Schick Hydro Preview: Brisbane Broncos v Parramatta Eels
These two sides met in Round 1 in what was the first match of the 2016 NRL season and from then on they have both taken very dramatic paths to where they are now.
The Broncos went into that match as premiership favourites, but have failed to live up to the high expectations – sitting sixth and only an outside chance of a top four spot.
The Eels have the same win-loss record as Brisbane, but Parramatta sit 13th after being docked 12 points for salary cap breaches midway through the year.
It's been a turbulent time for both camps, with Brisbane losing seven of their past ten matches, and the Eels being put out of finals contention.
Yet Parramatta will come into this clash full of confidence after a spirited one-point win against Manly-Warringah last weekend.
The Eels have made a couple of changes from that winning side, with David Gower coming on to the bench and Peni Terepo starting at lock in place of Beau Scott.
The Broncos will field an unchanged side following their win against the Dragons last round, with New Zealand internationals Jordan Kahu and Kodi Nikorima still missing through injury.
Watch out Broncos: Manu Ma'u returned to the Parramatta forward pack last week and immediately looked a more dangerous player than the one that had been moved to the centres in recent weeks. Ma'u had been forced to shift into the backline to cover for a spate of injuries, but coach Brad Arthur has now realised where Ma'u is most dangerous. His 155 metres and 31 tackles in the Eels' 10-9 win over the Sea Eagles last weekend were standout numbers in a tight contest. Ma'u averages 125 metres per game and he will be a huge threat around Brisbane's edges. The Tonga and New Zealand international will be a go-to for halves Clint Gutherson and Jeff Robson, and Parramatta will be hoping Ma'u can find some holes in a Broncos defence that has looked shaky of late.
Watch out Eels: Anyone that thought Sam Thaiday was past his best were left eating their words in Round 22 as the Brisbane veteran put in a performance that was arguably his best in 12 months. Thaiday ran for 196m and made 29 tackles in a great match for the 31-year-old. Suspended for the Broncos' heavy defeat to the Sydney Roosters the week before, Thaiday played like a man on a mission – making up for his costly one-week lay-off. The Queensland and Australia second-row forward even managed to score a try – running perfect lines for halves Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt. The Eels are going to have to be at their best defensively if they are to shutdown the in-form Bronco, with Thaiday wanting to send retiring captain and close mate Corey Parker out a winner as the season draws closer to finals.
Key match-up: James Roberts v Michael Jennings. This match-up looms as one of the most exciting of Round 23. These two centres have the ability to change a match in the space of a few seconds, with both bringing a real x-factor to Friday's match. It's a battle of two of the quickest players in the NRL, creating a contest very even on paper with Roberts and Jennings boasting similar attacking statistics for the 2016 season. Roberts has eight tries for the year, with Jennings accumulating seven, and Roberts's four try assists for the year is just one more than Jennings has managed. But it's Roberts's running metres where he comes into his own, with the 23-year-old averaging 110m per game. These metres often include one play of pure brilliance and Brisbane will be looking for their star centre to produce against a quality opponent. Jennings averages just over 97 running metres per game, and the New South Wales centre will be hoping to improve on that effort come Friday night.
The history: Played 50; Broncos 30, Eels 19, Drawn 1. Brisbane have dominated the head-to-head battle since the two sides first met in 1988, but lately it has been a much closer contest that neither side has controlled. The last six matches between Brisbane and Parramatta have been split at three wins apiece, with the most recent clash resulting in a 17-4 win to the Broncos in Round 1 of this year. Anthony Milford has a habit of terrorising the Eels' defence – scoring three tries in his last two matches against Parramatta. The Eels have won three of their last five clashes at Suncorp Stadium, with the most recent win coming at the beginning of the 2014 season.
What are the odds: Broncos $1.22, Eels $4.25. There's been a little bit of a nibble at the Eels at the huge price but there's still slightly more money overall on the Broncos. Sportsbet punters are keen on Parramatta to win 1-12 in margin betting. Brisbane winger Corey Oates is favourite in the first try-scorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall; Touch Judges: Russell Turner & Nick Morel; Review Officials: Ben Galea & Steve Chiddy; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: Brisbane return to Suncorp Stadium looking to make a statement after a tough couple of months of football. Last week's win over the Dragons should give Wayne Bennett's men a lot of confidence as they try and put together a late-season charge for the top four. The Eels have played with a lot of spirit this season and this will no doubt continue on Friday night. Parramatta will stay in the contest, but Brisbane should do enough to come away with a tight victory. Broncos by 8.