Eels v Warriors
Two clubs that have endured both dizzying highs and crushing lows in recent years head into 2013 with new coaches and hopes of turning around their flagging fortunes.
For Parramatta, this is very much the start of a new era following the failed Stephen Kearney experiment of 2011 and 2012. While the retirements of club greats Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt were always going to be felt at a club they have represented with pride for well over a decade, the arrival of highly respected coach Ricky Stuart and his own brand new coaching staff has the Eels well prepared for the fresh start they desperately need.
Parramatta hasn't been overly active in the player market, with Manly duo Darcy Lussick and Daniel Harrison the most notable arrivals, but there is no doubt that Stuart is their biggest signing of 2013. A premiership-winning coach with the Roosters in 2002, the former Australian Test halfback is renowned for being ruthless in his pursuit of excellence. And the fact that every side he has coached has been strong defensively should be music to the ears of the Parramatta faithful given their aversion to tacking over the past two years.
That said, he isn't a miracle worker and although he will expect significant improvement this season it remains to be seen just how far he can take them in phase one of his long-term mission – even if he can get star fullback Jarryd Hayne fit and firing again.
Their opponents this week face their own set of challenges this season and if their new coach, Matt Elliott, has one task in 2013 it is to figure out how it all went so horribly wrong for the side last year.
While Parramatta is rebuilding, the Warriors already have the bones of a premiership-winning squad to work with. We all know that's the case because they were in a grand final barely 18 months ago! And although they've lost the likes of James Maloney (Roosters), Micheal Luck (retired) and Krisnan Inu (Bulldogs), the Warriors still boast 11 players from the side that contested the 2011 NRL decider.
The big news for the Warriors this week is that halfback Shaun Johnson, originally expected to miss the first few rounds with an arm injury, has been cleared to take his place alongside new halves partner Thomas Leuluai, while premiership-winning duo from Melbourne, Dane Nielsen and Todd Lowrie, will make their premiership debuts for their new club. Hooker Nathan Friend's shoulder injury has seen Elliott spring a surprise, with Elijah Taylor named in the No.9 jersey.
There are few surprises at Parramatta with Luke Kelly winning the No.6 ahead of Ben Roberts – who will come off the bench – and impressive young centre Jacob Loko named in the centres after missing 18 months with a knee injury. Recruit Darcy Lussick has earned a starting spot in the front row alongside Tim Mannah, with Fuifui Moimoi on the bench.
Watch Out Eels: Former Parramatta forward Feleti Mateo has enjoyed career-best form since joining the Warriors in 2011 and again he looms as a man who can hurt his old teammates. Mateo is an offloading phenomenon, having topped the NRL for offloads in each of the past three seasons – a remarkable stat given that the Warriors ranked second last as a team for total offloads last season.
Mateo's 62 offloads was nine more than next-best Paul Gallen; he will be looking to run the Eels ragged with second-phase play on Saturday night.
Watch Out Warriors: New Eels coach Ricky Stuart has been working hard to instill some discipline into his side's game but the one thing they showed last season was an ability to pile on the points when they threw caution to the wind. In fact, they were involved in one of the more bizarre games of 2012 when they trailed Wests Tigers 31-0 with 14 minutes remaining before scoring five quick tries to lose by a single point!
That could spell trouble for the Warriors given that their edge defence devolved into a shambles last year. The Kiwi outfit conceded only 19 tries through the middle in 2012 but fell apart out wide with 46 scored on their right and 48 on their left. They also missed more tackles than any other side (915 all up).
Plays To Watch: Ricky Stuart wants to reinvigorate Jarryd Hayne's running game but that doesn't mean he won't also utilise his playmaking skills. One of Hayne's favourite plays is to wrap around the back out wide – it doesn't matter which side of the field – and throw a no-look cut-out pass to his winger. Even when opponents know it is coming, it is extremely difficult to defend against. (He did it to the Warriors last season to give Cheyse Blair an easy run to the try line.)
Expect the Warriors to use their little men to run the Eels ragged. Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai will relentlessly follow their big men around and keep scooting through the ruck as they probe for an opportunity. It means Parramatta's ruck defenders must be alert and ready to make consecutive tackles.
Key Match-Up: Jarryd Hayne v Kevin Locke. Even though Ricky Stuart has promised to ease the burden on star fullback Hayne, there is no doubt the Eels will still look to him to provide some attacking genius in 2013.
In fact, even though he played just 12 games last season, Hayne's stats were remarkable: he averaged 153 metres per game, scored eight tries and topped the club for both try assists and line-break assists (12 each).
Locke's influence on the Warriors is a little different – less playmaker and more zippy support player – but he carved Parramatta to shreds in this clash 12 months ago and his combination with halfback Shaun Johnson will make for great viewing.
Where It Will Be Won: This will be a test of just how much the defensive attitude of both sides has improved over the off-season.
For both Parramatta and the Warriors, there were games last year that bordered on ineptitude. The Eels conceded 120 tries in 2012 – 10 more than any other side – while the Warriors fell apart at the back-end of the year after throwing away a 19-point lead and then an 18-point lead in consecutive matches. They proceeded to concede a massive 185 points at an average of 37 per game over the final five rounds.
The History: Played 30; Eels 17, Warriors 13. The Warriors hold the recent ascendancy winning six of the past eight – although Parramatta's record at home is strong (9-4).
The Last Time They Met: Parramatta's season began its long downward spiral as they crashed to their second loss in as many games to start 2012 and, more importantly, saw star fullback Jarryd Hayne stretchered off with a serious knee injury.
The match was shaping up as a thriller with the Eels leading 8-6 after 15 minutes when Hayne picked up a grubber on his own line and raced up-field only to stop suddenly and drop to the ground in agony.
His departure saw a rapid shift in momentum, with the Warriors crossing minutes later through Bill Tupou to take a 12-8 lead, then extending it further as Konrad Hurrell steamed across from a set play.
To their credit the Eels didn't lie down. Chris Sandow ensured it was still a close one at the break, with a shoulder charge jolting the ball loose from Hurrell and allowing the diminutive halfback to pounce on the scraps and score.
And after Maloney scored shortly after the half-time break to make it 24-14, it was Sandow again keeping his side in the contest with a superb solo run on the right edge to again narrow the gap to four.
However, that was as close as the home side got. A break down the left wing from Manu Vatuvei saw Kevin Locke given a saloon passage to the try line to ensure a Warriors victory and they added some icing to the cake with another length-of-the-field effort to Bill Tupou inside the final minutes, giving them a 36-20 win.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Dan Eastwood; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Gavin Badger.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.
The Way We See It: There is a lot of work to be done to restore the pride in each of these jerseys and this is the first real test of just how far they have come. Until then it is difficult to predict exactly what we might see during the early rounds but we believe the Warriors boast a lot more talent in their squad and from what we've seen of the Eels for the past two seasons they will have to convince us that they've turned the corner before we start throwing tips their way. The Warriors in a close one.