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Eels v Sharks
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

If ever a side had reason to fire up for an otherwise standard regular-season clash, it is Parramatta as they prepare to host Cronulla this Saturday night.

Playing for the Jon Mannah Cup for the first time, following the former Eels and Sharks prop’s tragic death in January, emotion will no doubt be high for all that played alongside him although none quite so much as for his brother, Parramatta captain Tim Mannah.

This is also a big game for new Eels coach Ricky Stuart who faces his former club for the first time since quitting in mid-2010. But most of all, this is an opportunity for the 17 players who take the field to put the embarrassment of last week’s shocking 50-0 loss to the Roosters behind them.

The Eels began 2013 well with a 40-10 thrashing of the Warriors and a strong showing against Canterbury a week later but their forward strides have been sabotaged by the nature of losses to the Tigers and Roosters over the past two weeks.

The fact that they have conceded 81 points in those two games is scarily reminiscent of last season when they collected the wooden spoon and conceded an average 28 points per game.

Stuart didn’t hold back on Monday night when critiquing his side’s performance against the Roosters, insisting the Eels simply don’t have the players to compete with the better sides. And while he probably has a point, he also has ulterior motives – with 14 players off contract at the end of the year time is running out for them to prove they deserve a new contract in 2014.

They could do worse, however, than a home game against a Cronulla side that went down to St George Illawarra in the local derby last week and will be without injured playmaker Todd Carney.

With Chad Townsend joining former Eel Jeff Robson in the halves, Parramatta will be hoping their opponent’s combinations struggle for cohesion. But the Sharks have high hopes in 2013 and aside from last week’s slip-up against the Dragons they have fought hard this season.

Their strength is their back row with Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Wade Graham working well together while fullback Michael Gordon has quickly adjusted to his new surrounds with two tries, 19 tackle-breaks (fourth in the NRL) and an average 152 metres per game.

Parramatta has named an unchanged side to the one thrashed by the Roosters last week as they look to give their players an immediate chance for redemption.

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has named Townsend at five-eighth in place of Carney after a man-of-the-match performance against Newtown in NSW Cup last season, while Matthew Wright has been dropped with Jonathan Wright moving into the centres in his place and Nathan Stapleton coming onto the wing.

Watch Out Eels: Parramatta’s left-edge defence is certain to come under fire from Cronulla’s playmakers this week given how poorly they’ve coped with a barrage over the past fortnight. Jacob Loko and Vai Toutai certainly haven’t had it easy by any means but the fact that the Roosters scored four tries on their edge – three of them in the first half as they raced to a 22-0 lead – is a concern. 

Toutai in particular has struggled under the high ball while twice he was caught coming in too far last week (he’s missed five tackles in three games). Sharks coach Shane Flanagan is too clever not to have noticed the weak spots.

Watch Out Sharks: If there is one man likely to cause Cronulla some troubles it is Eels halfback Chris Sandow. While fullback Jarryd Hayne continues to search for his top form, Sandow has been scintillating so far in 2013 with four try assists, a try, two line-breaks and eight tackle-breaks.
Sandow played a starring role in the Eels’ Round 1 thrashing of the Warriors and was by far the most dangerous with the ball in hand in losses to Canterbury and Wests Tigers. His favourite play is to drift casually across field looking for runners before exploding through a gap if he spots a lazy defender. The Sharks must be on guard.

Plays To Watch: The Sharks absolutely love hitting the lead runner when set up for a backline play – and they’ve enjoyed plenty of success in doing so this season. 

It’s all quite simple in theory: with players in position out wide and bodies in motion, the playmaker looks to throw a second-man pass behind the decoy runner but instead throw a short, flat pass to the decoy or ‘lead’ runner at the last minute. It’s a play that requires perfect timing if it is to confuse the defence but Cronulla found success with it in the lead-up to their second try against the Gold Coast in Round 1 and saw it work on multiple occasions against the Warriors a fortnight ago.

Key Match-Up: Jarryd Hayne v Michael Gordon. How Parramatta could do with a Jarryd Hayne master-class this week! Coach Ricky Stuart has worked hard to ease the burden on Hayne this season but there is no doubt they still need him at his best if they are to be any sort of force in 2013. And it’s no surprise that he has been particularly quiet the past three weeks during the Eels’ losing run. 

Michael Gordon, on the other hand, has been superb for his new club Cronulla – adding plenty of spark to their backline (averaging 152 metres and five tackle busts a game). He will be even more important this week given the absence of Todd Carney. Watch for him to inject himself heavily.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence will be the key after both sides fell flat in this area last week. In fact, it has now been two consecutive weeks that the Eels have seen their line crossed with far too much ease and conceding 81 points in that time is simply unacceptable. 

Likewise, Cronulla must improve upon their efforts last week when they conceded 25 points against a Dragons outfit that had been heavily criticised for its wayward attack during the opening rounds.

The History: Played 76; Sharks 40, Eels 36. The Sharks have been victorious in six of the past nine clashes and incredibly they hold a 12-9 advantage over the Eels at Parramatta Stadium. However, the Eels have won the past two times they’ve met at the venue, including a 29-20 win in Round 13 last season.  

Match Officials: Referees –  Gavin Badger & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Matt Noyen; Video Referee – Jason Robinson & Matt Rodwell. 

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm.

The Way We See It: This is a huge game for Parramatta – not only to get their season back on track but to regain some level of credibility after last week’s thrashing. That they face a Cronulla side missing key playmaker Todd Carney will give them hope but we can’t help but suspect Ricky Stuart’s observation that the Eels simply don’t have the cattle in 2013 is pretty much on the money. They will win some games on the back of the Hayne-Sandow combination but tipping them on their form over the past fortnight can’t be a sound decision. Sharks by 10 points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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