Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Gold Coast Titans
TIO Stadium, Darwin
Saturday, 5pm (5.30pm AEST)
Given the month they have been forced to endure it is perhaps somewhat cruel misfortune that the Parramatta Eels have chosen to take a game to a city named after the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin.
Since the grim details of their salary cap crisis have emerged it has been more a case of devolution for the Eels who have let two of their players join rival clubs and had Kieran Foran (bicep tendon) and Brad Takairangi (hamstring) struck down by injury.
With few options at his disposal Eels coach Brad Arthur has named bullocking back-rower Kenny Edwards to partner Corey Norman in the halves and teen sensation Bevan French gets a second NRL start after scoring a try and impressing on debut against the Knights in Round 12.
With punishment for their salary cap mismanagement potentially to be finalised as early as this week their place in the top eight – one spot ahead of their rivals on Saturday, the Titans – is a tenuous one at best and their mindset after last weekend's bye will be a mystery until kick-off.
After their courageous 20-12 win over the Bulldogs in Round 9 Parramatta fans were looking at a team who could play deep into September; a month later and they must be wondering how quickly this year from hell can come to an end.
But whatever misery the Eels have been experiencing the emotions of the Titans have taken a turn for the better with three successive wins and a bye on the back of five straight losses catapulting them back into the top eight.
Former Eel Nathan Peats has slotted in seamlessly and former Warriors wrecking ball Konrad Hurrell is in line for his first game as a Titan after also making a mid-season switch and being named on an extended bench along with Cameron Cullen.
Aiming to complete a clean sweep of an unprecedented Perth-Darwin road trip following their thrilling win over the Rabbitohs last Sunday, the Titans have transformed from gutsy battlers to genuine finals contenders with match-winners in key positions.
Quite the evolution indeed.
Watch out Eels: Match-winner Ashley Taylor may have received all the praise in the wake of Sunday's golden point win over the Rabbitohs but the Titans' greatest strength comes from the developing combination between Taylor and five-eighth Tyrone Roberts. Both have missed games through injury at different times over the first half of the season but have played the past four games together in succession and struck upon a nice balance. Taylor's development has freed Roberts to take the line on more with his running game and the pair split the general play kicking duties evenly against South Sydney, making kick pressure harder for the defending team. Roberts' solo try just after half-time showed how dangerous he can be with his tail up and along with Taylor's growth in confidence makes the Titans a hard team to pin down when they have ball in hand.
Watch out Titans: Any issues affecting the Eels won't be reflected in their left-side attack which should ring major alarm bells to a Titans' right edge defence that gave up all five tries against the Rabbitohs last Sunday. Between them Michael Jennings and Semi Radradra have scored close to half of the Eels' 34 tries thus far this season, Corey Norman has a team high six try assists and Manu Ma'u has three line-break assists to go with 19 tackle busts and 18 offloads. Given the disruption to their team in recent weeks this is where the Eels will attack and the Titans' right side defenders will have to work much better together to stop them.
Key match-up: Semi Radradra v Nene Macdonald. No winger has a greater influence on the fortunes of their team than Semi Radradra at the Eels but Nene Macdonald has been having an equally important impact for the Titans in recent weeks. In his last start against the Knights Radradra ran for 211 metres, had nine tackles busts and scored his ninth try of the season but it is work on kick returns that were so crucial in Parramatta's strong start to the season. Macdonald had an indifferent start to the year for the Titans but has been superb since representing Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Test, running for more than 100 metres in his past two games including some strong carries from deep within Titans territory. Although they are lining up on opposute sides of the field, how Radradra and Macdonald start the respective sets for their teams will be crucial in who can generate momentum and keep it.
History: Played 13; Eels 4, Titans 9. The Eels will be hoping that a different venue will bring a different result against the Titans who have won five of their past six matches against Parramatta, including two blow-out scorelines. Gold Coast's 42-4 win in Mudgee in 2013 is still the biggest win in the club's history and they have won by more than 20 points on three other occasions. Although it is the first official NRL meeting between these two teams in the Northern Territory it is actually the second time they have faced off up north this season after a trial game in Alice Springs in February that finished 20-all. The Eels have won both their previous games at TIO Stadium.
What are the odds: Eels $2.00, Titans $1.80. After opening at $1.87 apiece Sportsbet punters are all aboard the Titans train and they've been backed into favouritism since their victory over the Rabbitohs. Gold Coast 1-12 in margin betting is the way the money is going so we could be in for another heart-stopper involving the Titans. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee: Chris Butler; Touch Judges: Dave Ryan and Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Review Official: Steve Chiddy; Senior RO: Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 5pm AEST
The way we see it: With no Foran and Takairangi, Peats on the other team and Junior Paulo in Canberra it's hard to see the Eels having the firepower or mental fortitude to go with the Titans who score the bulk of their points in the second half of games. A narrow win over the Knights in Round 12 was brave given their injury toll but the reality of their perilous position must be now hitting home for Parramatta's players. If the Titans are to be considered a genuine finals football team this is a game they must be able to put away. Titans by 10 points.