Parramatta Eels v St George Illawarra Dragons
More than enough column inches have already been spent on the dramas taking place out west at the moment. At time of writing we're still not sure where Sea Eagles star Kieran Foran will be playing his footy next season but in the short term he certainly won't be on hand to help the 14th-placed blue-and-golds try and puncture the defensive wall of the third-placed Dragons.
Sadly for Brad Arthur, the list of players who won't be running out for his side is growing by the week.
Their last-start win against the Storm came at a huge cost, with hooker Nathan Peats (knee), reserve hooker Kaysa Pritchard (pec) and fullback Reece Robinson (fractured cheek) joining the injured list, while promising outside back John Folau (leg) will miss a month after being injured last week for Wentworthville while the first grade side had the bye.
The club's casualty ward is now the lengthiest list in the NRL, with all three hookers (Isaac De Gois is still some way off returning from his fractured cheek) out. Back-rower Anthony Watmough (shoulder) hasn't pulled up after going off injured against Melbourne a fortnight ago. Manu Ma'u still has a week to go on his suspension for lifting the knee on Cowboy Ray Thompson.
The forced reshuffle has in-form five-eighth Corey Norman shifting to the not-unfamiliar position of fullback, where he deputised against Melbourne late in the game. Will Hopoate returns from Origin in the centres moving Ryan Morgan to the wing for Folau, and Luke Kelly has been called into the halves to replace Norman.
Ex-Titan Cody Nelson makes his club debut at hooker, Danny Wicks starts at lock for Watmough, and Daniel Alvaro and Joe Paulo rejoin the bench.
No such problems for Paul McGregor's men, who are unchanged after a close-fought loss to the Roosters on Monday night, with Ben Creagh starting at lock for Trent Merrin who reverts to the bench.
Despite the loss the Dragons are still up in third place and still have the best defensive record in the competition. The only things arguably not in their favour heading into this clash are is a poor record at Pirtek and a five-day turnaround compared to the Eels, who are coming off a bye.
Watch Out Eels: With their first-choice halves combination broken up and their first-choice hooker and fullback missing, the question is how do the Eels find a way to put points past the Red V's impregnable defensive wall? There are no Dragons in the top 15 tacklers of the competition, showing they share the work around, and their main tacklers – Mitch Rein, Jack De Belin, Trent Merrin and Mike Cooper – all boast close to 97 per cent tackle effectiveness or better. Cooper is tackling at an absurd 98.5 per cent effective with just seven misses all year among 431 tackles made. Every other player who has made as many tackles as Cooper this year has missed at least twice as many as him. And for all the talk of their spluttering attack not matching their rock-solid defence, in-form halfback Benji Marshall is now equal second in the competition for try assists with 11.
Watch Out Dragons: For all their woes elsewhere, the Eels' left edge of Brad Takairangi and Semi Radradra is the most potent in the competition, with 31 tries down that third of the field. Major contributor Manu Ma'u will be absent and usual left-side playmaker Norman is moved to fullback so it will be interesting to see how that affects their combination but Norman can still chime in and blockbusting winger Radradra is in rare form.
Making this battle even more interesting is the fact the Dragons' right-side defence is the tightest in the competition with just 11 tries conceded down that channel.
Key Match-Up: Chris Sandow v Benji Marshall. As much as we picture Sandow as an energetic ball runner who loves stabbing deft kicks through the line and long angled punts downfield (his three 40/20s are the most in the competition this year) Marshall actually has more runs (8.2 versus 6.8) and kicks (10.5 v 9.1) per game than Sandow, as well as more tackle breaks (15 v 11) and, as mentioned above, try assists (11 v 9). If the Eels are to get over the top of the Dragons, there is no doubt some of that enigmatic Sandow brilliance will be needed.
The History: Eels 13, Dragons 14, Drawn 2. The Eels have won the past two against the Red V but prior to that it was six wins and a draw to the Dragons in the previous seven. The merged club has only won three times in 13 visits to Pirtek Stadium.
What Are The Odds: It's one way traffic in this one. Sportsbet reports 80 per cent of money being placed on the Dragons and more money on the Red V to win 13+ than all of the other margin options combined. One for the multis. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Ashley Klein & Chris Sutton; touch judges: Nick Beashel & Kasey Badger; video referees: Shayne Hayne & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: In what has been a tumultuous week for Parramatta will they be galvanised into a big performance or simply weighed down by everything that has gone on? The deciding factor may be the fact the Eels are bordering on having more of their salary cap in the casualty ward than on the park. On that basis we'll tip the Red V to get the job done by two tries or more.