Eels v Titans
In a quirk of modern-day scheduling, the Eels and Titans clash again just five rounds after their previous roller-coaster meeting, which saw the Titans snatch defeat from an unlucky Eels outfit, overturning a 22-8 deficit partway through the second half back in Round 6.
Eels coach Ricky Stuart in particular will welcome the re-match after he felt his side was hard done by in terms of officiating in the previous encounter. A run of seven straight second-half penalties helped the Titans surge past the Eels and Stuart let fly at the refs in the post-game wash-up, leaving him $10,000 lighter in the hip pocket.
In the more immediate term though, both of these sides will just be desperate to get back out on the park after a pair of embarrassing losses last week.
It was the turn of Gold Coast coach John Cartwright to let fly at the whistleblowers last week as a whopping 10 straight infringements awarded in the Broncos’ favour swayed his side out of the contest, although Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin suggested it was the Titans’ roughhouse tactics that were the cause.
Either way it was a night to forget for the Titans and Brisbane ran in four converted tries and slotted four penalty goals to hammer the Gold Coast 32-6.
The Eels fared little better as new Dragons fullback Josh Dugan set about writing his own script on club debut, bagging a double as the red-and-whites took the game away from the Eels early. The only bright spot was new lock Peni Terepo bagging a brace of his own as the Eels finished six-tries-to-two losers.
Stuart has resisted the temptation to tinker further with what is still a new-look side, but has been forced to replace young second-rower Kelepi Tanginoa who broke his hand last week. Matt Ryan returns to the starting side in his place, with uncapped Brayden Williame added to a five-man bench.
Cartwright has more significant changes although all are forced. Winger David Mead looks set for a long lay-off after breaking his jaw for the second time this year, meaning Anthony Don is recalled to the top grade. Hooker Beau Falloon misses out with an ankle injury meaning Matt Srama rejoins the run-on side and Sam Irwin slides onto the pine. Dave Taylor looks set to pay the penalty for his shot on Broncos half Peter Wallace this week and although the club will challenge the grading of his dangerous contact charge he has not been named and will miss three weeks if the attempted downgrade is unsuccessful.
Watch Out Dragons: Despite the Eels’ attacking woes this season (last for line-breaks, 2.8 per game, second last for tries, 2.7 per game) maligned halfback Chris Sandow has improved markedly on his debut season at the club last year.
His eight try assists place him equal sixth, ahead of plenty of big names, and just three behind co-leaders Cooper Cronk and Adam Reynolds. His kicking game has improved dramatically with his long kicks now regularly finding space and his kicks close to the line dropping right in the danger zone around the try line rather than being easily marked by a fullback deep in the in-goal.
He also has the equal-most 40/20 kicks this year with four, alongside Warrior Shaun Johnson (no other player has more than two). His kicking is taking some of the pressure off fullback Hayne and allowing him to play more of a support role (and racking up a club-high seven tries so far in 2013).
Watch Out Eels: Second-phase play has caused plenty of headaches for the blue-and-golds already in 2013 as they repeatedly fail to shut down the ball carrier. It wasn’t the deciding factor in the Round 6 clash between these sides (Titans led the offloads 9-5) but it could be this time – Gold Coast are by far the most prolific offloaders in the competition so far this year.
Although their top offloader Dave Taylor (23 offloads in 2013) almost certainly won’t play, Idris (22) and Bird (19) both feature in the top 10 for the NRL at this stage, while Will Zillman (10) Aidan Sezer and Luke Bailey (both nine) also have no troubles getting a ball away.
Collectively the Titans average 14.3 offloads per game, well ahead of the second-ranked Dragons (12.5 per game) while the Eels are comfortably (or uncomfortably) the worst at creating second-phase with just five offloads per game.
Plays To Watch: Are you expecting free-flowing footy with plenty of broken-play running on what should be a sunny Sunday afternoon in Mudgee? On paper you should probably expect it, but probably only from one team.
The Titans are fifth best for line-breaks (4.3 per game) while the Eels are last (2.8 per game). Couple that with the fact that the Titans concede the third fewest line-breaks at just three per game, behind only the Roosters and Manly, and one suspects the Eels may have a tough time putting runners into open space.
Then consider Parramatta are fourth worst for line-breaks conceded (4.7 per game) and there’s a strong chance the likes of Zillman and speedster Kevin Gordon could be chewing through some massive metres on Sunday.
Key Match-Up: Albert Kelly v Chris Sandow. One intriguing battle in this match will be the contest between two of the smallest but craftiest halves in the NRL. Sandow is a former Indigenous All Stars representative and Kelly could well be on track for a spot in the 2014 edition.
Although this game will be played at Mudgee it still represents something of a homecoming for Kelly who played in the Eels’ NYC team in 2008 and 2009. He will line up against a few of his old teammates in this one, including Mitchell Allgood, Tim Mannah, Ryan Morgan and Peni Terepo.
Kelly was electric in a badly beaten team last week, so much so that it’s hard to believe his team went down 32-6. His 164 metres from 14 runs would be impressive for a fullback but for a halfback is simply amazing. It was aided by two line-breaks but he also broke nine tackles and set up his side’s only try.
Sandow was far quieter in an equally well-beaten team last week although he still got one magic short ball away to set up one of Terepo’s two tries. But as mentioned above his kicking boot is back in form and he will have to be in everything on Sunday if the Eels are to get past Kelly’s Titans.
Where It Will Be Won: Does this count as a home game for the Eels? Because they have been diabolical away from home this year but close to impenetrable at Parramatta. In fact, as unlikely as it seems, so far this year they are only conceding 12 points per game at home and if they maintain that throughout the rest of the year it would be their best home defensive effort since 1989!
Away is another story though; the Eels have leaked a whopping 37.8 points per game in five away games so far in 2013.
The Titans don’t fare as well away from home either, having won just 10 of their past 30 away from the venue.
So ‘where’ the Eels can convince themselves this is being played could be a key factor in whether this match is won or lost. If we get the robust defensive steel of the Eels’ Parramatta Stadium efforts they’re a chance but if the unfamiliar surrounds remind them they’re away from home, the Titans could well end up helping them maintain that average of 38 points conceded per away game.
The History: Played 9; Gold Coast 6, Parramatta 3. The sides obviously haven’t met at Mudgee before but the Eels have a 2-1 edge in games played in NSW.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed, 4pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 6pm.
The Way We See It: Both sides will be looking to employ the ‘bounce-back factor’ after embarrassing losses last week. And while neither side travels well, Mudgee is hardly a home ground for either. If the Eels find themselves in front they’ll need to hold their nerve better than they did last time but we’ll tip Ricky Stuart’s boys to exact revenge for their Round 6 nightmare. Eels by four points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.