Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Canberra Raiders
The pressure will be on the Eels both physically and psychologically in this one after letting last week's game against Penrith slip from a winning position courtesy of two late tries – and having done the same thing in their last meeting with this week's opponents as well.
That dramatic finish, in Round 26 last year, saw a last-minute Edrick Lee try and a post-siren sideline conversion from Jarrod Croker followed up by a golden try from hooker Josh Hodgson to frustrate the Eels in the last game of 2015 for both sides.
A new year brings new hope and there is a lot to like about the finals aspirations of both these sides after five rounds this year, with each notching three wins from five starts (although the Raiders are a point ahead on the ladder courtesy of a draw with Newcastle).
The Raiders last week did what few clubs will probably do this year, and that's outmuscle a big Bulldogs pack through the middle. Meanwhile the Eels – a coach's nightmare in terms of their edge defence in recent years – have turned into one of the most miserly clubs in the NRL, conceding less than 12 points a game, second only to the Cowboys.
The home side welcomes back hooker Nathan Peats for this one, which pushes Isaac De Gois to the bench and Kaysa Pritchard to Wentworthville duties. Young prop Daniel Alvaro gets a start this week with Tim Mannah still absent, following some barnstorming efforts for Wentworthville in recent weeks, replacing David Gower.
The Raiders have just one injury-enforced change, with Luke Bateman replacing Sia Soliola (fractured arm) on the bench.
Watch out Eels: Last Monday at Belmore represented a signal of intent from Ricky Stuart's men. Ferocious work from their middles laid the platform as Frank-Paul Nuuausala (140 metres) Shannon Boyd (121 metres) and Paul Vaughan (115 metres) won the battle against the Bulldogs' vaunted pack. It allowed their impressive halves pairing of Blake Austin and Aiden Sezer to control the match well and prevent the home side getting back in the contest.
Watch out Raiders: Parramatta have broken more tackles than any side in the competition so far. Fortunately for the Raiders, they are conceding the fewest tackle breaks of any club. What happens when unstoppable force meets immovable object? We'll find out on Saturday. In a list dominated by backs, the Eels boast the only forward in the competition currently in the top 10 tackle breakers; impressive back-rower Kenny Edwards has 21 busts after five rounds. But expect the likes of Michael Jennings (22), Semi Radradra and Michael Gordon (20 busts each) to also prove a handful.
Key match-up: Beau Scott v Josh Papalii. Or, Canberra's devastating left-edge runner versus the Eels' rock-solid right edge defender. Expect these two back-rowers to come together an awful lot on Sunday and whoever wins this little head-to-head tussle will go a long way to winning it for their side. If Scott can shut down the Raiders battering ram the Green Machine will have to find other ways to power through the Eels. But if Papalii wears the Eels' right edge down then bashes through, life will get very tough for Parramatta. NSW Origin stalwart Scott is making 36 tackles per game compared to Papalii's 25 and doing so at a near 100 per cent efficiency rate. Meanwhile the Maroons enforcer is barging through 88 metres per game with a whopping three tackle breaks every week compared to just 56 metres and 0.6 busts for Scott.
The history: Played 51; Eels 25, Raiders 26. Honours are fairly even overall but it's been all Green Machine of late, with six of the past seven contests going Canberra's way – including their past two visits to Pirtek Stadium.
What are the odds: As soon as Canberra upset the Bulldogs, the money came pouring in for the Raiders and they look like firming all the way through to kick off. Having said that, Sportsbet reports that there's still slightly more money on Parramatta in the head-to-head market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Adam Devcich. Assistant referee: Chris James. Sideline officials: Russell Turner and Rohan Best. Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 2.30pm.
The way we see it: Soliola is a huge out for the Raiders and the short turnaround won't help them, although the chance to build continuity with their halves after early-season injuries is an asset. The Eels will be stinging after last week's close loss and desperate to improve on their one win from three starts at Pirtek so far this year. Early momentum will be vital with this match on a knife-edge but capable of swinging to either side in the blink of an eye. With our eyes firmly closed we'll tip... the Raiders by six.