Eels v Dragons preview

Parramatta Eels v St George Illawarra Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Sunday 7pm

Four men enter, two men leave (happy): will it be Parramatta’s veteran servants Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt who get to sing their team song one last time with a victory? Or will it be proud Dragons pair Ben Hornby and Dean Young who are provided fairytale farewells to their NRL careers in the last regular round match for season 2012?  

While there’s not much more than bragging rights on offer here you can guarantee both sides will be focused on providing a fitting exit for their retiring stars who have racked up a staggering 1072 first grade matches between them!

Parramatta may be picking the splinters out of their fingers at the moment after Souths handed them their first wooden spoon since 1972 but prior to last week’s 38-6 stumble they had been playing a much-improved brand of football that belied their position at the foot of the NRL ladder. This included rousing wins over the Storm and Brisbane, so the Dragons will need to bring their A-Games with them if they are to finish on a high.

Still, Steve Price knows if the side replicates the attack that annihilated the Warriors 38-6 last week the 2010 premiers will be tough to topple. 

In Dragons team changes Bronx Goodwin has been drafted onto the wing, with Chase Stanley shifting to the centres and Matt Prior benched. Dean Young will start in the No.13 with Josh Miller hitting the pine. The new faces on their interchange are Jack Stockwell and Cameron King. 

Meanwhile Justin Poore will start at prop for Fuifui Moimoi who fractured his arm in the loss to the Rabbitohs last week. Justin Horo has been promoted to start in the second row, with Matt Ryan to play off the interchange. Casey McGuire rejoins the squad on the bench.

Incredibly there are other significant milestones this week, with Dragons pair Ben Creagh and Jamie Soward celebrating their 200th and 150th NRL games respectively. Creagh has registered 118 wins for the joint venture and needs just one try for 50 in his career – not a bad strike rate. 

And how’s this for a quirk of fate: Luke Burt’s NRL debut came against the Dragons (in 1999) – and Dean Young’s against Parramatta (in 2003).

Watch Out Eels: The shackles certainly came off St George Illawarra’s attack last week, with the Dragons scoring their most points for the year off the back of some devastating second-phase play. The Red V made 23 offloads – the second most by any team all year and the second time they’d hit that mark this season after doing the same in their 18-10 win over top-eight side Cronulla in Round 19. Clearly they are at their most dangerous when given the nod to pile on the razzle dazzle and with nothing at stake here we’re expecting the hot potato passes to continue. That’s bad news for the Eels who have conceded the third-most offloads every match (11.5).

After a frustrating year punctuated by niggling injuries centre Matt Cooper caught fire on the left edge last week, scoring a try, setting up another and making two line-breaks along with 156 metres of territory. He’ll be committed to giving mates Hornby and Young a winning send-off and will make life hell for Chris Sandow when the diminutive halfback is defending on his try-line – Sandow remains the weakest defender in the NRL with 124 missed tackles to his name.

Danger Sign: With their confidence up the Dragons could be hard to stop out wide. Last week they punched out 10 line-breaks – their most in a match in 2012. Meanwhile the Eels concede the second-most line-breaks in the league (5.5 per game). 

Watch Out Dragons: Nathan Hindmarsh won’t leave anything in the tank this week (not that he has in any of his 329 previous games). While he has focused on defence in the twilight of his career Hindy still has a few attacking tricks up his sleeve and is capable of putting a team-mate through a gap with an offload. He has made 30 offloads for the year, as well as six line-break assists.

This is the Dragons’ first look at fullback Jake Mullaney and they would be foolish to take him lightly – Mullaney has an evasive running game and great off-the-mark acceleration. He’ll be difficult to halt from close range – he’s averaging almost six tackle-breaks per match from his six games to date. To put that in context Jarryd Hayne averaged four a match this year before being injured. 

Danger Sign: If the Eels players ride the wave of emotion they can punch above their weight and deliver for Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt. While it’s not being played at Parramatta Stadium it’s still an Eels home game so there will be plenty of razzamatazz and atmosphere favouring the gold and blue.  

Ben Roberts v Jamie Soward: The result could hinge on which No.6 creates more opportunities for their outside men – and it could all boil down to confidence. Roberts is an opportunist who can sense weakness in the opposition defensive line; in particular the Dragons’ right-side tacklers will need to be alert all evening – they’ve conceded 35 tries compared to 26 on their left side. Roberts has an excellent strike rate in attack with eight line-breaks (fifth most by a five-eighth) and 10 line-break assists from his 17 games.

He’s a slippery customer too – he leads his side for tackle busts (with 59). Meanwhile Jamie Soward awoke from the funk that’s clouded his season to deliver two try assists against the Warriors, taking his tally for the year to 12. He has 12 line-break assists too. If he gets his radar right on his long spiral passes and kicks they’ll score plenty of points. Watch for him to hook a left-footer for Jason Nightingale or Bronx Goodwin on the right edge. 

Where It Will Be Won:
On the scoreboard. This is likely to develop into an exhibition game of rugby league as players from both sides look to exit 2012 on a high after respective disappointing seasons. Although earning a win for their retiring players will be huge motivation, we can’t see it developing into a war in the trenches. Whichever side gets the passes to stick will get the chocolates. 

The History: Played 25; Dragons 12, Eels 11, drawn 2. The Dragons have the wood over the Eels in recent match-ups, winning six of the past eight. They boast a 2-1 advantage in games at ANZ Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons got out of jail at the death to defeat the Eels 14-12 at WIN Jubilee Stadium in Round 12.  

Having been defeated by one-point margins in each of their previous two games the Dragons looked certain to suffer another narrow loss when they trailed by two points with four minutes remaining before Kyle Stanley dummied his way over to score the match-winner.

Parramatta drew first blood just 90 seconds into the contest when Chris Sandow’s cross-field bomb bounced off Ben Hornby into the arms of a grateful Casey McGuire who crossed to the right of the goalposts. 

The home side struck back in remarkably similar fashion with 19 minutes on the clock, with Stanley crossing for his first try in the right corner after collecting Daniel Vidot’s bat-back of a Jamie Soward cross-field bomb.

However, the Dragons trailed by two points when Soward failed the conversion attempt and they fell further behind when Matt Ryan charged over off a Sandow short ball with 24 minutes gone. This provided the visitors with a 12-4 advantage they would take to the halftime break.

A 10-nil shut-out in the second half saw the Dragons escape with the competition points. Brett Morris finished off a long-range raid initiated by Jason Nightingale to bridge the gap to 12-10 in the 46th minute before Stanley’s late strike.

The Dragons were the dominant side in attack, with five line-breaks (to the Eels’ two) and 17 offloads; however they shot themselves in the foot with 14 errors and a poor 68 per cent completion rate.

Their back three of Morris, Vidot and Nightingale combined to run 548 metres on the night.

Parramatta were best served by Sandow (two try assists and three offloads) and fullback Jarryd Hayne who made 18 runs. 

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Dave Munro & Gavin Reynolds; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence & Shane Hayne. 

The Way We See It: An occasion like this demands a draw! However, if there has to be a winner we hope it’s Parramatta – Ben Hornby and Dean Young each grabbed a premiership in 2010 and they got to farewell their fans at home last week with a rousing victory. Meanwhile Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt never tasted premiership glory despite playing in two grand finals throughout their illustrious careers. Plus they were denied a Parramatta Stadium send-off when this game was belatedly shifted to ANZ Stadium a week ago. Exposed form says the Dragons; the heart says the Eels. St George Illawarra by four points. (And thanks for the memories guys…)

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats