Eels v Bulldogs preview
Parramatta Eels v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Heritage Round kicks off with a good old-fashioned western Sydney grudge match. It is rivalry forged in a series of bitter battles through the eighties, including the '84 and '86 grand finals, through to a stunning '98 grand final qualifier Eels fans would love to forget or the epic '09 grand final qualifier in front of 75,000 people that saw the Eels push through to almost complete a miracle run.
The Round 2 clash between these two teams remains the best-attended Sydney game this year outside of Easter weekend and Anzac Day, where the Eels at once stage early in the second half looked on track for an unlikely win before a slew of injuries hobbled their season.
This time around the Eels enter the contest with a handy run of form under their belts on the back of three straight wins, and four of their past five, moving them to within two competition points of the eighth-placed Bulldogs, who were underwhelming against a determined Broncos outfit last week.
The Eels are still without injured hooker Nathan Peats and fullback Reece Robinson, meaning they go into this one with the same 17 from the win over the Wests Tigers in Round 17.
Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has made a single change to the side that went down to Brisbane, recalling rested halfback Trent Hodkinson and moving Moses Mbye to the bench, which shifts Tim Browne to 18th man.
Watch out Eels: The giant Bulldogs forward pack is (quite literally) Hasler's biggest weapon, and it was used to great effect in a bulldozing of Melbourne at Belmore the game before the Brisbane loss. Giant young edge forward Shaun Lane has added an extra dimension to the team's attack, chiming in with a try in each of his last two games and combining beautifully on that right edge with Trent Hodkinson against the Storm. With Hodkinson returning after sitting out the Brisbane game expect the likes of Manu Ma'u and Brad Takairangi to have a job on their hands containing him.
Watch out Bulldogs: Corey Norman may not consider himself a fullback but the Eels have looked a far more organised team since he moved to the back. His communication and game management is first rate and he's slowly increasing his involvement as he gets more time in the No.1 jersey. His nine try assists and 10 line-break assists are an indication of his effective ball-playing at the line. His control over proceedings and work in moving the side around the park allows livewire half Chris Sandow to play off the cuff with greater effect alongside steady half Luke Kelly and the combination is thus far paying some dividends.
Key Match-Up: Semi Radradra v Curtis Rona. They're both left-edge wingers so they won't come together in the middle very often but they are very much head-to-head in the season try-scoring race. Each has 16 four-pointers this year and while Rona's have come at exactly one per game, Radradra has played just 10 times due to injury while scoring at the ridiculous rate of 1.6 tries per game. These teams, unsurprisingly, boast the two best attacking left flanks in the competition and while the match will be won and lost in the middle, whichever of these prolific try-scorers emerges with his nose in front on the score sheet will in all probability be on the winning team.
The History: Played 137; Eels 58, Bulldogs 74, Drawn 5. The Eels have beaten Canterbury just once in nine attempts since 2010 but downed their western Sydney rivals in eight of the nine previous clashes. The numbers aren't pretty for Parramatta at ANZ, where they had won just one of their past 20 against all opposition prior to the last-start win over the Tigers.
What Are The Odds: The Bulldogs are heavy favourites, but Parramatta 1-12 is an attractive option for many punters. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Chris James. Touch Judges: Nick Beashel & Adam Reid. Video Referees: Steve Chiddy & Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm (NSW); Delayed, 9.30pm (QLD).
The Way We See It: The Eels will start big outsiders here but if they start well and move the ball around and tire out the big Dogs side they'll give themselves every chance. Their recent record against the Dogs and at ANZ isn't encouraging but that counts for little on Friday night. We'll play it safe and take the Dogs in a narrow one but if you're off the pace in your tipping comp and need to make up ground this may be one upset to consider.