Eels v Bulldogs preview

Parramatta Eels v Canterbury Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Having slipped up against one western Sydney rival the Eels will be hoping for better fortune – and definitely a better start – when they take on another neighbour at rugby league HQ on Friday night.

The game is classified as a home clash for the Eels – but it’s being played at the Bulldogs’ home ground! Coach Stephen Kearney will be hoping that technicality will override the dark cloud hanging over his side’s efforts away from Parramatta Stadium – they’ve lost 13 of their past 14 ‘away’ games.

Cellar-dwellers Parramatta continue to do it tough and already their fans are looking to next season. Captain Nathan Hindmarsh admits the semi-finals are probably already out of their equation so the best they can hope for is to add further first grade experience to their side, jag the odd win and hopefully get through the remainder of the season without long-term injuries to key players.

This week Kearney has recalled embattled halfback Chris Sandow after his one-game stint in the NSW Cup – albeit named on the interchange bench. Casey McGuire retains the No.7 in the run-on sheet. Ryan Morgan replaces Cheyse Blair at centre, with Taniela Lasalo making way for Sandow’s inclusion.

Steve Turner’s knee injury sees Tim Lafai return to the Bulldogs’ starting side in the centres, with Jonathan Wright covering for Turner on the wing. Martin Taupau forms their five-man interchange.

Bulldogs fans know their players need to make a statement here after losing four of their past five games including their most recent three in succession. They have faced stiff competition over the past fortnight, falling narrowly to the Storm and Sea Eagles and now sit sixth on the ladder; here they get the chance to exercise their brilliant attack.

It’s a big week for Eels veteran Luke Burt – he’s playing his 250th NRL game and needs just one goal to become only the 10th player in history to kick 600 goals for the one club. Legend Mick Cronin (865) is the only other Eel to do so, with Andrew Johns (917) topping the all-time list.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta need to retain defensive focus even when they have the Bulldogs pegged inside their own half – Canterbury have scored more tries from over halfway than any side (four), while the Eels are guilty of letting in the equal most (also four). That statistics combination spells danger.

All manner of attacking kicks continue to bamboozle the Eels, who have now leaked the most four-pointers to the boot (11) – including three to the Wests Tigers. Grubbers are a particular weakness, with Beau Ryan and Ben Murdoch-Masila capitalising last week. The Bulldogs have scored just four tries to kicks but expect more of a focus here. Bryson Goodwin scored against the Sea Eagles last week off a deft Kris Keating left-footer behind the defence and he’ll look to strike again when he glimpses fullback Jarryd Hayne and winger Ken Sio even remotely out of position when the Bulldogs are advancing around 30 metres out.

Danger Sign: Des Hasler will look to shred the Eels’ paper-thin right-side defence which has conceded 16 tries to date – the most in the comp. Centre Josh Morris (five tries, 129 metres average) will look to inject often, as will fullback Ben Barba. Ball-playing back-rower Frank Pritchard could have a field day on the left edge, either setting up supports (10 offloads, three try assists) or going himself (three line-breaks). If Pritchard gets involved often you’ll know the ’Dogs are going to keep hitting the left.   

Watch Out Bulldogs: Desperation may have been the catalyst but at least the Eels showed what they are capable of with five tries against the Tigers in the final 13 minutes last week. Significantly they kept hitting the right side, scoring four times including three by the right corner post. It’s the favoured side for Jarryd Hayne to spiral his cut-outs, so Josh Morris and Bryson Goodwin need to be alert.

The Bulldogs’ kick chase needs to be dedicated – incredibly, for a side running last, Parramatta boast the most line-breaks from a kick return (four).

Former Eel Ben Roberts will be primed for a huge game after a horror afternoon against the Tigers. Roberts was probably guilty of trying too hard – he made a bad defensive error when rushing up on Liam Fulton and also threw a monumentally forward pass when a scoring chance presented. There’s no doubting his creativity – he has been an even more crucial attacking contributor than Jarryd Hayne, leading his side for try assists (four) and line-break assists (six). He has also made three line-breaks.

Danger Sign: Roberts will look for a staggered defensive line before unleashing his lightning-fast sidestep and accelerating away. He makes three tackle busts every game and can really provide a springboard for his side here.

Jarryd Hayne v Ben Barba: Two superstar fullbacks whose efforts on the night will go a long way to securing their side the win.

Even hampered by a niggling injury Hayne has been dynamic in a side in poor form. He’s averaging 161 metres a game and has a better strike-rate for line-breaks than any No.1, with seven tallied from five games. Also, he’s crossed for a try a game and ranks third for offloads by a fullback (with 10). The ’Dogs will really need to watch him when he sneaks in at first or second receiver inside their 20-metre zone – it doesn’t matter how ‘collared’ he appears to be he can still find a way to get over the try line, as shown by his telescopic reach for the stripe last week.

Meanwhile Barba will be eyeing a breakout game against the defensively weak Eels after showing up the defensively strong Sea Eagles out wide last week. The diminutive No.1 ranks second to benchmark custodian Billy Slater for line-breaks (with seven) and leads the way for offloads (12). He’s averaging 136 metres. If the Eels don’t pull him to ground within a few strides he’ll wind up and make them pay from anywhere on the field.

Where It Will Be Won: Defending the attacking plays. The Eels improved their offensive stats dramatically with their late five-try flurry last week, jumping to an average of 3.8 line-breaks a game (the Bulldogs average a middle-of-the-table 4.2). But when it comes to repelling raids the Bulldogs have an overwhelming edge: they concede the second-fewest line-breaks in the comp (3.1) while the Eels concede the second most (5.1).

The History: Played 130; Bulldogs 68, Eels 57, drawn 5. The Eels have won five of the past eight clashes – although the Bulldogs won both matches played last year (which were both played at ANZ Stadium). Those victories saw them draw level for wins at Homebush, with eight apiece over their history.

The Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs defeated the Eels 8-7 in golden point at ANZ Stadium in Round 20 last year.

In a tense tussle the Bulldogs led 6-nil at the break courtesy of a try to Josh Reynolds, the interchange breaking the Eels open from dummy-half in the 29th minute then backing up playmaker Trent Hodkinson to sprint over unopposed to complete a 50-metre passage of play.

Jarryd Hayne got the Eels back into the contest 10 minutes after the break when he scored against the run of play – Hayne intercepted a Ben Roberts pass after the Bulldogs five-eighth looked to mount a right-side sweep from a scrum 10 metres out from the Parramatta try line.

Hayne edged the Eels ahead 7-6 five minutes before the 80-minute siren when he snapped a field-goal from 20 metres out in front of the goalposts, then Hodkinson squared the ledger with a one-pointer with 150 seconds of normal play remaining.

Hodkinson became the Bulldogs’ hero in the seventh minute of extra time when he potted the decider from 42 metres out on the last tackle.

The sides competed with considerable skill given the rainy and heavy conditions – in fact the Eels edged their opponents for completions (85 per cent to 79 per cent).

Aiden Tolman was a colossus in the blue and white, carving out 132 metres and making a phenomenal 63 tackles – ditto the Eels’ Tim Mannah who made 23 hit-ups and tallied 223 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: Let-down after their much-hyped clash with the Sea Eagles is the only thing that could possibly undo the Bulldogs here. They won’t offer the Eels the simple chances the clocked-off Tigers did last week. Bulldogs by 12 points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats