Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Parramatta Eels
A massive question hangs over this encounter, and it's one that seems to be gaining momentum each week: Are the Parramatta Eels legitimate premiership contenders?
Having not made the finals since 2009, it was thought their early-season success could have been just a flash in the pan. However, they have become one of the most consistent and successful sides in the NRL, and sit nicely in the top four.
It is not just the fact they are winning, but rather the way they are winning. They are playing football the right way and have been grinding out wins with discipline, persistence and execution.
This Saturday is primed as the ultimate yardstick for Parramatta, with coach Brad Arthur already labeling it as the toughest challenge of the season to date.
The Cowboys turned in what will probably be one of their worst performances of 2016 last time these teams met, and will be out to balance the ledger. They look unbeatable on their home patch this season, going undefeated with a +108 points differential in four home games.
Both clubs have named unchanged line-ups from last week.
Watch out Cowboys: The Cowboys have not lost the yardage battle at home so far this year, but the Eels' pack is fast becoming one of the most formidable in the game. They have great first contact with emerging forwards Junior Paulo, Daniel Alvaro and Tepai Moeroa surveying the middle. Interestingly, Paulo is averaging approximately six run metres per game less than in 2015, but his involvements appear so much more damaging this year. Only Brisbane looks like challenging the Cowboys in an up-and-down style game at the moment, but the Eels proved in Round 2 that the premiers can be bullied if they don't turn up at 100 per cent.
Watch out Eels: Cowboys coach Paul Green made a good point earlier in the week, saying while the Eels were one of the league's best defensive teams in the 'points against' column, their defensive schemes could also provide opportunities if the opposition's attack is sharp enough. One area he was likely referring to was the Eels' tactic of jamming attacks from the outside in. The approach has shut down many teams this season and has them giving away just 10.7 per game, but it has the potential to backfire against a slick Cowboys team that executes attack with pace, precision and a lot of depth. North Queensland does a great job of using the entire field, and with the depth of their attacking line, Parramatta could give away the sideline if the Cowboys are good enough to get the ball out there.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Kieran Foran. These two hold the key to breaking down each other's strong defences. The Eels concede the second-fewest points in the league, while North Queensland sit third. All things being equal, Thurston and the Cowboys – who lead the league with 28.5 points per game – will provide more opportunities on the goal line.
The history: Played 34; Cowboys 15, Eels 18, Drawn 1. Despite the two sides being at opposite ends of the ladder in recent years, they have split the last four encounters. Their most notable matchup was last year’s ridiculous Cowboys comeback – the third largest comeback in NRL history. History counts for very little, however, considering the Eels’ recent revitalisation.
What are the odds: Punters with Sportsbet have been keen on the big price offered for the Eels, who have shortened throughout the week. There is actually 50 per cent more money invested on an Eels victory, although this is expected to be a tight on, with very few takers for either side to win by 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Peter Gough; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Adam Reid; Review Officials: Jason Robinson and Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm.
The way we see it: The proverbial graveyard, 1300SMILES Stadium is too much of a fortress for any traveling team to compete right now. While the Eels got the better of this Round 2 matchup, tactically the game probably favours the hosts. In the prior game they completed at just 63 per cent, with many errors coming out of their own half, but that simply will not happen this time around. Cowboys by 12.