Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v St George Illawarra Dragons
This close to the end of the regular season you will get the odd game between two clubs both out of finals contention, and while this is one of those there are still some interesting subplots at play.
For the home team this match is their "Farewell to Pirtek", with their home ground set to undergo redevelopment at the end of the season that will see it closed for a couple of years. An away game next week means this is the final time for fans to get out and support the blue and gold on their beloved home turf.
The big news out of the visitors' camp is the dropping of star half Benji Marshall for young gun Drew Hutchison. The 31-year-old Kiwi superstar revolutionised the game when he exploded on the scene and helped Wests Tigers to the 2005 premiership but by his own admission has been down on form this year, playing in his less-preferred position of halfback rather than five-eighth.
To his credit he has handled the demotion with class and remains confident of a last game in red and white next week but for now, we get a look at the future with Hutchison to partner Widdop. Tim Lafai replaces the suspended Taane Milne at centre and Jacob Host comes in for Russell Packer (shoulder/hip) on the bench.
Eels coach Brad Arthur has the luxury of welcoming back a hat-trick of injured stars in centre Brad Takairangi (for Vai Toutai) plus back-rowers Beau Scott and Tepai Moeroa. Kenny Edwards and Peni Terepo revert to the bench with David Gower and Rory O'Brien (suspension) missing out.
Watch out Eels: Young playmaker Hutchison will certainly have plenty of eyes on him on Monday night. The 2014-15 Junior Kangaroo earned the praise of the man he's replacing, Marshall, and how he responds to that pressure will be interesting. With the club's finals hopes gone, the Albion Park junior will hopefully be unafraid to play his natural game. While this isn't his debut (he played three games for the Red V late last season) he has another season of maturity under his belt since then and the way he impacts the Dragons' attacking structures could at the least present some unpredictability for the Eels.
Watch out Dragons: While the Eels look to be struggling towards the finish line of an arduous 2016, they have refused to cave in. They have had issues staying in games, with poor second halves against Canberra last week and Brisbane the week before proving costly. However even in some of the games they have lost – to the Raiders, and to Penrith and Cronulla in the weeks before – they have shot out to big leads and the Dragons don't have the same type of firepower those other clubs have to claw back a 14- or 18-point deficit. Back at their home ground with three stars back and one of last week's impressive performers Semi Radradra having an extra run under his belt the Dragons need to be very watchful about not slipping behind by two or three tries early on.
Key match-up: Bevan French v Josh Dugan. While young French has spent plenty of time slotting in at fullback in recent weeks this is his first official start in the No.1 jersey. He's fleet-footed if slightly built but has shown an incredible rugby league instinct and ability to create a try out of nothing in his 11 games so far. His few spells at the back have revealed someone who can create rather than just finish though his passing decisions still need improvement. Dugan on the other hand is a tried and true performer and at the opposite end of the size scale as far as fullbacks go, relying much more on strength and power than evasiveness than his opposite number. He had two big games before a dour match against the Roosters last week and will be looking for a hit-back here.
The History: Played 30; Eels 14, Dragons 14, Drawn 2. The Dragons have lost their past three to the Eels (remarkably all three of those were at Pirtek with the teams only meeting once per season of late) but they were undefeated in seven matches prior to that.
What are the odds: Sportsbet has taken twice as much money on the Dragons in the head to head market however when it comes to winning margin, punters are going with the Eels to win 1-12 so it's fair to say that punters can't make their minds up about this one. Not the biggest betting game of the round by any stretch. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Adam Gee. Assistant referee: Gavin Reynolds. Sideline officials: Michael Wise and Tim Roby. Review officials: Luke Patten. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 6.30pm.
The way we see it: A tough one to call and may well come down to who wants it more. Can the Eels remember how to string 80 minutes together rather than being impressive for 40 or 60? Will Hutchison have the impact Red V fans hope he will? Troops back for Parra helps, and the fact the Dragons have won just three of 14 visits to Pirtek doesn't instil confidence. Points may be at a premium but we'll take the home side to scrape out a four-point win.
Game on. Data off.
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