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Fuifui Moimoi attempts to bust through the defence of Bronco Corey Parker
Eels v Broncos
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

Things don’t get too much easier for the struggling Eels this week with the wheels pretty well having come off a season that started brightly: they will host a side that makes a habit of travelling to Parramatta and going home with the prize.

The Broncos may have been outlasted by the highly impressive Rabbitohs last week but that result broke a string of three straight wins – and the Queenslanders will be viewing that result as a blip in what has otherwise been a solid month. Even last week they seemed to be on top during the first stanza as they took a lead into the break before the Bunnies blew them away in a three-try blitz shortly after the resumption. 

The Eels have lost to plenty of sides this year that have struggled to beat most other opposition, which doesn’t bode well given Brisbane’s form prior to the South Sydney game. It’s even more of a worry considering Brisbane’s awesome record at Parramatta Stadium – a ground that has, in recent years, become one of the least threatening road trips in the NRL.

Parramatta’s dire loss to fellow cellar dwellers Penrith a fortnight ago resulted in an overhaul of the starting 17, and while last week’s efforts against the Cowboys will hardly strike fear into the top sides it was at least an improvement, especially given the new combinations.

As such, coach Ricky Stewart has given the new-look side a second opportunity, naming exactly the same 17 that ran out last week following the late inclusions of prop Tim Mannah and promising centre Jacob Loko.

This means rookie Peni Terepo plays his second match in a row as a starting lock, and Kaysa Pritchard gets a second run on the bench where he will start along with Mitch Allgood and Joseph Paulo who were both relegated to the pine in last week’s late reshuffle.

For the Broncos, Justin Hodges returns from injury pushing Jordan Kahu to wing and Lachlan Maranta out of the side. Josh McGuire and David Stagg have been added to a six-man bench, which may have implications for the likes of David Hala and Jarrod Wallace.

Broncos fullback Corey Norman will be keen to impress his 2014 teammates and possibly stake an early claim for the blue and gold No.1 jersey given Stuart has previously referred to Jarryd Hayne as potentially a better five-eighth than fullback.

Watch Out Eels: Mercurial centre Justin Hodges has had a week off to rest his troublesome groin and should be raring to go against one of his favourite opponents. Hodges has nine career tries versus the Eels, behind only Nathan Merritt (12) and Brett Stewart (10) in the NRL era. Only Newcastle (13) have watched Hodges cross the stripe on more occasions.

The ageless centre has also been in close to career-best form in the five games he’s made it onto the field, averaging 125 metres and a whopping six tackle-breaks per game with two tries and four try assists. In the lead up to Origin I, look for Hodges to show us why Mal Meninga would pick him even on one leg. 

Watch Out Broncos: In a season of lowlights for the Eels, bustling centre Jacob Loko is one of the few players whose job security isn’t under any threat. Shaking off a couple of seasons ruined by injury, Loko signed a two-year contract extension on the eve of last week’s Cowboys game that will keep the local junior at the club until the end of 2016.

Loko repaid the faith with a barnstorming display, notching an incredible nine tackle-breaks on the way to a huge 157 metres – easily the most by any Eels in that game. In fact Loko has been breaking tackles at will this year and sits alongside Jarryd Hayne with 44 busts – second only to in-form Rabbitohs custodian Greg Inglis (53) in 2013. The Broncos had better be wary of his powerful runs down the flanks or he could be sending winger Ken Sio into space.

Plays To Watch: It will be interesting to see how a couple of attacking and defensive anomalies play out here. The Broncos, despite missing more tackles than most other teams (28.1 per game, fourth worst) actually have the fourth-best defence points-wise, letting through just 2.8 tries per game – suggesting their scramble defence is plugging the gaps.

The Eels, on the other hand, are near the bottom of all attacking categories and are in a distant last for offloads (just five per game) despite having the third-most tackle-breaks (27.9 per game) of any side. This suggests a lot of bumping players off and creating space without taking advantage.
Based on these numbers you’d expect the Broncos to miss plenty of first attempts without being forced to pay the penalty.

Key Match-Up: Jarryd Hayne v Corey Norman. The interesting sub-plot here is that we could have the current Eels fullback on one side and the 2014 Eels fullback on the other.

Norman will be keen to impress his future coach, teammates and fans in what could very well be an early audition for the blue and gold No.1 jersey. Prior to joining the Eels, coach Ricky Stuart publicly stated his preference for Hayne to wear the 6 so he will be looking closely at Norman – himself an occasional five-eighth – in this one.

Add to that they are both key players for their respective clubs. Each averages over 140 metres per game to be the best of their teammates. Hayne is also the best of the Eels in terms of tries (six), line-breaks and line-break assists (four of each) while Norman leads the Brisbane try assist tally (five) to go with four line-breaks and two tries.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle of the forwards decides a lot of games and if that’s the case here the Eels are in big trouble. What little spark they’ve had has been generated in the backs and a look at the stats of the respective packs suggests the Eels need to aim up a long way to be competitive here. In Brisbane’s six starting forwards, four are averaging more than 100 metres per game while the Eels have just Tim Mannah.

Conversely, five of those six Broncos average more than 30 tackles per game against three for the Eels, and of those Ben Smith has been dropped. Of the starting packs, the Eels combine for 12 offloads this year while Brisbane have 46, and Corey Parker has the Eels pack covered on his own (19 offloads so far).

While the Eels backs have been holding their own, they simply won’t win games while their forwards are getting out-enthused as badly as they have been, and if Parramatta can’t turn that around in a big way the Broncos will coast home.

The History: Played 46; Brisbane 27, Parramatta 17, drawn 2. Brisbane have a fantastic record at Parramatta’s home ground, winning 15 of 21 with one draw. In fact they’re on a three-match winning run at the venue, although the Eels have won their past two starts at Suncorp (including the last meeting between these sides, a 42-22 upset to the Eels in Round 21 last year). This means the last time there was a home-side victory involving these two clubs was Round 16, 2009.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Brenden Wood; Video Referees – Steve Clark & 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 Broncos clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm. 

The Way We See It: Stranger things have happened in rugby league but (even a week after Canberra’s victory in Melbourne) it’s pretty hard to make a case for the Eels here. Parramatta look to still have a long road ahead of them and the Broncos, with troops returning, should have too much class and can be expected to bounce from last week’s loss. Broncos by 12 points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats. 
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