Parramatta Eels v Sydney Roosters
Proud Parramatta will have just one thing on their minds this weekend: dragging themselves off the bottom of the NRL ladder to dodge the dreaded wooden spoon.
The Eels’ recent resurgence, which included back-to-back wins over the Storm and Broncos, ran out of puff in Campbelltown last Monday night when they were over-run by the rampant Wests Tigers. Parra led 22-18 at halftime but had no answer to a second-half onslaught that saw them surrender 33 points. Of major concern to caretaker coach Brad Arthur were their 55 missed tackles throughout the contest.
With tough games against the Titans and Rabbitohs over the next fortnight Parramatta need to measure up here if they are to stay in touch with Penrith, who enter this round in second-last position just one win ahead on the ladder. With the halves combination of Chris Sandow and Ben Roberts springing to life in recent weeks, Arthur would be confident of a strong showing against the Roosters.
Meanwhile Brian Smith’s charges added to their up-and-down season when comfortably accounting for a lack-lustre Dragons unit at Allianz Stadium last week. With halfback Mitchell Pearce leading the way with a three-try haul, their 26-10 victory lifted them five competition points ahead of the Eels and the wooden spoon zone.
With the decision to leave their Round 26 game against the Dragons at Parramatta Stadium this clash will be the second last at Eels headquarters for 15-season veteran Nathan Hindmarsh and 14-year stalwart Luke Burt.
Parramatta have named an unchanged line-up this week, while Roosters coach Brian Smith has a few forced changes: Brad Takairangi will start in the second row for the injured Aiden Guerra, with Mitchell Aubusson shifting to the second row and Boyd Cordner moving to lock. Daniel Mortimer, Jack Bosden and Lama Tasi round out an extended bench.
Watch Out Eels: Parramatta had difficulty containing the Wests Tigers, who have managed just the second-fewest tackle-breaks by a side all year (averaging 28 per game) – so how are they going to handle the strong-running Roosters who average the most tackle busts (36 each week)?
Second-phase play will pose a massive threat to Parramatta too – the Roosters rank third in the comp for offloads with more than 12 per game, while the Eels struggle to shut down plays, conceding the second-most offloads (almost 12 per game). That’s music to the ears of the likes of Brad Takairangi and Shaun Kenny-Dowall who are contributing almost two offloads per game, plus Frank-Paul Nuuausala (27), Mitchell Pearce (26) and BJ Leilua (25).
Chris Sandow and Ben Roberts will need to be at their creative best given the Roosters lead the league for fewest metres conceded each week (1311). They need to bring all their guile to the table – even though the team scored 26 points against the Tigers their runners were only able to wring out 1119 metres all night.
Sandow needs to show some backbone in defence; he’ll definitely be targeted by Anthony Minichiello, Braith Anasta and BJ Leilua down the Eels’ right edge. He needs to be careful not to over-commit to drifting runners and leave space on his inside.
Danger Sign: Time and time again the Eels’ defenders were guilty of not ‘shutting the gate’ and lacking urgency when drifting across in cover against the Tigers last week. If they don’t show a more concerted effort to plug the holes on opposition inside runs the Roosters strong runners including Leilua, Minichiello, Kenny-Dowall and Roger Tuivase-Sheck will run amok.
Watch Out Roosters: Eels five-eighth Ben Roberts is the home team’s attacking wildcard. Although enigmatic he can dismantle even the best defence when on song via his uncanny ability to create gaps with his severe side-step, gliding body swerve and silky passes. His favoured play is to drift across the left side of the field before jolting through gaps presented by sleepy defenders, so the Roosters must advance in a straight line and present good cover as well. Roberts needs to be wrapped up early – he averages more than three tackle busts a game, including eight last week.
Nathan Hindmarsh will be pumped for this game against Brian Smith, his first coach when he entered the league in 1998. You can bet he’ll tackle himself to a standstill – even at nearly 33 years of age he still leads all second-rowers for average tackles (44), which ranks him fourth overall in the NRL.
Danger Sign: The red flag for the Roosters will be their attitude should they start making a few errors – they share the dubious distinction of sharing the most in the league alongside the Cowboys (11.6 per game).
Chris Sandow v Mitchell Pearce: Expect plenty of points given the excellent form of these talented playmakers. Sandow has caught fire over the past three weeks, running the ball with urgency and showing he’s not afraid to pepper the opposition with a variety of attacking kicks, including chip kicks. That spells trouble for the Roosters given they’ve leaked 20 tries to the boot so far. Sandow has added three try assists and two tries over the past three games.
Meanwhile Mitchell Pearce has been a prolific provider for his team-mates, with 15 try assists and 15 line-break assists – plus he’s crossed for nine tries, the second most by any halfback. He favours the right edge and will relish the opportunity to expose holes in the Eels’ left-side defence that has leaked 36 tries to date.
Where It Will Be Won: Commitment for the full 80 minutes. Both sides have a heap of prior convictions for switching off during games in 2012 and the winner will be the unit that mounts sustained pressure throughout. On paper it’s an astonishingly close contest: two sides near the bottom rung for points scored (Roosters 18.3, Eels 17.8) and on the bottom two rungs for points conceded (Roosters 25.2, Eels 26.8). One moment of lost focus could be enough to sway the day.
The History: Played 122; Eels 59, Roosters 58, drawn 5. The honours have been shared four games apiece over the past eight clashes – although the Roosters have the wood on their opponent recently, winning the past three games straight (they are poised for four in a row over the Eels for the first time since 2000). Also, the tri-colours boast a healthy 11-9 record at Parramatta Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: A Braith Anasta field goal 90 seconds into extra time delivered the Roosters a thrilling 13-12 golden-point victory over the Eels at Parramatta Stadium in Round 25 last year.
Chris Hicks, playing his 200th NRL game, gave the Eels the lead when he crossed in the right corner in the 35 minute after some excellent stepping lead-up play from centre Ben Smith.
Parramatta looked to have the game safely in their keeping when Jarryd Hayne scored a weaving 35-metre solo try to scoot the home side out to a commanding 12-nil lead with 30 minutes remaining.
It wasn’t until the 67th minute that the tri-colours posted their first points through prop Jason Ryles who charged over under the posts off a pass from hooker Jake Friend at dummy-half.
Sustained pressure saw the visitors cross for a second try with seven minutes left to play, with Eels fullback Luke Burt failing to contain Brad Takairangi on the right edge. Anasta nailed the conversion from near the sideline to tie things up at 12-all before then breaking the hearts of the home fans in golden point when finally successful with his fourth attempt at a one-pointer on the evening.
Anthony Minichiello had a huge game at the back for the red, white and blue, running 26 times for 200 metres, while prop Ryles had one of his best games for the Roosters with 19 hit-ups and 146 metres.
Wearing the No.6 jersey, Jarryd Hayne was outstanding for the Eels with 165 metres and seven tackle busts, plus a try. Team-mate Nathan Hindmarsh racked up a phenomenal 70 tackles.
While Hindmarsh was a rock in defence the same could not be said for his team-mates: Parramatta missed 48 tackles throughout the game, while the Roosters dropped off 31 players.
A lack of creativity also hampered Parramatta, who managed just five passages of second-phase play all evening.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Dave Munro; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Jay Farlow; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
The Way We See It: While Parramatta have been impressive over the past three weeks the way they wilted against the Tigers’ punchy attack has alarm bells ringing – especially given the Roosters’ domination of the Dragons last Friday night. Desire to avoid the wooden spoon may not be enough to clinch the win here. Roosters by six points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats