Storm v Eels
It’s that time of year when the top sides are keeping a close eye on their ladder position and for-and-against as they scrap for a vital top-four finish, while the lower ranked sides begin casting an eye towards strong off-seasons replete with new signings and in some cases new coaches.
As a result it’s a time of year that can throw up the occasional David-and-Goliath type struggle, such as the one inflicted on the hapless Tigers by the rampant Roosters last Monday. And there’s another in the offing here as the last-placed Eels travel to Melbourne to face the back-in-form Storm.
Poor Parramatta are arguably on a hiding to nothing – they would need to win at least two of their last three to have any chance of overhauling the 15th-placed Tigers and dodging the dreaded spoon, and they will go into the match already expected to lose, and lose comfortably.
And what’s worse they’ll have to make one of the NRL’s toughest road trips without star fullback-turned-five-eighth Jarryd Hayne, whose horror season with injuries continued when he left the field with an injured knee last week following a collision with Brisbane fullback Josh Hoffman.
Hayne was a big part of why the Eels scraped past the Tigers a fortnight ago and a big reason why they challenged the Broncos for long periods last week. His absence means Ben Roberts moves from the centres back to five-eighth. Semi Radradra returns from injury on the wing pushing Vai Toutai into the centres.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy has stuck with the same 17 that ground out a tough away win against the Knights last Sunday. Despite being on the wrong end of a 6-1 penalty count in the first half and forced to make almost twice as many tackles the Storm hung in with some desperate defence and were just 8-4 down at the break.
Skipper Cam Smith put in a massive second half after a fairly quiet opening 40 minutes, muscling over from dummy-half to edge his side in front eight minutes after the break. Cooper Cronk chipped in for a Billy Slater try then put the result virtually beyond doubt with a 72nd-minute field goal.
Bellamy will have been pleased with his side’s ability to win tough but it is likely to be a different style of game against the Eels and he will be cautioning his side to maintain their discipline.
Watch Out Storm: We’ll be honest, it’s tough to see the Eels mounting a serious challenge in this one, with complacency likely to pose the most serious danger to the Storm. To be fair the Eels looked strong in attack at times last week and probably just lacked some finesse at the end of their sets. If they are to make something of this game they’ll need yet another big game from skipper Tim Mannah, who has run for more than 300 metres in the past two matches, well more than any other Eel. Joe Paulo has also been good from the bench, making 100-plus metres two weeks in a row.
Watch Out Eels: Where to start? The Eels’ only trip to AAMI Park resulted in a 38-0 drubbing back in 2011 and the last time they won in Victoria was in 2005, the last year the Eels won the minor premiership. They are 0-13 away from Parramatta this year, conceding 33 points per game in those matches, and while a couple of those were technically ‘home’ games at Mudgee and ANZ Stadium a loss here would mean 13 official away losses for the first time since 1975.
Meanwhile the Storm are coming off back-to-back finals-type victories and three weeks ago put the Raiders to the sword to the tune of 68-4. You’d expect them to get the three tries they need to pass 100 all-time against Parramatta – and possibly the seven they need to notch 50 home tries for the 16th successive season. Their big three of Smith, Slater and Cronk all played key hands last week and the side overall not only looks settled but needs to keep winning to be a chance of securing a prized top-two finish.
Plays To Watch: Smith was scheming out of dummy-half last week. While not a noted try scorer they tend to come when his side needs them and his second of the season last week was no exception. Against some disorganised marker defence (Parramatta most metres conceded in 2013 at 1443 per game) Smith could really cut the Eels to shreds.
Meanwhile the Eels have been throwing the ball around much more freely the past few weeks, driving their average season offloads from six per game to almost seven after popping 39 in three games. Eight of those have come from Joe Paulo off the bench; look for him to try to spark something when he comes on.
Key Match-Up: Tim Mannah and Fuifui Moimoi v Jesse Bromwich and Brian Norrie. On paper, prop forward is probably the one position where it is tough to split the two teams, with Mannah and Moimoi two of the Eels’ best this year. But Bromwich and Norrie were both strong last week in limited minutes and unusually (especially in a low-scoring game) both starting props managed to get themselves on the try scorer’s list last week. The Eels’ bookends will be more focused on metres than tries here and will need to earn plenty to give their side a chance.
Where It Will Be Won: Combinations and communication. Were it not for Origin disruptions and the mid-season injury to five-eighth Gareth Widdop, one feels the Storm would have fielded close to the same 17 for most of the season, while the Eels have trialled three halfbacks and five pivots so far this year. Aside from one start to Maurice Blair during the Origin period only Cronk, Widdop and Brett Finch have worn the 6 and 7 for the Storm this year. And that’s without starting on the almost telepathic communication the Storm’s big three have developed over careers playing alongside each other for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia. If the Eels can’t find a way to click in a manner that rivals the Storm it’s hard to see them being successful here.
The History: Played 26; Storm 15, Eels 11. Of the past 10 meetings the Eels have won five times at Parramatta and lost five times away from Parramatta. As mentioned above it’s now a very long time since their previous win in Melbourne in 2005.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Justin Morgan.
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. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: We’re sorry to say it Eels fans but if Parramatta were to win here it would have to rank as one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. With a top-two finish potentially on offer the Storm need to keep winning so even complacency and rested players are unlikely to help the Eels here. Parra will be hoping to maintain their discipline and keep it close enough to make a late charge but if it gets away from them another half century could be on the cards.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.