Schick Hydro Preview: Canberra Raiders v Parramatta Eels
If they were in any way under the proverbial radar prior to last weekend, the Raiders are now soaring well above it after a stunning 80 minutes against the table-topping Storm.
It means the Green Machine have toppled the top two teams in the competition over the past fortnight and now sit in outright third place themselves.
Their relentless 22-8 win over the Storm on Monday night was doubly impressive given that it was a win not built on their famed potent attack but on an incredible defensive effort against a team that didn't play too badly themselves.
Canberra were then able to take enough of their opportunities to run up 22 points – nothing special by their regular standards, but noteworthy given Melbourne's usually impregnable defence (just 12 points per game conceded in 2016) hadn't conceded over 20 points once all year before Monday.
On the team front, hooker Josh Hodgson has pleaded no contest to a dangerous contact charge for his grapple on Jesse Bromwich, putting him out for one game (but evading the accrual of any carry-over points that could ruin a finals match later in the year). Kurt Baptiste moves to starting hooker with Adam Clydsdale and Jarrad Kennedy added to an extended bench.
The Eels on the other hand had arguably their poorest performance of the year at Suncorp last Friday, going down 38-16 to an Anthony Milford-inspired Broncos outfit. After a resolute first half they collapsed in the second in a performance coach Brad Arthur and club captain Tim Mannah said was not in line with the standards they want to present over the final rounds of the competition.
Despite having nothing to play for in terms of finals and millions of dollars of their initial 2016 salary cap unavailable, the Eels have refused to lie down and remain the second-best defensive team in the NRL after the Storm so will be desperate to claw back some pride here.
Winger Semi Radradra returns from a knee injury in place of Vai Toutai and skipper Beau Scott from an ankle injury, pushing Rory O'Brien out of the 17.
Watch out Raiders: One of the most impressive aspects of Canberra's win last week was their sliding defence on the fringes and it will need to be better again here against two serious try-scoring fringes. Radradra was the season's top try-scorer last year with 25 while youngster Bevan French has been a revelation on Parramatta's right edge, creating something out of nothing on a weekly basis on his way to 12 tries in 10 games this year.
Watch out Eels: Where to start? The Raiders have one of the best forward packs in the NRL and arguably the most dangerous three-quarter line. Captain and centre Jarrod Croker is scoring points like it's going out of fashion (240 and counting this season, already a personal best and his fourth 200+ season) while right-fringe wrecking balls Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua are second and fifth respectively on the season tackle-bust list with 111 and 106 breaks. It would be remiss of us however not to mention one of the biggest (literally) threats Parramatta will face on Sunday – former Eel Junior Paulo, who hasn't missed a beat since his mid-season switch to the nation's capital. Which brings us to…
Key match-up: Junior Paulo v Tim Mannah. The Eels will be well aware of the all-round threat Paulo poses with his size, mobility and ball skills. His sheer strength combined with good awareness means a deft offload is never far away (35 offloads in 20 games, seventh in the NRL) and the incredible depth in Canberra's pack means Stuart can afford to use the big unit in short stints for maximum effectiveness. For his part, Mannah has been in vintage form since returning from a fractured shoulder blade and his sting early on will need to set the platform early if the Eels are to mount a challenge on Sunday.
The History: Played 52; Raiders 26, Eels 26. Neck-and-neck over the long term and in the very short term (two wins apiece over the past three seasons) but the Eels have an awful record in the nation's capital. They are currently on a five-match losing run and have won just one of their past 10 visits.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters don’t want a bar of Parramatta, with 97 per cent of the money backing the Raiders to continue its winning form. Jordan Rapana heads the first tryscorer market, with Jarrod Crocker well supported. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Dave Munro. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Dave Ryan and Clayton Sharpe. Review officials: Bryan Norrie & Jared Maxwell. Senior review official: Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 1.30pm.
The way we see it: Dally M hopeful Josh Hodgson is close to Canberra's most important player and his absence could be pivotal but it's still a massive ask for the under-manned Eels. Canberra by 12.