Eels v Raiders
TIO Stadium, Darwin
Saturday, 8.30 pm AEST (8 pm NT)
Just short of 12 months ago Ricky Stuart packed up his projector and left Parramatta after a dismal year in which they added another wooden spoon to the blue and gold cutlery draw.
He now shapes up against his former club staring down an unwanted piece in rugby league history – being the first coach to 'win' two wooden spoons at two different clubs in back-to-back years – while Brad Arthur, the bloke who picked up the Eels can last October, has carried it all the way to the brink of an unlikely finals berth.
Whoever said rugby league's a funny old game could do a fair old Scrooge McDuck impression, rolling around on all those coins he gets whenever someone utters the phrase.
Raiders fans were left either laughing or crying into their beers after their side's 54-18 drubbing at the hands of the Warriors last weekend, a performance as ugly as the lavender shorts they sported to complement their Hulk-themed jerseys.
Compounding the result were the losses of their best forward this year, Shaun Fensom (knee), their second best forward this year, David Shillington (pectoral), back-up hooker Kurt Baptiste (shoulder) and their skipper Terry Campese (oblique).
Only Campese stands a chance of returning this year, but despite the growing casualty ward Stuart has rung the changes thick and fast for the Raiders, with star fullback Anthony Milford shifting into the halves alongside Josh McCrone, and outside men Jack Wighton (thumb) and Edrick Lee (foot) return from injury.
The biggest rabbit emerging from Ricky's hat is the return of Jordan Rapana at fullback, who was last sighted in the NRL during his debut year with the Titans in 2008, before leaving the game to take up a Mormon mission placement and then returning to the game after a stint with the rah-rahs. Jarrad Kennedy shifts to second row, Shannon Boyd and Matt McIllwrick start for Shillington and Fenson, while Mitch Cornish has been named on the bench.
The Eels meanwhile continue their pursuit of their first top eight finish since 2009, and while their 32-12 defeat of the Sharks would hardly have the rest of the competition shaking in their boots, the performance of Jarryd Hayne would have.
With Hayne (two tries, 280 metres and eight tackle breaks at the weekend) displaying the same scary-good type of form that took Parramatta on their giant killing run six years ago, the Eels will have teams ahead of them on the ladder looking over their shoulders while ever their skipper is present and performing.
The danger for the rest of the squad is to avoid relying too heavily on his brilliance to get them out of trouble, as has looked increasingly the case in their two last-start wins over the Titans and Sharks, with halves Chris Sandow and Corey Norman needing to straighten the attack and bring young edge weapons Tepai Moeroa and Pauli Pauli to the fore.
For Parramatta David Gower is out with a corked thigh, which sees Joseph Paulo moving to lock and Kenny Edwards returning in the back row.
Watch Out Eels: Few if any Raiders would've left GIO Stadium holding their heads high on Sunday night, but going closest would've been reserve prop Paul Vaughan. The 'Italian Stallion' proved himself a handful for the Warriors defence, as he has for most any opposition he has stared down in 2014, with two line breaks, six tackle busts and 106 metres from eight runs. The big fella was justly rewarded with a sixth try of the season, the best of any front-rower in the game, and will back himself if the Raiders get within close range of the Eels line.
Watch Out Raiders: The Raiders’ left edge was in desperate need of a plumber after leaking eight four pointers in their last two outings, including the first four against the Warriors. Whether the changes Stuart has made either side of centre Jarrod Croker will make one lick of difference is pretty debateable though, with incoming winger Bill Tupou having missed as many tackles (11) as he's made in his five games this year, and new five-eighth Milford (if he does indeed defend in the front line) not faring much better with 26 misses and 35 successful tackles. Expect Hayne to make a beeline for the trio with the same second-man plays that found Johnathan Thurston out in Origin, while Will Hopoate and two-try debutant Bureta Faraimo will be licking their lips at the prospect of shaping up to an untried defensive combination in which two members miss three tackles out of every four they're required to make.
Plays To Watch: The Raiders can expect to cop some Hayne Plane-inflicted pain if they give the man any leeway on their kick chase – the NSW custodian has racked up the third most kick return metres in the competition (887) – while his runaway try late in the game against the Sharks gave a telling reminder just how potent he is when confronted with a disjointed defensive line, regardless of how far away the try line is.
The Raiders don’t mind an offload or two, and with the Eels’ defence improved on previous years, but still conceding 24.5 points a game (less than only the Sharks and the Raiders), the potential for the Green Machine's big men to crack Parramatta up the middle is there. Should big men Dane Tilse (33 offloads) and Josh Papalii (39 tackle breaks) get their arms free or push through the line, pocket rocket Anthony Milford will prove a handful.
Where It Will Be Won: Stamina. The two NRL games taken to the tropics in recent years have both been one-sided affairs; the Roosters found themselves on the wrong end of a 50-10 thrashing at the hands of the Cowboys and were widely ridiculed for taking their home game so far north in 2012, while last year the Titans wilted in the second half in their clash with the Panthers, going down 40-18 after scores were level 12-all at halftime. The forecast maximum for Saturday is a balmy 33°C, which will drop by the time the 8pm kickoff rolls around, but both sides will be well aware of just how steamy it is in the back end of both halves, and all those miles of training logged back in the summer months will come to the fore. Given Parramatta's propensity for points, and the Raiders’ well-documented defensive woes, the Canberrans in particular need to stand up in the heat, or Fuifui's long locks won't be the only thing blowing out in the thick Darwin humidity.
The History: Played 48, Eels 24, Raiders 24. It may be even footing historically, but the Eels have been off the pace of late against the Green Machine, going down in four straight losses to the Raiders going back to 2010.
What Are The Odds: The Eels have been backed from $1.75 into $1.25, with not even the 12.5 start to the Raiders ($3.75) enough to entice punters to have a crack at Ricky Stuart’s side. Eels 13+ seems to be the way to go. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Morris & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Clayton Sharpe Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Live Fox Sports 8.30 pm (AEST).
How We See It: Given the attacking smorgasbord on offer and the suspect defence of both teams, the Darwin crowd can expect some entertaining footy as league makes another foray into the Territory. But with the Raiders deprived of their two strongest forwards and with confidence at a season low, we're also expecting the fireworks to be pretty one-sided. Eels by 16.