Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v South Sydney Rabbitohs
It's been a mighty long fortnight for the Parramatta club for all the wrong reasons and this Friday night the beleaguered players get a chance to get back a bit of normality by doing what they do best – playing footy.
The NRL's preliminary findings and penalties around the club's salary cap breach are still very much preliminary, but if the 12-point penalty ends up being the final one in terms of competition points, the team still has a chance of making the finals if they can win 11 or 12 of their final 15 games – not unachievable given their form so far and remaining draw.
It does mean they can ill-afford to stumble at the first hurdle though, and a desperate Bunnies side coming in off the back of four straight losses (and with just one win in six games since their strong 2-0 start to the year) presents an intriguing challenge.
The Rabbitohs can't afford to be distracted by the whirlwind of drama though. In fact, if ever there was a time for a club to cling to that most trite and overused of all rugby league clichés and just worry about themselves and what they can control, it’s this week.
On the team sheet front, Eels players and fans have been dealt a savage blow with the departure late in the week of popular hooker Nathan Peats to the Gold Coast to fix the board's salary cap dilemma. Expect Isaac De Gois to start with Kaysa Pritchard the most likely call-up on the bench.
The team will again be without team and club captains, Kieran Foran and Tim Mannah, with Brad Takairangi to again be used in the halves and Danny Wicks to start at prop after Mannah's premature recall in Round 9 saw him play just 20 minutes in his comeback from a fractured scapula. Tepai Moeroa also returns from a shin complaint at lock pushing Kenny Edwards to the bench.
Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire has decided enough is enough after those four straight losses and rung in the changes. Star fullback Greg Inglis has been shifted to five-eighth with Alex Johnston making his injury return at fullback and Luke Keary shifting to the bench in place of Damien Cook, who is out, along with Chris Grevsmuhl, Patrice Siolo and Dave Tyrell. In their places, Paul Carter returns to start in the second row, Jason Clark comes in on the bench and Jack Gosiewksi makes his NRL debut on the bench.
Watch out Eels: There's been plenty of conjecture about the form of Bunnies captain and fullback Greg Inglis this year but 'GI' had a field day in last weekend's Trans-Tasman Test, leading Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga to predict Origin's greatest try-scorer to take that form back to club level with him. While Parramatta won't have to worry about his kick returns in this game, they will have to worry about him getting his hands on the ball more in the run of play as five-eighth and those with long memories will remember Inglis earning a Clive Churchill Medal in the 2007 Grand Final playing five-eighth and he's probably learned a thing or two in the eight-and-a-bit seasons since.
Watch out Rabbitohs: It's worth noting that in the most recent example of a team turning out the week following hefty cap-related penalties being levied – the Storm in 2010 – their next opponents felt the wrath of the playing group, with the Warriors going down 40-6 in Round 7 of 2010 at Etihad Stadium. It's up to Michael Maguire to ensure his players don't suffer the same fate. Players like Kenny Edwards, Tepai Moeroa, Junior Paulo, Manu Ma'u, Peni Terepo and Danny Wicks run and hit hard enough as it is without any extra incentive, so… watch out Rabbitohs.
Key match-up: Brad Takairangi v Greg Inglis. This pair would have to be on the podium for biggest pair of five-eighths in the same game in NRL history but for a pair of big men there's no shortage of skill between the two. Each have played five-eighth in the past; as mentioned above Inglis won a Grand Final there while Takairangi was exemplary last outing pairing with Corey Norman. Norman and Adam Reynolds will largely control proceedings for their respective side but neither is a one-man band and the support they get from their respective towering five-eighths could make a huge impact on this one. Each has a kicking and passing game to go with their ball-running skills.
The history: Played 120; Eels 51, Rabbitohs 66, Drawn 3. The Bunnies have an overwhelming recent record against the blue and golds, with nine wins from the past 10 match-ups. Their 'recent' form at Pirtek is almost non-existent however due to Parramatta playing plenty of home games against Souths from ANZ in the past decade. It's one apiece at this venue in the previous two seasons with no Souths games played there before that dating from later than 2007 (though that game finished a sequence of nine straight losses for the Bunnies at Parramatta from 1995-2007).
What are the odds: Money is split almost 50/50 between these two teams with Sportsbet punters liking the value on offer for South Sydney. Both teams have been backed 1-12 in winning margin betting so we could be in for a tight one here. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant referee: Chris Sutton. Sideline Officials: Jeff Younis and Peter Gough. Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7.30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm.
The way we see it: You can almost throw the form book out the window here and hand the win to the team that manages the distractions the best. We're tipping an extremely fired up Eels outfit to overwhelm Maguire's men by a margin of 10 or more.