Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Sydney Roosters
We head into this final multi-bye round weekend with the Eels still technically ensconced in the top eight and their rivals in the unusual position of being all but formally eliminated from the 2016 finals chase following three straight minor premierships in 2013-15.
To the credit of the Parramatta players and coach Brad Arthur, a season where you couldn't imagine more having gone wrong off the field has still featured some determined and resilient play on it as the blue and golds surged to 10 wins from 16 games so far.
If you assume their 12-point penalty will come into effect shortly then effectively both these clubs enter Round 18 on 10 competition points and needing to win every game remaining to potentially jag an unlikely finals berth.
The Eels at least will be boosted by a few reinforcements: after they struggled through the past few rounds with only a solitary fit playmaker at the club in Corey Norman, 2009 grand finalist Jeff Robson has returned for his first game in blue and gold since 2011 after stints with Cronulla and the Warriors. Prop Tim Mannah is finally back from a shoulder injury and centre Brad Takairangi returns from a hammy strain in place of Origin centre Michael Jennings. With Kenny Edwards back in the forwards Cody Nelson and Rory O'Brien are the two to make way.
The Roosters showed improvement last week against Canterbury but it still wasn't enough and with a differential 160 points worse than the Eels' you'd have to just about put a red pen through their September ambitions now.
The Tricolours have Blake Ferguson and Aidan Guerra on Origin duty with Joseph Manu returning to the three-quarter line, Isaac Liu pushing into the starting side and Ryan Matterson and Chris Smith added to a five-man bench.
Watch out Eels: Former Blues halfback Mitch Pearce was a man on a mission last week. Having missed the first eight rounds through suspension only to come back and pick up a niggling calf injury, to call his season 'interrupted' thus far would be an understatement. But against Canterbury last week he showed his club what they've been missing with some physical shots in defence and a composed exhibition of running, passing and kicking.
Pearce created a try and two line breaks last week against the Dogs while running over 100 metres – a rare feat in itself for a half and kicking for 360 metres. His intent in defence – he smashed a couple of his former Origin teammates in particular – was also impressive.
Watch out Roosters: Tingha speedster Bevan French has been as electric in attack as we all expected following his pre-season heroics at the Auckland Nines. With a stunning seven tries in four games to start his career the 20-year-old has shown he can sniff out a try just as well as famous relatives Nathan Blacklock and Preston Campbell. His decision-making in defence is still a work in progress but his work with the ball in open space is something to behold. The Roosters have been uncharacteristically flimsy in that department this year and back at Pirtek French and fellow flanker – try-scoring ace Semi Radradra – will be ready to capitalise on any opportunities.
Key match-up: Manu Ma'u v Sio Siua Taukeiaho. These two softly-spoken Aucklanders are as terrifying and ferocious on the field as they are quiet and polite off it. Both are capable of playing big minutes, running hard lines on an edge, busting tackles by the dozen and offloading late to send support runners through gaps.
The History: Played 128; Eels 61, Roosters 62, Drawn 5. Neck and neck over the course of their history, but the Tricolours have a big edge in recent times. The Bondi boys have lost just twice to the blue and golds since 2008, winning seven games against two in that time. They have won four of their past six at Pirtek.
What are the odds: Sportsbet reports twice as many dollars invested on Parramatta in the head to head market but punters think it'll be a close one with Eels 1-12 the most popular winning margin. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant referee: Gavin Badger. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and Chris Sutton. Review officials: Jared Maxwell and Ben Galea. Senior review official: Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine - Live coverage from 7.30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm.
The way we see it: It's rare for us to tip a Parramatta win over the Roosters at any point over the past five years but we'll do it this week with the Eels back at home and reinforced by some returning troops. Parramatta by six.