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Eels v Rabbitohs
As we head into the business end of the season, Round 19 kicks off with a fascinating meeting between two sides whose respective top eight (Eels) and top four (Rabbitohs) hopes have been dented by very poor last-start losses and a worrying losing streak.
Of concern for coaches of both these sides – neither has tasted victory in a month, since their Round 14 wins. Only the Broncos (Round 13) have gone longer without singing their team song.
The Eels are now the bottom of five sides, starting with the seventh-placed Broncos, on 20 competition points – but their 48-point shellacking at the hands of the Warriors has further damaged their already unhealthy for-and-against. With no Jarryd Hayne they weren't favoured to take the two points from their trip to Auckland, but at the very least they needed to try and escape without too much damage to their differential.
Another loss here will see them genuinely start to lose touch with the top eight after sitting within the top half of the competition for much of the season to date. Fans will be hoping a return to the favoured home patch and a return of captain and fullback Hayne will result in a change of fortunes.
Like their opponents this Friday, they could be looking for a little bit of that bounce-back-factor to come into play here.
The Rabbitohs are coming off a Round 18 bye but previous back-to-back losses sees them sit on 22 competition points, still in fourth but level now with the Roosters and Warriors.
Before last week's bye they put in a performance they'd rather forget about; the Bunnies were simply woeful in going down 14-10 to the visiting Titans in Round 17. The Titans had lost six straight before that, and South Sydney's 10 points included a conversion and two penalty goals, with the remaining four points the result of a try from a kick.
Throw in the 17 errors and 10 penalties conceded and it was a poor return from a side with Souths' power-packed forward roster, and an inauspicious 2014 debut for five-eighth Luke Keary. Although Keary himself, who set up and scored the side's only try, was one of the team's best in that game, his combination with halfback Adam Reynolds looks like it may take some time to get going.
For now, coach Michael Maguire has opted to shift Keary back to the bench and reinstate the Reynolds-Sutton halves pairing, with Api Koroisau moved back to an extended bench and Issac Luke promoted to starting hooker. The return of fullback Greg Inglis from Origin duty means Nathan Merritt misses out and Ben Lowe starts at lock for Sutton.
George Burgess has again been named at prop despite leaving the field with an ankle injury in Round 17. Joe Picker and Jason Clark join the bench with Tom Burgess pushed back to a long extended bench that also features Joel Reddy.
With Hayne returning at fullback for the Eels Chris Sandow returns to halfback and Luke Kelly drops back to NSW Cup. Fuifui Moimoi moves into the starting side for Darcy Lussick who is out for a week with a minor knee injury. Joe Paulo and Pauli Pauli drop back to the bench with Kenny Edwards returning from injury in the second row alongside last week's debutant Tepai Moeroa, promoted to starting second row, with David Gower shifting to lock. Ben Smith has also been added to the bench in jersey 18.
Watch Out Eels: He's well and truly in the running for the 2014 Dally M Medal, and rugby-bound forward Sam Burgess looks like a man on a mission, determined to leave league with a bang. Burgess is putting up some ridiculous numbers, including comfortably the most runs of any player in 2014 with 327 (next best is fellow English Test prop James Graham, with 282), and total metres with 2,774 (Graham again is second with 2,426). He also has the most offloads of any player with 39, ahead of Bronco Corey Parker (34) and is fourth among all forwards for tackle breaks (48), has produced five tries, and a lazy 573 tackles (ninth most in NRL) at around 36 per game. With those numbers it's easy to see why he's at the top of the Dally M ladder.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Speaking of Dally M voting, the Eels also have a player at the pointy end of the tally. Jarryd Hayne has been in vintage form in 2014, drawing comparisons to his stunning run to the Dally M and a grand final appearance in 2009. He is a player than tends to return from an Origin campaign in better form than he entered it, which is enough to sound alarm bells for opponents given his Origin I heroics, backed up by strong performances in the remaining two games. His attacking stats this year: 11 tries (equal fourth), 14 line breaks (equal third), 71 tackle breaks (sixth), 11 try assists (equal 12th), and a massive 167 metres per game. But if anything it is Hayne's nine try saves (equal third most) that underscores his value to this Eels team and shows that he has his head on straight in 2014.
Plays To Watch: Maguire has pulled the handbrake on his reintroduction of Luke Keary for now, shifting the young playmaker back to the bench. Keep an eye on how he is used when he comes on: given he looks like displacing Api Koroisau it could be more in a dummy half role but with Luke capable of playing big minutes at hooker, if the Rabbitohs get out to a healthy lead Maguire is likely to want another look at how Keary and Reynolds combine.
For the Eels, their experiment with Chris Sandow at fullback paid big dividends as a shock tactic against the Bulldogs but was targeted to good effect by the Warriors. With Hayne back look for Sandow to be back at his chirpy best, looking for cheeky chip kicks, 40/20s and finding touch from goal line drop outs.
Where It Will Be Won: The big men in the middle. The Eels got jumped badly at Mt Smart last week by a dynamic Warriors pack and looked to be missing the experience of captain Tim Mannah. As talented, damaging and promising as guys like Junior Paulo and Pauli Pauli are, the side is probably missing a solid grafter or two. On the other hand the Rabbitohs pack, on their day, are the perfect blend of big, mobile, damaging and experienced. Sam and George Burgess are the keys and if they get over the top of the Eels early it will be tough for the blue-and-golds to get back into the arm-wrestle.
The History: Played 117; Eels 50, Rabbitohs 64, drawn 3. The Bunnies are on a six-game winning run against the Eels – with all of those matches played at ANZ Stadium. Souths haven't actually won at Parramatta since all the way back in 1995 but that stat is slightly deceiving – the Eels have beaten the Rabbitohs eight times at the venue since then but those games all fell between 1997 and 2007, when the Rabbitohs were a much weaker side than they are now, up against some pretty good Eels outfits of the early- and mid-2000s.
What Are The Odds: Punters with Sportsbet believe the Rabbitohs are juicy odds at $1.50 against a Parramatta side seemingly on the slide. 3 times the money has gone on the Bunnies, and they’re also keen on Souths giving away 6.0 start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm (NSW), Channel Nine, delayed, 9.30pm (Qld).
The Way We See It: It remains to be seen how much a return to their home patch and a return of their talismanic fullback will boost the Eels but they'll need a drastic improvement on their last outing to get over the top of a Rabbitohs side that rarely strings poor games together these days. As good a prospect as Luke Keary is they look more solid with Reynolds and Sutton paired together. The Eels aren't out of it but we're tipping the visitors to break their long drought at the venue – Rabbitohs by 10.