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Parramatta Eels v Penrith Panthers
Parramatta Stadium
Friday 7.30pm (AEDT)

There was certainly an air of anticipation surrounding the prospective fortunes of rivals Parramatta and Penrith before the 2012 season kicked off, yet just three rounds into the competition it seems there is very little to crow about in Sydney’s western suburbs. Some might even call it a crisis.

One win from six games between them is hardly the start either club had in mind when they were preparing for what this year might bring and in the case of Parramatta in particular – who started the year with a tough loss and have gone downhill from there – it is already a case of do or die.

Their performance in going down to North Queensland 42-6 last Saturday night was diabolical and it is little wonder that a coach nobody suspected of being under such intense pressure just yet is suddenly fixed firmly in the cross-hairs.

Stephen Kearney is rated highly by the club’s board and from all reports he and his team are working wonders in regards to junior development structures, but there is only so long that woeful NRL performances can be tolerated. The Eels don’t need to storm their way to a premiership any time soon, but they do need some wins. Starting now.

Penrith at least appear to be a work in progress in the sense that there are clear signs that they are making some. Despite going down to South Sydney last Sunday, they impressed in shutting out the Roosters in Round 2 and pushed the undefeated Bulldogs all the way in their season opener. It will take some time for new coach Ivan Cleary to truly make his mark but the potential for improvement is there. That said, they won’t want to fall to a 1-3 start in 2012 and if there is one thing they can expect this Friday it is an Eels outfit determined to make amends for their embarrassing showing against North Queensland. There will be no 40-point margins in this one.

There remain some injury concerns for both sides, with Parramatta sorely missing the brilliance of fullback Jarryd Hayne whose exact return date from a knee injury remains somewhat of a mystery.

They were also without impact forward Fuifui Moimoi last weekend while halfback Chris Sandow limped off late in the game with a leg injury. The Eels can’t afford to be without any of those three.

Penrith was dealt a huge blow in their opening-round loss to Canterbury with electrifying winger Michael Gordon breaking his ankle, while heavy hitter Nigel Plum (shoulder) and speedster David Simmons (concussion) are also unavailable.

Parramatta has at least received a boost with the news that Moimoi has been cleared to return from the knee injury that sidelined him last week. The Panthers, meanwhile, welcome back prop Tim Grant who ran for a career-best 202 metres against Canterbury in Round 1, with Dayne Weston dropping back to the bench. Cleary has named a six-man interchange for this clash, including promising young prop Mitch Achurch. 

This will be the 300th game the Eels have played at Parramatta Stadium since it opened in 1986 (for 166 wins) while they will make it 300 tries scored against the Panthers should they manage to cross the stripe four times.
Parramatta haven’t lost their opening four matches of a season since 1991.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta have been accused of playing dull and unimaginative football this season but they’ll want to be wary of dropping too much football against a Panthers side that loves broken play situations. Penrith have scored three tries already in 2012 directly from opposition turnovers – more than any other club – and will be sweating on similar opportunities against the Eels.

Danger Sign: The Eels have clocked fewer running metres than any other team in the NRL this season with just 3510 metres gained at 1170 per game – a sure sign that their forwards are struggling. In fact, with Fuifui Moimoi out injured last week, Tim Mannah was the only Parramatta forward to make more than 100 metres (134). That poor showing saw Justin Poore run for a miserly 29 metres, Nathan Hindmarsh 50 and Taniela Lasalo 24. Needless to say, a similar showing this week will bring a similar result.

Watch Out Panthers: Chris Sandow remains the Eels’ one X-factor in attack. Despite an uncharacteristically poor game against North Queensland (in which he wasn’t alone), Sandow has scored three of his side’s six tries in 2012 and has certainly looked the most likely to spark something in all three games. His tries have included a clever grubber in the rain against Brisbane that saw him pounce on a Brisbane error, an opportunistic effort from a Warriors mistake in Round 2 and a solo effort, also against the Warriors, in which he sliced through to score. He is the man Penrith must keep an eye on.

Danger Sign: Discipline has been a concern for the Panthers over the opening three rounds, with 21 penalties conceded. Their 20 penalties conceded in defence are the second worst in the NRL behind the Bulldogs.

Kevin Kingston v Matt Keating: Had fate worked out a little differently, Kevin Kingston could still find himself wearing a blue-and-gold jersey. A member of the Eels’ 2009 grand final side, he was the victim of salary cap pressures around the same time that fellow hooker Matt Keating was being signed to a new two-year deal, and moved across to Penrith instead. 

The irony is that the pair had worked so well together in that 2009 season, with Keating laying a solid foundation and Kingston providing some attacking impetus off the bench. No doubt the Panthers’ hooker still lifts each time he faces his former club and he will again be keen to show that they let the wrong No.9 go. 

Keating also has plenty to play for after a slow start to the year – a good showing here could be just what each needs to lift their teams heading into the meat of the season.

Where It Will Be Won: The old adage is that every game of footy is won in the forwards – but this could well be a case of the side that uses the ball best prevailing. Parramatta have struggled to score points over the past 18 months and scored just a single try in losses to Brisbane and North Queensland. 

Conversely, the Panthers boast plenty of weapons out wide in the shape of Michael Jennings, Lachlan Coote and Brad Tighe and have scored 56 points in their three games so far. However, they have also leaked plenty and if the Eels’ attack is ever going to click into gear this could be their opportunity. 

The History: Played 83; Eels 51, Panthers 31, drawn 1. Five of the past seven games between Penrith and the Eels have been decided by eight points or less. If a recent trend continues, Parramatta will be on their way to a much-needed win: in their past 10 clashes each side has swapped two wins at a time, with Penrith winnings both games in 2006, Parramatta the next two, then the Panthers again, and so on.

The Last Time They Met: Penrith pulled off a rugby league miracle to secure a 23-22 win over their old rivals. Trailing 22-16 with just seconds remaining, the Panthers threw the ball from side to side in a desperate bid to level the scores. Incredibly, when the ball finally made its way out to Michael Jennings on the left edge, he managed to weave his way past three defenders before putting in a short grubber that fullback Lachlan Coote managed to pounce upon for the try.  Travis Burns slotted home the conversion to send the game into extra time, but even then the drama wasn’t over. With luck clearly not going Parramatta’s way, a Luke Burt field-goal attempt cruelly struck the upright before Luke Walsh secured victory for the Panthers with a field-goal of his own.

Earlier, Penrith were forced to come from behind on three separate occasions to stay in touch with the Eels, who led 16-10 after Reni Maitua crossed in the 52nd minute (with David Simmons leveling the scores in the 62nd minute after a Lachlan Coote break) and 22-16 when Casey McGuire crossed in the 71st.

Coote was inspirational for the home side – scoring a try from a Walsh kick shortly before half-time and pulling off a huge hit on Etu Uaisele in the second half to force the ball free before picking up the scraps and sending Simmons over.

There were some phenomenal individual performances across the park – Kevin Kingston notched a massive 65 tackles for Penrith while Parramatta captain Nathan Hindmarsh put in a typically Herculean performance with 68 tackles and 134 metres in his 300th NRL game. Luke Burt ran for 203 metres for the Eels.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds. 

The Way We See It: This is Parramatta’s best chance to break their duck in 2012 against a Panthers outfit still finding their feet and with some injury concerns that are sure to test their depth. However, without Jarryd Hayne and a fitness cloud also hovering over Chris Sandow, it’s hard to see where the Eels can find enough points to trouble too many opponents. If they are going to win it will be with their defence. Unfortunately, it is simply impossible to tip them with any confidence given their form over the early rounds including last week’s capitulation. They’ll be better this Friday night but whether that’s enough to gain the win remains to be seen. For now at least, Penrith deserve favouritism in this one. The Panthers by four points.

Televised:  Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.45pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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