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Parramatta Eels v Melbourne Storm
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Melbourne’s alarming mid-season mini-slump has provided wooden-spoon favourites Parramatta with a glimmer of hope they can get the job done at home on Saturday night – but down on troops, form and confidence the Eels will need to pull out a season-best performance to prevail.

Three straight defeats, the latest a 20-16 loss to the Cowboys at home, have the wheels wobbling a little on the Storm’s premiership wagon. Firm favourites for the minor premiership entering July, the margin between Melbourne and the Bulldogs at the top of the ladder is now just a slender 13 points on for-and-against. Coach Craig Bellamy has never given his team a losing spray four weeks running, so the chances are they’ll be stung into action here.

Meanwhile the Eels competed well for 46 minutes of their clash with now co-leaders Canterbury last Friday night, trailing just 16-12 before the blue and whites hit the afterburners to speed away 32-12 winners. The loss was their fourth from their past five games and the third time this season they’ve lost at least three in a row.

With no chance of making the finals, the Eels are now left to battle for the spoon with fellow western Sydney strugglers Penrith, who sit just one win ahead of them in 15th place.

With Jarryd Hayne still on the injured list Parramatta coach Stephen Kearney has placed his faith in Jake Mullaney to again fill the No.1 jersey – the rookie was a late withdrawal last week and his inclusion pushes Luke Burt back to the wing, with Cheyse Blair dropping out of the squad. Joseph Paulo is the new starting five-eighth for Luke Kelly, who is out for the remainder of the season, while Ben Smith returns from his one-week suspension alongside Nathan Hindmarsh in the second row, with Matt Ryan benched.

Meanwhile the Storm have made just the one cosmetic tweak to their squad, with Sika Manu to start in the second row and Kevin Proctor reverting to the interchange.  

Watch Out Eels: Melbourne average more tries (4.5) and points (24.5) each week than any team while Parramatta concede the most tries (4.9) and points (28.1). Put simply, they are worlds apart in attack and defence.

It’s odds-on that Cooper Cronk’s boot will result in tries for the Storm – through 17 games Melbourne have scored the most tries off kicks (19) while the Eels have leaked the second-most tries off the boot (19). In particular the Eels’ wingers can expect a peppering given they have defused cross-field bombs at a lowly 39 per cent (second-worst rate in the league).

Danger Sign: If the Storm get a result on the left side of the field early in proceedings it could be a landslide in the making – the Eels have surrendered a whopping 39 tries on their right edge. That’s more than two tries every game!

Watch Out Storm: He might be under the pump but there’s no doubt Chris Sandow is capable of crafting a rush of points for the home side. It was Sandow’s half-break and offload that led to Ryan Morgan’s try against the Bulldogs last week and coach Stephen Kearney will have spent the past week building him up for his head-to-head clash with Cooper Cronk.

Offloads from Parramatta back-rowers Nathan Hindmarsh (20) and Matt Ryan (17) will need to be contained.

Ben Roberts’ priority coming off the bench will be to create opportunities. Unable to get a look-in as the starting five-eighth due to his poor defence and high error rate, Roberts is nonetheless a dangerous customer with the ball in hand who will look to stretch the Eels on the fringes. He has seven line-break assists and five try assists to date.

Danger Sign: He was knocked senseless by Sam Kasiano in the early exchanges last week but if Fuifui Moimoi is allowed to get up a head of steam he can really hurt the Storm. The last time these sides met he was unstoppable, running a staggering 25 times and accumulating 242 running metres in 54 minutes of game time.      

Joseph Paulo v Rory Kostjasyn: Two fill-in five-eighths who will be relied on to spark their team’s attacks. More at home in the back row Paulo has shown a dash of flair as a playmaker, with his 19 offloads just one fewer than the team-high mark set by Hindmarsh. He will look to run to the line at every opportunity, having equalled his career high for runs last round (20), while he should offer some backbone in defence (average 29 tackles). Meanwhile Kostjasyn, with 11 games under his belt, will be keen to get off his duck egg in the try assists, line-break assists and line-breaks categories up against an opponent playing out of position.

Where It Will Be Won: Class. The Storm may be without Billy Slater but the Eels are missing Jarryd Hayne, no player has made the No.6 jersey their own and Chris Sandow continues to flounder in the No.7.    

The History: Played 25; Storm 15, Eels 5. Parramatta have a surprisingly good record against the Storm at Parramatta Stadium, winning six of 12 games. However Melbourne have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides.  

The Last Time They Met: The Storm dug deep to overcome an 18-nil deficit midway through the second half to defeat the Eels 22-18 at Parramatta Stadium in Round 21 last year.

A Luke Burt penalty goal kicked off the scoring in the 15th minute before Reni Maitua showed great finishing skill to cross in the left corner in the 23rd minute, the try converted for an 8-nil scoreline the sides would take to the halftime break.  

The home fans sensed an upset might be on the cards when Taniela Lasalo pounced on a spilled Jarryd Hayne bomb for a 14-nil scoreline just three minutes after the resumption of play, with two penalty goals leaving the home side with what appeared to be a match-winning 18-point lead with just 29 minutes remaining.

However, the Storm flicked the switch on their attack, reeling off four unanswered tries in the final 16 minutes to steal a memorable win.

First Sisa Waqa scored after a Billy Slater tap-back of a Cooper Cronk bomb, before Slater grabbed a Cameron Smith grubber kick in the in-goal to make it 18-12 with 20 minutes remaining.

Justin O’Neill added to the Storm’s tally when he streaked 60 metres down the right touchline to score, although Smith’s failed conversion attempt left the decidedly shaky Eels clinging to an 18-16 lead with 15 minutes to play.

Although the Eels defended bravely there was no stopping the Storm, with Dane Nielsen charging through a gap on the left edge and running around adjacent to the goalposts for the match-winning try.

Slater proved the difference on the evening, with the soon-to-be Dally M Medal winner scoring a try and providing two try assists.

Fuifui Moimoi had a rousing game for the Eels, making 25 hit-ups and a whopping 242 running metres.

Parramatta dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard – they completed their sets 85 per cent to 77 per cent, made more metres (1604 to 1322) and missed 10 fewer tackles than their opponents (21-31).

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: Melbourne have never lost four games in a row under Craig Bellamy. We don’t expect that unwanted milestone to rear its ugly head here. Storm by 12 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 9.20pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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