and Sandow love to kick; if they can get their weighting right and choose the correct moment they can catch the Broncos napping.

Fuifui Moimoi v Josh McGuire: Wow: if the closing two months of 2011 are anything to go by this will be a hum-dinger of a head-to-head battle. Eels prop Moimoi led the NRL for front-row gains with 134 metres (16 runs) before a late surge by McGuire saw the Bronco snatch the mantle at season’s end with a powerful 146 metres in each of his seven games up front – with an NRL-high average 18 runs to boot. You’ll feel every crunch when these guys come off the bench.

The History: Played 43; Broncos 26, Eels 16, drawn 1. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight encounters. It’s five years since the Eels swamped the Broncos to record their biggest ever win between the sides (68-22) at Parramatta Stadium. But the visitors hold a commanding lead in matches played at the Eels’ home base (14-5) – as a result, Brisbane enjoy a greater winning percentage at Parramatta than at any other Sydney venue (71.4 per cent).

The Last Time They Met: The Broncos, with Corey Norman deputising for Darren Lockyer and with a host of other Origin stars rested, rolled the Eels 16-12 on a slippery Parramatta Stadium surface in Round 17 last year. The visitors led 6-nil at halftime and crossed again shortly after the break before a Luke Burt try-double rocketed the Eels back into calculations. Matt Gilllett scored the match-winner five minutes from time. The Eels competed strongly though, outgunning the Broncos in territory (1545 metres to 1329 metres) – but their high error count (16) let them down. Both fullbacks were outstanding, with Josh Hoffman running 186 metres and Burt running 188 metres.  

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: The Broncos enter Round 1 with a proven record as a committed, well-drilled team, whereas the Eels have more than a few points to prove to their fans. Sure the pressure is on Corey Norman in the No.6 but he has solid support around him in the spine with Josh Hoffman, Peter Wallace and Andrew McCullough. You could say the pressure is on Chris Sandow too given Hayne’s absence – and he has the potential to be a defensive liability, having missed more tackles in 2011 than any other player (138). Don’t think for one minute that will be lost on Broncos coach Anthony Griffin, with plenty of tall timber, including Sandow’s Indigenous All Stars team-mate Thaiday, likely to spot him on the edges.

With no Hayne we’ll tip the Broncos by 12 points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 9.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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