Panthers v Eels
Friday, 7.30pm (AEST)
No wonder the locals are getting a little restless. Parramatta and Penrith haven't been this close in almost 30 years.
Not since the Eels last tasted premiership success has the Battle of the West been more than just an irrelevant fight for the region's bragging rights.
Not since June of 1986 – when Parramatta boasted the names Sterling, Kenny and Price and the Panthers enjoyed a young Alexander, Cartwright and Simmons – have the pride of Sydney's west occupied two of the top four spots on the competition ladder.
Yet here we are, almost 30 years on, with the third-placed Panthers hosting the fourth-placed Eels. Victory on Friday night will elevate one team's status to possible contenders, while defeat will condemn the other to probable pretenders.
Penrith will be buoyed by their first set of back-to-back victories, registering hard-fought wins on the road in Newcastle and then Canberra before last week's bye. Just goes to show how far two weeks of good, consistent football will get you.
Parramatta, meanwhile, have gone from wooden-spoon collectors to cold-blooded coach-killers after their 36-0 dumping of St George Illawarra a fortnight ago virtually rendered Dragons coach Steve Price a dead man walking.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary gets Kiwi back-rowers Elijah Taylor (knee) and Lewis Brown (pec) back from injury, but there's still no sign of Kevin Kingston (foot). There's a chance he could be a late inclusion after training through the week.
Eels mentor Brad Arthur will wait with baited breath on how ready club linchpin Jarryd Hayne will be 48 hours after his man-of-the-match effort. (It should be remembered Hayne's second half of 2013 was hampered by a hamstring injury suffered after backing up from Game I last year.)
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Watch Out Panthers: The Eels are ranked first in tries (Radradra 11, Hayne 9, Ken Sio 9) and points per game, and third in line breaks (Radradra 10, Hayne 9, Sio 7). There's no-one else in the league more confident in attack right now than Parramatta and it's all centred on their impressive back three.
Watch Out Eels: While the Eels are the hottest team with the ball, Penrith are one of the hottest teams without it. As it stands, the Panthers are giving up just 2.3 tries per game – second fewest behind competition leaders the Bulldogs. They also rank second in opposition line breaks with 3.3 – second lowest to the Rabbitohs.
Plays To Watch: A Panthers set play that looked strikingly similar to the Storm's famed outside-inside move came up trumps in the nation's capital a fortnight ago when hooker James Segeyaro jumped to the right out of dummy-half, turned it inside to halfback Peter Wallace running against the grain, who sent it further left to five-eighth Jamie Soward, affording fullback Matt Moylan space on the inside.
For the Eels, Jarryd Hayne is playing like a man possessed. When he's not scoring tries – he's got nine so far – he uses his supreme ball-playing skills to carry out his pinpoint vision, just like he did on two occasions against the Dragons a fortnight ago with a couple of short balls targeted for lazy players in defence. The only way to curb his attacking influence is by keeping the Eels out of their red zone because once they're there, there's no stopping him.
Where It Will Be Won: Parramatta's at-times paper-thin defence. We're all accustomed by now with the Eels' seemingly limitless reserves of attacking power, but can they read what opposition teams are going to do with the ball?
They are the second worst team in the league for conceding line break assists. On the flip side, Penrith aren't exactly crash hot at getting men to crash through defensive walls either, with their 30 line break assists the fourth lowest total in the competition.
Parramatta will get theirs, but how much will they give to Penrith?
The History: Played 104; Eels 60, Panthers 42, drawn 2. There is no other team in the premiership that has handed Penrith more football lessons than their geographical neighbours, and that didn't change during a 32-16 spanking back in Round 4. That win proved to be a breakthrough victory for the Eels and triggered Chris Sandow's personal comeback.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – delayed 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: Blockbuster games like these, where a sell-out crowd isn't exactly out of the question, have a way of coming down to the wire. Much depends on the fitness of Jarryd Hayne but if the plane does take off the Eels just might come away in a tight one. We'll give it to Parra by four points.
*Statistics: Champion Data