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Parramatta Eels v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Parramatta Stadium
Monday 7pm

Will Parramatta’s season of misery continue or will they throw a curve ball at the premiership prospects of the resurgent Sharks on Monday night?

Just when Eels fans thought their team was in for a slice of luck last week the Dragons thrust a sword through their hopeful hearts with a last-ditch try to steal victory. The script had an all-too-familiar ring to it: good effort, no return. And it gets worse this week; battling to keep pace with even the lowest teams on the NRL ladder, a loss to the Sharks would see them cast further adrift at the bottom of the table and firm into odds-on favourites for this year’s wooden spoon.

Parra’s loss to the Dragons was their sixth in a row, with their Round 5 win over premiers Manly their only credit to date. They are four competition points behind second-last Penrith, but are guaranteed to tread water at best given the Panthers have their first bye this week.

Compounding the Eels’ woes is a season-ending pectoral injury to five-eighth Casey McGuire.

Meanwhile, after a stirring victory over the Storm in Round 10 minus skipper Paul Gallen, the Sharks discovered heading into battle without both Gallen and Todd Carney is a bridge too far for them: with their star duo in Origin camp the Bulldogs took a chunk out of Cronulla’s momentum with a 26-6 win in Round 11. They rested up with the bye last week and enter this game in equal second place on the ladder, alongside the Broncos and Rabbitohs on 18 points.

In Parramatta team changes, Casey McGuire’s injury sees Ben Roberts return in the No.6 after a stint in the NSW Cup. Reni Maitua hits the pine after missing last week’s game, with Justin Horo dropping out of the 17.

Meanwhile the return of NSW representatives Gallen and Carney sees Shane Flanagan reshuffle the side that fell to the Bulldogs. Carney displaces Wade Graham, who shifts to the interchange bench, while Gallen trumps Jeremy Smith at lock, with Smith reverting back to the second row and bumping Sam Tagataese to the pine.

It’s a huge week for Sharks journeyman John Morris, who suits up for his 250th NRL game against one of his former teams.

The Eels will be out to maintain their record of winning every Round 13 fixture since 2007.  

Watch Out Eels: Todd Carney may let the ball ‘sing’ this week, with plenty of early service to his outside men, given the Eels have had more tries scored against them from over halfway than any team (10), as well as the most from 21-50 metres (14). Ben Pomeroy and Colin Best are the strongest-running centre pairing in the NRL, combining for 76 tackle busts so far – they’ll test out the shaky Eels defence on both sides of the field.

If the Eels relax in the lead-up to this home clash, thinking Parramatta Stadium will provide them with an advantage, they’d better think again: Cronulla have racked up their most points away from home since 2004, registering an impressive 21.5 points every away game in 2012.

Their try-scoring stats are a sign of how well the Sharks are combining in attack; while other teams rely on one or two players to finish off their attacking plays, nine members of this week’s Sharks team have crossed for two or more tries. Their threat is spread across the park.

Danger Sign: Any time Todd Carney and Jeff Robson direct traffic down the right edge. The Sharks favour the right side of the field, scoring 18 tries so far. Meanwhile the Eels have leaked 24 tries through their left-side defence.

Watch Out Sharks: If the Eels keep the pressure up to the Sharks and force them into error they can seize control. While the Sharks’ attacking stats are phenomenal their handling and execution are leaving plenty to be desired: they make the most errors in the comp (12.5 a game).

Ben Roberts may have been dropped to NSW Cup a few weeks ago but he is one of the few Eels who can trouble the Sharks with the ball in hand. Roberts has contributed six line-break assists and four try assists in nine games. A former New Zealand representative, he’ll be switched on for his assignment with Carney.

Second-rower Matt Ryan will be out to build on his impressive first three games in the NRL. Already he’s added huge impact, with two tries, three line-breaks, 16 tackle-breaks and two line-break assists.

If the game is close the Sharks need to be prepared for the Eels to throw everything at them in the final 20 minutes – Parra lead the comp in line-breaks recorded in the final quarters so far (23).

Danger Sign: Just like every week, the Eels’ hopes hinge on the input of Jarryd Hayne. He was in the thick of the action last week, making 18 runs and six tackle-breaks. Back in Round 7 he did everything he could to spark the Eels against the Sharks, making a game-high 25 runs, 235 metres, five tackle-breaks, five offloads and two line-breaks. Watch his body language early: if it’s positive, the whole team will lift.

Fuifui Moimoi v Andrew Fifita: At his best Moimoi is a wrecking ball who can get the Sharks back-pedalling fast, and often. He’s been a little down on impact so far but is nudging triple figures in metres and will relish the chance to take it to the big Sharks pack. Fifita has really come of age since joining the Sharks: he has topped 100 metres in his past two games and is terrorising opponents with his fierce charges. He made a whopping 11 tackle busts against the Storm three weeks ago and is averaging 23 tackles in 33 minutes of game time. He’ll enjoy ripping in against the team that has conceded the most metres each week (1440).

Where It Will Be Won: Offloads – the Sharks rank second for second-phase play (14 offloads per game) while the Eels rank last for stopping teams from offloading, conceding 13.5 a game. Parra need to find a way to shut down the ball carrier or they’ll pay on the scoreboard, big time.   

The History: Played 75; Sharks 40, Eels 35. The Sharks have been victorious six of the past eight clashes and incredibly they hold a 12-8 advantage over the Eels at Parramatta Stadium. However, the Eels were runaway winners (40-6) the last time they played at the venue in Round 11 last season.

The Last Time They Met: The Sharks defeated the Eels 24-18 in a thrilling showdown at Toyota Stadium in Round 7.

The Eels drew first blood when Jarryd Hayne sidestepped through the Sharks’ right-side defence in the fifth minute for a 6-nil lead. But three Sharks tries in less than 10 minutes (two from kicks) left the home side with a commanding 18-6 lead at the 24th minute, an advantage they would take to the halftime break.

The second half produced end-to-end action but just six points on the scoreboard – with Stewart Mills scoring the match-winner for the Sharks in the 48th minute off a Todd Carney left-to-right torpedo pass.  

It was a bitter pill for Eels fans to swallow: their side made 21 runs more than the opposition and managed 133 metres more territory but couldn’t transfer the advantage to points.

Interchange Wade Graham had his best game in Sharks colours, running for 175 metres with an offload and a line-break, while Carney (two try assists) and Paul Gallen (202 metres) starred also.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.

The Way We See It: It’s reached that nervous stage of a season that diehard Sharks fans know only too well. Cronulla have been impressive, but an upset defeat here would be their third loss in their past four outings, enough to get everyone at the Shire reaching for the worry beads. However, Parramatta simply don’t look to have the firepower or the consistency to trouble the Sharks for the full 80 minutes. An upset would not surprise, but we have to go with our heads here. Cronulla by eight points.   

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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