Eels v Sea Eagles preview

Parramatta Eels v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm (AEDT)

Crisis talks to rake through the still-glowing coals of the Eels’ worst start to a season in 21 years is not the preparation embattled coach Stephen Kearney would have planned in the lead-up to this week’s Heritage Round clash with the reigning premiers who are looking to arrest a two-match losing streak of their own.

Parramatta players suffered the indignity of being booed and having coins pelted at them as they spiralled to their fourth consecutive defeat at home base last Friday, with opponent Penrith running out easy seven-tries-to-one victors.

The statistics reveal their horror story: Parramatta are ranked last for points and tries scored, metres gained, line-breaks, offloads and tackle-breaks. In defensive categories they concede the most points, tries and line-breaks. The only areas they’re not rock bottom are metres, offloads conceded and missed tackles (each second most), plus errors (surprisingly, the seventh fewest per game).

That last statistic is most telling: they can hang onto the ball… they just don’t know what to do with it.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles are looking to bounce back from their 17-6 defeat to the Dragons in a high-quality contest at Kogarah last Saturday, when the visitors completed their sets at an impressive 81 per cent and made just 10 errors but found themselves swamped by a hard-running and creative Dragons outfit that completed their sets at a whopping 87 per cent.

There’s no question they missed the firepower of second-rower Tony Williams – but they better find an alternative weapon quickly given he’s missing for six more games. Clearly they’re also missing Steve Matai and Glenn Stewart, with their attack stats stalling and missed tackles a concern.

In personnel changes, Jarryd Hayne is back in the No.1 for the Eels this week – Hayne says he’s not fully fit but his troublesome knee is “playable”. He replaces Ken Sio who shifts to the left wing with veteran Luke Burt dropped to NSW Cup. Esi Tonga replaces Ryan Morgan in the centres, partnering his brother Willie. The remainder of the 17 is unchanged from last week.

Meanwhile Geoff Toovey has named an unchanged Manly line-up.

Watch Out Eels: The Panthers exposed a flimsy Eels right-edge defence last week, running in six of seven tries there. In particular right winger Cheyse Blair had a horror night, while fill-in fullback Ken Sio also put in a shocker. The Eels have now conceded 12 tries on the right side of the field, easily the most by any team – and this week they come up against the side that crossed for more four-pointers (49) through their left-side attack than any team in 2011. Admittedly their numbers are down (six of 12 scored) over the first four weeks but that’s because they’re still finding their way without the retired Michael Robertson and injured Steve Matai. That said left winger Michael Oldfield did bag a double against the Sharks a fortnight ago so expect Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran, Brett Stewart and Jamie Buhrer to head left often and with urgency.  

But Manly pose a threat on the right side too, with co-skipper Jamie Lyon hitting his straps with a line-break, two try assists (one last week) and two line-break assists to date. His partnership with winger David Williams (two line-breaks) can wreak havoc.

Danger Sign: Five-eighth Kieran Foran will be looking to exploit a weak opposition to gain some much-needed form. Foran has been solid if unspectacular to date and will be focused on getting his hands on the football as much as possible to take advantage of the plethora of scoring opportunities that should present themselves. Any time he appears at first or second receiver inside the Eels’ 20-metre zone he’ll be eying an opportunity himself or else looking to catch out Reni Maitua (4.5 misses a game) and Chris Sandow (17 misses in total).   

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Honestly? Complacency and a fired-up opponent are Manly’s only concerns. We’re not sure what’s going on with the premiers’ defensive structures but they’re missing as many tackles per game as the Eels (36) – an increase of six misses per match and a plummet in the ratings from third-most effective to equal-second-least!

Jarryd Hayne’s return gives the Eels a glimmer of hope but whether he can deliver the huge impact required to guide the side out of their attacking wilderness remains to be seen.

Danger Sign: If the Parramatta faithful give their boys one more chance this week and the Eels players respond, Manly could find themselves having to weather an early onslaught. We’ve seen it time and again over the years.

Chris Sandow v Daly Cherry-Evans: Whoever comes out on top in this head-to-head battle will likely direct his side to victory. Sandow is doing it all for the Eels in attack, with three tries, three line-break assists, two try assists and two offloads – but he needs to run the football more. Currently Sandow takes on the line just 3.5 times a game for a 20-metre return, the second fewest runs made by all No.7s and way down on his six runs a game for 63 metres last season. Meanwhile Cherry-Evans continues to run at every opportunity, his 8.2 runs per game and 18 tackle busts each the most by a halfback.

If Sandow gets more time to create opportunities he’ll deliver some scoring plays; similarly Cherry-Evans will be looking forward to challenging a defensive line that’s proven brittle to date.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. If maligned Eels including Justin Poore, Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi put their bodies on the line and get over the advantage line often in the opening 20 minutes, the team completes their sets and Chris Sandow takes control, seizing the advantage is not out of the question. Whether or not they have enough petrol to last the journey is another matter…

By the same token Manly’s engine room needs to show it can take control of an opposition after being dominated in the past fortnight. Anthony Watmough is the only member of their forward pack averaging triple figures in metres gained (114). Props Brent Kite (81 metres), co-captain Jason King (97) and Darcy Lussick (77) need to lift.

The History: Played 126; Sea Eagles 78, Eels 44, drawn 4. Manly have won six of the past eight but lost both clashes played in 2010. The visitors hold a 10-8 advantage in games played at Parramatta Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: An opportunistic Steve Matai try double spearheaded the Sea Eagles to a 26-10 victory at Parramatta Stadium in Round 23 last year.

The Eels took the early lead when Chris Hicks crossed in the 18th minute, scooping up a wayward pass from Steve Matai out of dummy-half, before Jamie Lyon and Daly Cherry-Evans combined down the right edge for the No.7 to score. The Eels went to the sheds up 14-6 courtesy of a Ryan Morgan try in the left corner after a slick backline sweep.

But nine errors and a woeful 58 per cent completion rate in the second half handed the momentum to the Sea Eagles.

Matai scored his double inside the first 10 minutes of the second stanza; his first came when he swooped on an errant pass from dummy-half Jarryd Hayne just a few metres out from his goal line, and his second came when he pounced following a series of Chris Hicks fumbles fielding a kick near his try line.

A showcase of rugby league it wasn’t, and fans will be hoping for better in this return clash.     

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Jason Walsh; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: We wish we could find positives to offer Eels fans but on exposed form they are clearly outclassed. Even though we know they’re going to come out full of fire and brimstone we can’t see them adding the required flair to the passion to get the job done.

It’s difficult to assess the impact the 2000 square metres of new turf laid after last week’s game will have but given a ‘level’ playing surface we tip the Sea Eagles by eight points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

    Statistics: NRL Stats