Eels v Panthers preview
Parramatta Eels v Penrith Panthers
TIO Stadium, Darwin
Saturday 7pm local time (7.30pm AET)
Rugby league heads to the Territory this week but unfortunately for the combatants, the Eels and the Panthers, each side had their fast-fading finals hopes snuffed out last week.
The two most injury-hit clubs in the competition this year haven't had a lot of luck between them but each will be desperate to rack up a couple more wins this year for overall morale, to give disappointed fans something to cheer about and also to stay away from dreaded wooden spoon territory.
The Eels were dealt a double blow on match eve against the Titans on Monday with both centres Will Hopoate and Brad Takairangi ruled out with minor injuries. Both have been named to return this week, pushing Vai Toutai and Bureta Faraimo out of the backline while Corey Norman also returns at five-eighth at the expense of Joseph Paulo.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary also has little to celebrate when it comes to injuries with winger Robert Jennings ruled out after tearing a hamstring under the weight of two Burgesses last week. His absence means Lewis Brown moves to the centres pushing Waqa Blake to wing, with Bryce Cartwright moving into the starting side and Api Koroisau joining the bench.
The Eels flew up to Darwin on Tuesday – the afternoon after the trip to the Gold Coast and barely a week after last Monday night's loss in Townsville – meaning the players will be rolling in frequent flyer miles which, combined with a short five-day turnaround, could potentially sap a bit of their energy.
Watch out Eels: The struggling Eels can ill-afford to be giving any opponents a free leg-up, which is what has been happening far too often by way of their 130 penalties conceded this season – the third worst. Penrith are teacher's pets by comparison, being pinged just 93 times to make them the second best-behaved team in the competition. The Eels will also struggle to get through the Panthers defensive line if stats are any indication – Parra break the second-fewest tackles of any side with 20 per game while Penrith miss the fewest tackles on any side with just 19 per match.
Watch out Panthers: One big plus for the Eels is their dominant left-edge attack, which has culminated in winger Semi Radradra being the competition's equal-top try scorer with 17 in just 13 games. That left edge was clunky at best in last Monday's loss to the Titans, in no small part due to the injury-enforced absence of Radradra's usual co-conspirators, centre Brad Takairangi and playmaker Corey Norman. With both those men back this week expect the Eels to be much better at getting Radradra some quality ball.
Key Match-Up: Nathan Peats v James Segeyaro. Peats has been among the Eels' best players since making the move from Redfern at the end of 2013, while Segeyaro has been a revelation since heading south from Townsville one year earlier than that. Peats has been a steadying influence for the Eels while Segeyaro has been an attacking sensation. Only Penrith's Elijah Taylor and Brisbane's Andrew McCullough average more than Peats's 47 tackles per game but Segeyaro outpoints him in all attacking stats with a 39-13 advantage in tackle breaks despite having played four fewer games, with seven line breaks to two and a huge 26-2 advantage in offloads. This is counteracted somewhat by a much higher error rate, making 14 mistakes this year to Peats's six.
The History: Played 90; Eels 54, Panthers 35, Drawn 1. Things are reasonably even between the two western Sydney rivals of late, with the past six matches split three apiece. Each side is one from one in Darwin, with the Eels downing Canberra there last year and Penrith lapping the Titans up there in 2013.
What Are The Odds: Despite their horror injury toll, money is running three to one in favour of the Panthers in the battle of the west. Semi Radradra is a short-priced first try scorer, but that hasn't stopped Sportsbet punters backing him to score the opening try of the game. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Adam Devcich & Matt Noyen; touch judges: Michael Wise & Nick Morel; Video Referees: Steve Clark & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: With finals footy little more than a very vague mathematical possibility for both these teams, motivation will instead have to come from pride and passion, giving fans a rare bright spot late in a tough season and of course avoiding the dreaded wooden spoon with each team just a win ahead of the last-placed Tigers and Knights. The long haul to Darwin provides neither team with a particular advantage over the other, although Parramatta's two Queensland sojourns in the past fortnight and short turnaround may mean they feel it more than Penrith do. It's one of those ones where anything can happen but we'll lean to the Panthers in a spirited six-point win.