Broncos v Eels preview

Brisbane Broncos v Parramatta Eels
Suncorp Stadium
Monday 7pm

Injuries and suspension – not to mention a late spurt of pride in the Parramatta jersey – have cast a cloud over the Broncos’ hopes of finishing in the all-important top four at the end of the scheduled rounds.

If losing to the Titans last week to fall to fifth on the NRL ladder – their third loss from their past five games – was not concern enough for coach Anthony Griffin, losing Josh Hoffman to suspension plus Justin Hodges to injury (and with doubts over the fitness of Corey Parker and Corey Norman) has left the mentor with just a patched-up unit to keep them on course.

Having methodically worked their way through the draw, suddenly the Broncos look jaded and rushed. The solid defence of the opening half of the season is showing signs of stress and their attack is appearing speculative rather than organised.

Still, if ever they needed a break they probably get it in the form of this week’s opponent Parramatta, the team that is the bookies favourite for the wooden spoon. We say ‘probably’ because, in the words of Forrest Gump, they are “like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get”.

Unfortunately for former coach Stephen Kearney they were mostly soft centres on his watch; however last week they were more hard caramel, overcoming the high-flying Storm with a rejuvenated effort Craig Bellamy no doubt found difficult to swallow.

That was the Eels players’ gift to Kearney in his swansong – what do they have in store for caretaker Brad Arthur from this week? Could they rally and secure their first back-to-back win since July last year? Or will they add to their miserable ‘away’ record in 2012 that currently stands at a painful 1-7. 

Josh Hoffman’s two-game suspension sees former Rabbitohs and Titans utility Luke Capewell suit up for his second game in Broncos colours, while Hodges’ injury prompts Gerard Beale’s shift to the centres. This also opens the door for rookie Aaron Whitchurch to make his second team appearance. 

Ben Hannant is slated to start at prop with Josh McGuire reverting to the extended bench, with Dunamis Lui and Brendon Gibbs the new faces, alongside Ben Te’o who was successful in having his dangerous tackle charge downgraded at the judiciary. Should Parker’s knee ligament strain rule him out at a fitness test on Sunday Te’o will be rushed into the starting 13.

With Jarryd Hayne out for the rest of the year Jake Mullaney will wear the Eels’ No.1 for the second time this season, with Willie Tonga’s injury seeing Cheyse Blair recalled to the centres.

After deputising at prop last week skipper Nathan Hindmarsh slips back to the second row with Tim Mannah to start up front. Reni Maitua drops back to lock, with Joseph Paulo benched. 

It’s a milestone week for Ben Hannant who celebrates his 150th NRL appearance. Also, Luke Burt will play his 259th game in the blue and gold, joining Nathan Cayless and Ray Price’s rung for third-most appearances for the Eels.

Watch Out Broncos: He may have come up well short of expectation in 2012 but Brisbane would be foolish to treat Eels halfback Chris Sandow lightly. Sandow can still stun an opposition with a jack-in-the-box moment – as he showed last week when surprising the Storm line defenders with a burst to set up Nathan Hindmarsh. His belated offloads (17) can cause headaches too.

Expect Nathan Hindmarsh to leave nothing in the tank in his last game in Brisbane after 15 years on the road. Hindy is averaging more than 90 metres a game and leads his side for offloads (21).

Danger Sign: Given wingers Lachlan Maranta and Aaron Whitchurch have just four NRL games between them they can expect a workout from sweeping plays as well as the high ball. Brisbane have defused cross-field bombs a lowly 61 per cent in 2012 – and that was with their more seasoned wingers on deck.

Watch Out Eels: Expect Brisbane to hammer the left edge given Parramatta have presented the weakest defence of all teams on that side of the field. The Eels have leaked 41 tries there. Chris Sandow will be targeted coming off his goal line, just as he has been all season – Sandow has missed 93 tackles, leaving him the biggest defensive liability in the competition.

Parramatta are having huge problems with motivation away from home. Unless caretaker coach Arthur has miraculously been able to deliver them something Stephen Kearney could not, they face a tough job of improving their 1-7 ‘away’ record, the equal worst in the league.

Danger Sign: If the Eels struggle to make an impression early it could set the tone for a long evening. Brisbane guard their territory more fiercely than all sides, yielding the fewest metres per game (1290); meanwhile the Eels give up the most in the NRL (1453 metres).      

Corey Norman v Ben Roberts: The flair for each side will be generated in the halves, with each team’s five-eighth sure to figure prominently. Strong-running Norman has been a resounding success succeeding Darren Lockyer in the No.6 in 2012, showing consistency in all his attacking numbers (11 try assists, 10 line-break assists, eight line-breaks and seven tries) as well as making few mistakes sizing up opportunities (just two errors all year). Meanwhile Roberts remains one of the most enigmatic players in the game but one who is capable of turning this game on its ear with his outlandish, off-the-cuff brilliance. He has contributed five try assists and seven line-break assists and will pose a huge threat grubber kicking behind the Broncos’ outside backs – especially given their likely lack of cohesion with Josh Hoffman out of the side. However he needs to watch his high error-rate (10 from 13 games).  

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. The Eels had it in bucket-loads last week but with the occasion gone, and without key playmaker Jarryd Hayne to rally them, can they pull out another top-shelf performance? Meanwhile Brisbane need to show high energy but not push their plays – their 12 errors against the Titans killed their challenge last week.    

The History: Played 44; Broncos 27, Eels 16, drawn 1. Brisbane have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides and hold an 8-4 record at Suncorp Stadium. 

The Last Time They Met: The Broncos opened their 2012 premiership campaign with a patchy 18-6 victory over the Eels at Parramatta Stadium.

Brisbane received a scare when Eels halfback Chris Sandow crossed after just four minutes, capitalising on a Gerard Beale blunder to regather his own short kick for a 6-nil lead the under-strength home side (they were missing Jarryd Hayne to injury) would protect to the halftime break. 

However, the Broncos found their groove early in the second stanza, with Jharal Yow Yeh and Peter Wallace crossing for four-pointers that saw them gain control with 22 minutes remaining. Yow Yeh’s contribution (52nd minute) finished a slick right-side sweep, while Wallace’s scoring play (59th minute) saw him regather his own grubber kick after it took a deflection off the Parramatta defenders. 

Their victory was complete when Ben Hannant charged over from close range with seven minutes remaining. 

Brisbane struggled for consistency in attack throughout the clash, completing just 68 per cent of their sets (to the Eels’ 80 per cent) and making 16 errors. Their defence kept them in the clash – they missed just 15 tackles.

Meanwhile tackle misses cost Parra dearly – they tallied 37 on the evening.

Brisbane were best served by centre Justin Hodges who made a game-high 17 runs for 134 metres, gave the final pass for Yow Yeh’s try and managed six offloads.

The Eels were given huge service by skipper Nathan Hindmarsh who added 124 metres and made 51 tackles to kick off what we would later learn was his final year in the NRL.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Peter Gough; Video Referee – Chris Ward. 

The Way We See It: If Brisbane are serious about winning the premiership they simply can’t afford to drop this game. We suspect the Eels caught lightning in a bottle last week; relieved to have handed their former coach a fitting farewell their intensity may well be several notches down this time around. And traditionally they struggle without Jarryd Hayne among their ranks. Broncos by 12 points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm. 

Statistics: NRL Stats