Sharks v Eels
The teams responsible for the worst defensive efforts of Round 13 come together at Shark Park this Saturday night to try to regain pride. But despite the Eels and Sharks conceding an identical number of points – 38 – last week, one side was in it up to their eyeballs inside the last 10 while the other had been well and truly blown away by half time.
Cronulla's fine run in the absence of skipper Paul Gallen has come to a screeching halt as they suffered a first-half blitz down in Melbourne and as a result his teammates will be mighty relieved to have his services this Saturday against the struggling Eels.
Despite Parramatta's poor form in 2013 you can bet the Sharks won't be taking the visitors lightly – they are just one of three teams to have lost to the Eels this year. Not that Cronulla would have been taking anyone lightly after what happened last week.
It should never be surprising when Melbourne win at home but the nature of the loss was unexpected. Cronulla hadn't previously conceded more than 25 points in 80 minutes so far this year so to be down 28-0 at halftime was something of a shock.
But back on their home patch, against a side that has been awful away from home this year, they'll be looking to repay the fans with a drastically improved performance.
For their part, Parramatta weren't actually too bad last week – following a tumultuous week in which 12 senior players were either put on notice or told their services wouldn't be required past this year it would have been no surprise if the third-placed Roosters had blown them off the park for the second time this year.
But to their credit they dug in and led 12-6 at one point before the Roosters responded, then hit back themselves to trail by just two points at 26-24 inside the last 10 minutes. A couple of late tries from the tri-colours blew the score out a bit but overall they hung in well in a game many were tipping could get ugly on the scoreboard. It could be an omen – Parramatta beat the Sharks back in Round 5 the week after having a 50-0 score put on them by the Roosters.
Perhaps the worst outcome from the evening from a Parramatta perspective was the hamstring strain to fullback Jarryd Hayne. All the talk since then has been around whether or not Hayne will be fit for the second State of Origin match but in the immediate term the Eels really can't afford to be without their star custodian. If there is a glimmer of good news it's the strong form of Hayne's back-up Jake Mullaney who was one of the Eels' best in his first game of the year last week.
He'll need to be good again this week as he once again starts at fullback but Hayne's absence isn't the only change – boom youngster Jacob Loko has been dropped for disciplinary reasons and will play lock for Wentworthville, with Cheyse Blair returning to the top grade at centre. After being a late inclusion last week Luke Kelly has again been dropped with Joe Paulo again named at five-eighth, although Ben Roberts has joined a four-man bench and could see plenty of action at five-eighth. Reni Maitua rejoins the team in the back row for his 150th career game.
The big news for the Sharks is the return of Paul Gallen at lock, looking for his 100th career victory in his 224th game. Andrew Fifita and Luke Lewis have been named to start at prop and second row respectively, after both played from the bench last week – but don't be surprised if Fifita starts from the bench in jersey 8 like he has in the previous five matches. Sam Tagataese goes from starting prop to 19th man, while Chris Heighington and Jason Bukuya both drop back from the starting pack to the bench which also features Tyrone Peachey in jersey 18.
Watch Out Sharks: Second-string Eels fullback Jake Mullaney is too good a player not to be a regular in first grade, and will have another chance to shows his wares for at least a few weeks with Hayne out. He was a point scoring machine as a Tigers junior, he was an asset to the club during Hayne's absence last year and didn't skip a beat in his first top flight game of the year last week.
After being named on the bench he started at fullback and stayed on the field for the full 80, earning 124 metres from 19 runs with a line-break and a try – not to mention a massive, game-high eight tackle-breaks. If the Eels are to try and get their first away win of the year, and with Hayne absent, they'll need Mullaney to provide some spark.
If they are to jag that elusive first away win, this could be the ground – Parramatta have six wins from their last nine games at Shark Park. With just three wins from their last 27 trips away from Parramatta Stadium, this is as likely a venue as they'll find.
Watch Out Eels: There are a few Sharks in a rich vein of form when it comes to churning through the metres – so far this year the Sharks interchange bench gains more metres than that any other team at 325 metres per game.
A big part of that is the devastating form of Origin forward Fifita, who has made a habit of starting from the bench then playing out the game once he gets on inside 20 minutes.
Over the past five weeks Cronulla have made more running metres than any other side at 1445 metres per game (although strangely are also conceding the most in that time at 1431 per game).
Five games also happens to be how long coach Shane Flanagan has been experimenting with playing Fifita off the bench and it seems to be paying rich rewards – he averaged not much over 100 metres per game in seven matches starting, and in five games off the bench is averaging a Gallen-esque (and mostly in Gallen's absence) 200 metres per game.
The Eels are fourth-worst in terms of running metres conceded this year at 1415.8 per game – with Gallen and Fifita reunited the Eels could be backpedalling all day.
Plays To Watch: Bustling runs and big fends from Sharks centre Ben Pomeroy as he looks for his first try of the year and the elusive 50th of his career (another duck egg this week would equal his longest ever try scoring drought, and he currently has just one try in his last eight versus Parramatta); jinking runs from promising Eels lock Peni Terepo (three tries in five games already); more scything angled runs from Origin 1 man of the match Luke Lewis (last week 108 metres from 11 runs with four tackle-breaks, one try assist and one line-break assist); and plenty of fast and direct kick returns from Eels fullback Mullaney.
Key Match-Up: Gallen and Fifita v Mannah and Moimoi. The Eels pack quite simply doesn't have the class of Cronulla's forward rotation so if the blue-and-golds are to compete here they need Mannah and Moimoi to take it to Cronulla's two best metre-eaters. Their numbers aren't as impressive as their opponents' but they're the only two Eels forwards averaging over 100 metres per game and the two that look most likely. Parramatta needs to show they're not intimidated by the in-form Sharks side and it starts up front with these two doing the tough stuff.
Where It Will Be Won: The last play options, specifically fifth-tackle kicks in attacking territory. It's an area the Eels have seriously struggled the past few seasons – so far this year they are the worst in the league in terms of defusing attacking kicks put up by their opponents at just 61 per cent. They have also managed the fewest consecutive sets, with just 79. One got the feeling last week that if a few more kicks had been deftly placed into the in-goal rather than chipped straight to the winger or fullback to mark easily, Parramatta would have had a strong chance against the Roosters.
The History: Played 77; Cronulla 40, Parramatta 37. Cronulla have won 20 of 33 matches at Sharks Stadium. The Eels have won the past two head to heads but both of those were at Parramatta.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Parramatta's away form has been so poor this year that it is virtually impossible to tip them away from their home stadium. Not only have they lost every game away from the venue, they've conceded more than 35 points per game while doing so. Cronulla's been tough to score on at home this year, with Gallen back and the visitors missing their best player it's hard to see anything other than a home side win. Sharks by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.