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Bulldogs v Eels
ANZ Stadium
Friday, 7.35pm

For both these teams’ supporters, thankfully the worst is almost over. For the Bulldogs, blue sky and, quite likely, the finals series awaits – an amazing feat after five losses in their opening six games and a start to 2013. For the Eels, anchored to the foot of the table six points below any other team with just three wins, thankfully there are just seven matches to come in the horror year that has been 2013.

This season Canterbury – grand-finalists in 2012 – started poorly, but they’ve rebounded in fine fashion and since Round 7 have won eight of 11 matches, defeating the Sharks (24-8), Warriors (24-16), Sea Eagles (32-30) and Storm (39-0) along the way. As a result, they’ve surged up the table into sixth position and back into premiership reckoning.

The Eels, meanwhile, have endured yet another annus horribilis after finishing wooden-spooners last year – this season, another packed with trauma, has seen them defeat just the Warriors in Round 1 (40-10), the Sharks in Round 5 (13-6) and the Broncos in Round 9 (19-18), and resulted in coach Ricky Stuart publically declaring a dozen players are unwanted for 2014. Parramatta haven’t won one of their past eight matches, and their ‘record’ could get even worse in this one.

This battle is for the Bandaged Bear Cup, celebrating the hard work and dedication of staff and volunteers at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. As a part of Rivalry Round though, it’s also a celebration of the fierce encounters these two clubs have shared in the past – particularly across their golden eras in the 1980s.

For the Bulldogs, Josh Morris’ return from Origin duty sends Tim Lafai back to NSW Cup. Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano also return to stiffen the forward pack, pushing Josh Jackson to the bench, Tim Browne to jersey No.20 and Martin Taupau to NSW Cup.

For the Eels, Mitch Allgood returns from suspension while Ken Sio returns from injury to take his place on the wing. Their inclusion pushes Brayden Wiliame and Kaysa Pritchard out of the NRL line-up.

Watch Out Bulldogs: There are signs of improvement in the Eels – and, with eight losses on the trot, so there should be, too! The past two weeks Parramatta have suffered tight defeats at the hands of the Panthers and Raiders… and one imagines something’s got to give soon. Could this be the game when, with all the expectation lumped on the shoulders of the Bulldogs’ boys, the Eels slip through for an unexpected victory?

Watch Out Eels: The stats tell the story – and it’s very ugly reading for Parramatta fans. The Eels have lost their past 12 matches at ANZ Stadium and conceded 373 points along the way. Another loss for Parramatta means it’s their longest losing streak since 1995 – and a Bulldogs victory means it’s their sixth straight win against Parramatta… for the first time since 1975! The Eels haven’t even won a match away from home in 2013. Ouch.

Plays To Watch: Look for Tony Williams to get heavily involved – the Bulldogs back-rower, playing his 100th NRL game, will be no doubt keen to celebrate the milestone with a strong performance against his club of origin. Also, look for halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds to get lots of ball in the hands of their elusive outside backs Ben Barba, Josh Morris and Krisnan Inu to run them into form – Canterbury score a mediocre average of just 20.1 points per game (eighth in the NRL) and it is no doubt an area coach Des Hasler wants to improve before the finals... if they make it that far.

The Eels, meanwhile, looked best against the Raiders when they chanced their arm – don’t be surprised to see Stuart take the shackles off his team and give permission for Luke Kelly, Ben Roberts and co to go with their gut… whether it’s a chip-and-chase, long opportunistic cut-out passes or something completely left field. Expect the unexpected – it’s an approach that could keep the Bulldogs guessing, and one that could keep well the Eels in the game.

Key Match-Up: If there’s any hope of the Eels slipping past the hungry Bulldogs here, a winning platform needs to be laid by their forwards. The key battle that needs to be won initially is through the centre – and nothing is more crucial than the battle of the starting front-rowers Aiden Tolman and James Graham (Bulldogs) up against Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi (Eels). Moimoi averages 95.6 metres and has recorded 18 tackle-breaks; Mannah averages 123.1 metres and has recorded 24 tackle-breaks – both will need to put in well above average games against their opposite numbers here. If they can bend or break the Bulldogs’ defence and, just as importantly, stop Tolman and Graham, they’re in with an-ever-so-slight sniff of victory.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. If the Bulldogs come ready to play, there’s no question they’ll come away with the two points. Their line-up is much stronger and they’ve actually got something to play for the rest of the season. The Eels do not… but whether complacency sets in amongst the Canterbury players remains to be seen. A loss for the Bulldogs, though, and it could see them slip out of the eight altogether.

The History: Played 133; Bulldogs 71, Eels 57, drawn 5. At ANZ Stadium the Bulldogs also hold a slender advantage, victorious in 11 of their 19 clashes.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline officials – Ricky McFarlane; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Luke Patten.

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 Bulldogs v Eels clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone or iPad. Download now for iPhone and iPad or Android

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld).

The Way We See It: The Bulldogs are red-hot favourites – and rightly so. The Eels’ line-up, minus injured star fullback Jarryd Hayne, simply can’t compete in this one – especially nursing the worst defensive record (conceding an average of 28 points per game) in the competition. The Bulldogs by 14 points, and that’s probably being kind.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.

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