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Tim Mannah is in line to make a remarkable recovery and take the field against the Cowboys
Eels v Cowboys
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

What was shaping as a season of some promise for Ricky Stuart and his Eels has quickly degenerated into one of damage control.

Stuart openly admitted that Parramatta would be a side of vastly fluctuating performances in 2013 given his need to rebuild and their complete lack of depth across the paddock, but after their 50-0 Round 4 loss to Sydney Roosters most expected they had already reached their lowest ebb. Apparently not.

Monday night’s 44-12 thrashing at the hands of Penrith was a truly disastrous result against a side that is also at the starting point of a rebuilding phase and is in the midst of an injury crisis that has robbed them of a number of their key backline players – Lachlan Coote, Brad Tighe, Josh Mansour and Wes Naiqama among them. 

Even Eels captain Jarryd Hayne acknowledged the fact that many of the Panthers outfit were more accustomed to playing NSW Cup than NRL but the lack of pride and commitment Parramatta showed must be of huge concern to Stuart – particularly with so many of them off contract this season and playing for their futures. Perhaps a few of them just made Stuart’s decision on that front an easy one.

The one bright spot for the Eels heading into this week’s Round 8 clash with North Queensland is the fact that they are back home at Parramatta Stadium, the venue of both victories this season against the Warriors and Cronulla.
No doubt they are a much better side at home and they can take some heart from the fact that their 13-6 win over the Sharks came on the back of that ugly loss to the Roosters, so they do have some history of big turnarounds.

But the Cowboys are a very different proposition and unless Parramatta’s defence finds some starch they could be in for another torrid night. 

That’s not to say that a rugby league execution is a formality given North Queensland’s own lack of consistency in 2013. One of the more frustrating teams to watch this season, the Cowboys boast a squad capable of going all the way but have rarely produced their best football over the opening rounds. A strong win over Canterbury in Round 1 and good results against Penrith and Canberra have been tempered by horrible efforts against Melbourne, Newcastle and, most surprisingly, the Warriors. They remain the only side to have been beaten by the Kiwi outfit this year.

Even in last week’s 30-12 win over Canberra, the Cowboys looked like a side on the verge of hitting their straps but not quite able to click into top gear.

Of course, it only takes 80 minutes for that to all change and if they can pile on some points against this battling Eels outfit their season could well ignite.

Stuart has responded to last week’s loss to Penrith with a raft of changes including replacing both centres, Cheyse Blair and Jacob Loko, with Ryan Morgan and debutante Api Pewhairangi. Joseph Paulo starts at lock for Ben Smith while Fuifui Moimoi returns for the injured Tim Mannah. Rookie hooker Kaysa Pritchard and prop Peni Terepo are also set to make their debuts off the bench with Ben Roberts another casualty of Stuart’s cull.

The Cowboys have named the same 17 that downed Canberra last week with Dallas Johnson and Ashton Sims joining a six-man bench. Johnson has missed the past two weeks with concussion and illness.

Watch Out Eels: With Tim Mannah sidelined through injury, will the Eels’ big men be able to match it with North Queensland’s representative duo of James Tamou and Matt Scott through the middle? Tamou has averaged an impressive 136 metres this season with 20 tackle-breaks while Scott has been even better with 144 metres per game. Worryingly for Parramatta, Mannah was by far their most prolific prop at 124 metres per game with Fuifui Moimoi averaging just 95, Mitchell Allgood 80 and Darcy Lussick 79.

Watch Out Cowboys: Never underestimate the Jarryd Hayne factor. The Eels might be struggling this season but Hayne continues to threaten the opposition try line whenever he touches the football. Despite his side’s woes, the brilliant custodian averaged 146 metres per game, has scored six tries, produced two try assists, four line-break assists and 38 tackle breaks (second in the NRL). 

Plays To Watch: The running games of Thurston and Sandow. The pair are lethal playmakers when it comes to running the football, but they go about their jobs in very different ways. Thurston’s pet play is the dummy-and-go close to the line, which is so well known that all 15 opposition coaches must surely mention it in their pre-match planning when facing the Cowboys. Sandow is more about the ‘show-and-go’. He loves to drift across-field threatening to pass to a support player before accelerating through a gap as he straightens. Watch for both of these players to look for an opportunity to run on Saturday night.

Key Match-Up: Jarryd Hayne v Matt Bowen. Let’s hope that this is a high-scoring affair because there is no better sight than seeing these two at their scintillating best. Hayne has long been Parramatta’s go-to man and his support play and ball-playing ability are always difficult to contain. Bowen is also a handy playmaker but his lethal kick returns and ability to slice through a gap are his greatest assets. Will the rival No.1s make their mark this week?

Where It Will Be Won: This will be a huge test for the Parramatta front row, who were humbled by Penrith last week and could be in all sorts against North Queensland’s monster forwards if they don’t step it up. Should James Tamou and Matt Scott get rolling, this will barely be a contest but if the young Eels get pumped for a big showing they might just have some chance of springing an upset.

The History: Played 28; Eels 16, Cowboys 11, drawn 1. North Queensland have won the past two clashes between the sides although Parramatta strung together a five-match winning streak over the Cowboys before that. 

Match Officials: Referees –  Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Justin Morgan. 

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Eels v Cowboys clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Download NRL Live 2013 now for iPhone or Andriod

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.

The Way We See It: North Queensland doesn’t boast a great record at Parramatta Stadium and we predict this will be a lot closer than might otherwise be expected given last week’s shocking loss to Penrith. But unless coach Ricky Stuart is a miracle worker it’s hard to see the Eels being able to match the visitor’s firepower. We expect North Queensland to pull away in the final 20 minutes. Cowboys by 16 points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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