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Eels v Panthers
Parramatta Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm

How quickly things change in rugby league. Just a handful of weeks ago this clash would’ve been considered a battle of the cellar-dwellers – now the Panthers have surged into the top eight and are contemplating at a finals berth!

The same, however, cannot be said of the Eels. In 2013 – let’s not beat around the bush – they’ve been awful. They’ve won just three matches all season, suffering numerous absolute wallopings along the way. They’ve conceded 50 and 38 points (in two separate matches) against the Roosters, 44 against the Panthers, 42 against the Titans, 50 last week against the Sea Eagles and a total of 30 points or more nine times this season. It’s a far cry from their golden run to the grand final in 2009 and, unfortunately for Eels fans, things look like they might get even worse before they get better. For a team on a six-match losing streak, that’s saying something!

Early on the Panthers’ season looked similarly dire – until Round 7, after which they’ve won six of eight matches and rocketed up into the finals cut-off zone. A big win here could see them move to as high as fifth, while a loss would see them slip out of the eight altogether. Last week the Panthers disposed of the Titans in Darwin, recording a 40-18 victory, while the Sea Eagles smoked the Eels 50-10.

For the Panthers this week, Lewis Brown returns to the starting side, pushing Clint Newton back onto what is currently a five-man bench. It’s a settled unit, and understandably so.

Meanwhile the Eels have a raft of changes – none bigger than halfback Chris Sandow being dropped for Luke Kelly. Ben Roberts joins Kelly to form a new-look halves pairing. Centre Willie Tonga returns from back surgery to replace the injured Jacob Loko, while Fuifui Moimoi joins the starting side. Three-game rising star Kaysa Pritchard, normally a hooker, joins the bench along with Mat Ryan and Junior Paulo.

Watch Out Eels: It ain’t looking any easier for poor old Parramatta. Staring down the barrel of a sixth consecutive defeat for the second time in two seasons, the Eels host the Battle of the West having won just one of their past five home games against the Penrith side.

The Eels have struggled against their local foe more than any other Sydney opponent, with just 4.1 line-breaks and 1281.9 metres gained per match, and averaging just 20 points at home against the Panthers (their worst numbers against any NSW team).

Watch Out Panthers: Surely, sometime soon, the bubbles – the Panthers’ winning ways and the Eels’ losing streak – will burst?

With a roster ranked by most as ‘no better than average’, it could be argued Penrith have already achieved enough this season. They’ve rallied after a poor start, launched a mid-season fightback and proved to be a team capable of mounting a challenge. But will they keep it going?

The statistics indicate they could well have a tough time sooner rather than later – they haven’t scored 20 points in three successive matches since July 2011 and they haven’t won successive away fixtures since March last season.

Plays To Watch: The kicking game will be one to keep an eye on – the attacking kicks of these two sides, in particular, have been at opposite ends of the spectrum this season. Penrith have scored more tries from kicks than any other team this year (16), while Parramatta have scored the fewest (six).

If the Eels are to stage an upset here, they’ll need to at least match the from-the-boot efforts of Luke Walsh and Isaac John – not an easy task with the relatively inexperienced Luke Kelly and the often-inconsistent Ben Roberts in the Eels’ halves line-up.

Key Match-Up: We can’t wait for the battle of the prop-forwards in this clash. The starting bookends, in particular, will have a massive influence. The Eels’ Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi up against similarly seasoned Penrith men Nigel Plum and Tim Grant. Four absolute professionals – four big men with big jobs to do. Plum, in particular, has been in outstanding form – he is poised to become the first Panther and 11th player overall to hit the 2000-metres-gained mark for 2013. Just 46 metres shy of the milestone, Plum has already eclipsed his previous best yardage in a season (1335 metres) despite being just 15 matches into the competition. It’ll be a great battle.

Where It Will Be Won: In the head. With a more confident, more potent and better-balanced side, there’s no reason for the Panthers to miss out on two competition points here. Unless, of course, they expect to simply turn up and claim the bounty. They need to be ready to play; otherwise an upset could be on the cards.

The History: Played 86; Eels 52, Panthers 33, drawn 1. At Parramatta Stadium the Eels hold a decisive advantage, victorious in 12 of their 21 meetings at the venue.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Gavin Badger & Matt Rodwell.

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

Televised: Live – Fox Sports 1.

The Way We See It: We just can’t see the Eels getting close to the Panthers in this one. Penrith have everything to play for while Parramatta... their season’s pretty much done and dusted. Sorry Eels fans, it’s another loss here. The Panthers by 14 points.


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