Raiders v Eels preview

Canberra Raiders v Parramatta Eels
Canberra Stadium
Sunday 2pm

Canberra may be sitting a lowly 13th on the NRL ladder but such are the woes out Parramatta way they will still start short odds-on favourites to take down the cellar-dwelling Eels in the nation’s capital.

The Raiders showed grit and substance to almost topple the premiers at their Brookvale fortress last week, with an 8-3 penalty count and the brilliance of the Manly right-edge attack seeing them fall short by just six points at the fulltime siren.

By comparison Parramatta were chewed up and spat out by a ravenous Bulldogs unit that ran in eight tries, made seven line-breaks and forced the Eels into 40 missed tackles. Worse, the Parramatta attack was for the most part impotent, tallying a combined one line-break and just 13 tackle-breaks – with not one player managing more than one tackle-break all night!

Raiders coach David Furner may be under pressure given his side’s spluttering campaign but his troubles don’t hold a candle to those of Stephen Kearney whose glum demeanour has accompanied the western Sydney club pretty much all season. It got glummer after he was targeted by unhappy Eels members at a club meeting on Tuesday night. And it could get a whole lot glummer after this.

The Raiders have stuck solid with the 17 that competed so wholeheartedly against the Sea Eagles, adding Bronson Harrison – a late withdrawal last week – to form a five-man interchange.

Meanwhile Kearney has elected to play Cheyse Blair in the centres, replacing Willie Tonga. Ben Roberts has been dumped, with Casey McGuire shifting to five-eighth and Chris Sandow promoted from the bench to become the run-on No.7. Reni Maitua’s one-week suspension sees Matt Ryan shift to lock with Joseph Paulo promoted to start in the second row. Taniela Lasalo and Taulima Tautai join the interchange.

It’s a big week for veteran Luke Burt who joins Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh, Brett Kenny and Ray Price on the 250-game mark for the Eels.

Watch Out Raiders: Slim pickings in this category, with only Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow likely to spark an upset.

There’s no doubt Hayne will provide moments of brilliance and threaten the Raiders’ line; it’s just a question of how high his team-mates lift in the process. Hayne will be most dangerous on the right side of the field, with his sidestep and jinking runs. His cut-out balls to the flanks will also pose a threat. And his offloads (10 so far) need to be contained. He leads the side for tries (five) and if he can cross the stripe early he’ll give his team-mates hope.

Danger Sign: It really is crunch time for Chris Sandow. If he can’t recapture the level of enthusiasm and involvement he had at the Rabbitohs it may not be long before Kearney loses patience with him altogether. Still, there’s hope: Sandow has made four line-break assists and three try assists – for Eels fans’ sakes let’s keep the fingers crossed he can build awareness with his outside men and they can start to pre-empt his attacking moves, especially on wide kicks.

Watch Out Eels: Attacking kicks are proving a nightmare for the Eels who have conceded an NRL-high 13 tries to the boot so far. Grubbers (just 55 per cent defused) and cross-field bombs (50 per cent) are their major weaknesses.

The Raiders remain one of four sides that haven’t scored from an offload: with prolific offloader Bronson Harrison returning that could change here. Harrison leads all back-rowers for second phase, with 15 offloads. Meanwhile team-mate David Shillington has tallied 12. Expect their offloading to increase here: the Eels have conceded both the most tries to offloads (four) and from passes (16).

Parramatta should direct their attack away from tireless Shaun Fensom – the back-rower is averaging a Canberra record 42.3 tackles in each of his 47 NRL appearances.

Danger Sign: Any time the Raiders head towards Jack Wighton and Blake Ferguson – Canberra favour the right side of the field, having scored 14 tries there, while the Eels’ left-edge defenders have conceded a whopping 20 tries to date.

Josh Dugan v Jarryd Hayne: Dugan and Hayne will be primed for huge games just hours before the NSW team for the first State of Origin game is selected.

While in the eyes of many Brett Stewart narrowly overshadowed Dugan last week the Raiders’ No.1 was still dynamic – he scored a try and made 19 runs for 160 metres with a line-break, two offloads and six tackle busts. Parramatta make the fifth-fewest metres with kicks and if that continues the Raiders will find themselves with plenty of good field position after Dugan’s selfless kick returns.

Meanwhile Hayne needs to show some urgency and remain upbeat throughout the encounter. Too often when things are going badly his body language takes on the same look – and it infects the team. If his head goes down, the team will go down.

Where It Will Be Won: Focus. The Eels need to channel their Round 5 win over Manly – on that evening Hayne made 215 metres, their wingers made almost 300 metres combined and they outgunned the premiers eight line-breaks to four. How did they do it? By completing their sets at a high 86 per cent and keeping their missed tackle sheet to a modest 20. If they can get their stats anywhere near that they’ll be competitive. Otherwise it will be a long coach trip back up the Federal Highway.

The History: Played 46; Eels 24, Raiders 22.  The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight clashes – although the Raiders hold a commanding 11-4 advantage in clashes at Canberra Stadium. Parramatta haven’t won in the nation’s capital since 2006.  

The Last Time They Met: The Raiders defeated the Eels 25-12 at Canberra Stadium in Round 16 last year.

In a fast and furious encounter the Raiders sped to a 14-nil lead at halftime courtesy of tries to halves Sam Williams (19th minute) and Josh McCrone (24th minute).

A lapse by the Raiders’ marker defenders allowed Eels hooker Matt Keating to score a soft try from dummy-half just five minutes into the second half before the home side extended their lead when fullback Nathan Massey cashed in on a long-range movement to make it 18-6 with half an hour remaining.

The Eels were given a sniff when Ben Smith crossed on the right edge in the 65th minute before Josh McCrone booted one of the more unusual field-goals in rugby league history, kicking into the back of opponent Matt Keating and happily watching as the ball rebounded up and over the crossbar.

The night’s scoring was complete when Sam Williams charged down an attempted clearing kick from Jarryd Hayne on halfway, then soccer-booted the ball into the in-goal and won the chase.

The Raiders were tough to contain all evening – eight of their 17 players made more than 100 metres and all up the team tallied a whopping 1.6 kilometres of territory.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: We know Stephen Kearney had good reason to drop Ben Roberts but the blunt truth is that without him, and with Hayne and Sandow their only ‘bullets’, the Eels will struggle to mount sustained attack. The Raiders looked sharp against Manly last week; even a slight dip on that effort will be good enough to secure the win. Raiders by 12 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats