Eels v Cowboys preview
If it feels like these two sides only just played, it's because it's only five short weeks since a below-par Eels outfit was trounced 42-14 up in Townsville in Round 8, and it's fair to say they'll be hoping for an improved showing back at Fortress Parra.
That Round 8 loss and their dismal and Hayne-less last start 38-12 loss at Penrith are the side's only really poor performances since a Round 2 thumping by the Roosters, with the team otherwise either winning or competing strongly, and coach Brad Arthur will be hoping the return of his talismanic fullback and a return to their home patch will be the tonic the team needs.
It was surely the right move to rest Hayne rather than forcing him to play two days after one of the most gruelling Origin contests in recent memory, given he suffered a long-term hamstring injury backing up from Origin I last year. He replaces Justin Hunt at the back in one of several changes.
Willie Tonga is back from injury replacing Ryan Morgan in the centres while props Darcy Lussick (knee injury) and Mitch Allgood (two-match suspension) are out. English Test forward Lee Mossop makes his NRL debut off the bench and Kenny Edwards returns from injury in the starting back row.
Thing are looking far rosier in Queensland's far north after an underwhelming start to the year. In their past five starts they have four strong wins, with the only loss coming at Canberra with all their Origin stars away.
It's those Origin stars, and in particular Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, who have been leading the charge in their recent dominant run, and with no fresh injury concerns coach Paul Green has named an identical line-up to the side that was too good for a Storm outfit missing injured Origin players Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater last week. Joel Riethmuller has been added to an extended bench.
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Watch Out Eels: Scott and Thurston were outstanding backing up from Origin against the Storm, and should only be even better with a full week off under their belts. Scott has been in career-best form and added another 175 metres and 32 tackles last week, while 'JT' was again the conductor, scoring one try and setting up another. His so-called "poor" performance in Origin I was only poor by his own superhuman standards but nevertheless he'll be a man on a mission as he looks to correct the Cowboys' sub-par away record this week.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Eels are sitting on comfortably the longest home winning run of any side – in matches at Pirtek Stadium they're sitting on seven straight wins. You have to go back to a Round 21, 2013 loss to Manly for their last loss in front of their home crowd. Needless to say they also welcome back Origin I Man of the Match Jarryd Hayne. Plenty has been made of their poor record with him absent but they're a completely different side when he's there. Even beyond his involvement, just the confidence he gives his teammates now is hugely influential. He's also the current ladder leader in Dally M voting and with nine tries, eight try assists, 51 tackle breaks and crucially, eight try saves in his 10 games, it's easy to see why.
Plays To Watch:
Mossop has been working his way back from injury for Eels NSW Cup side Wentworthville and he's shown the ability to ball-play close to the line. Keep an eye on him when he comes on because Hayne will be ready for any late offloads he produces while the middle support players such as Corey Norman, Chris Sandow and Joe Paulo will be ready for any late short passes he holds up. The Cowboys need to find a way to get Jason Taumalolo consistently playing at his tackle-breaking best without weighing him down in defence, where he has made a habit of big misses in too many games this year. Ethan Lowe has been absorbing some of that role in Gavin Cooper's absence, look for him to again do a lot of the clean-up work around the ruck, leaving Taumalolo free to run at those edge defenders – in particular Chris Sandow.
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Where It Will Be Won: Controlling the ruck. Hooker has been an issue for both these clubs in recent years but Rory Kostjasyn's recent performances mean the Cowboys can finally stop worrying about how they let James Segeyaro get away. One of the biggest differences in the Eels' improved efforts this year has been the tight control and direction around the ruck provided by Nathan Peats. With him out there will be huge pressure on halfback Luke Kelly to fill that gap. The Eels were rudderless without Peats in Round 2 against the Roosters and if Kelly can't reverse that problem it could be problems for the Eels.
The History: Played 30; Eels 16, Cowboys 13, Draw 1. The northerners have won their past four against the Eels, while the blue-and-golds won the five before that. Prior to the Cowboys' win at Parramatta last year they'd lost five in a row at the venue going back to 2007.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet.com.au has this clash as a toss-of-the-coin match, with both sides at $1.90. But punters couldn’t disagree more, with the Cowboys attracting six times more money than the Eels. Expect the visitors to start favourites.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm (Queensland); Delayed, 9:30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: The return of Hayne and a return to Parramatta work in the Eels' favour but the loss of Peats against the in-form Cowboys is massive. With Hayne in current form anything's possible but the far-more-settled Cowboys look the safer bet. North Queensland by six points.