Eels v Dragons: Five key points
The Eels hit back from a poor loss to the Cowboys last week and compounded the woes of the out-of-form Dragons in a 24-10 win at ANZ Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Fears for Eels hooker's season
A nasty-looking knee injury to Parramatta hooker Kaysa Pritchard midway through the first half was the only low point for Eels fans, with the luckless No.9 stretchered off after twisting his left knee awkwardly in a tackle.
The pain was so severe the Eels physio could not properly examine the knee at the ground and an ambulance was called to take Pritchard to hospital with scans to determine the extent of the damage.
The worst-case scenario would be a ruptured ACL, which would require season-ending surgery. It is possible Pritchard suffered a more minor strain such as a PCL injury which could see him return in six weeks or fewer.
The silver lining there is the impressive form of bench utility Will Smith, who has been called on twice in the past three games to play big minutes at hooker following injuries to Pritchard, who was concussed early on against the Warriors three weeks ago.
Stats not the key for Dragons
Statistics are useful to highlight plenty of different areas of rugby league games but rarely tell the full story on their own, on Sunday's game is a case in point with the Dragons winning plenty of key metrics.
While anyone who witnessed the contest could tell you the energetic Eels bossed the contest for the vast majority of the 80 minutes, the Dragons nevertheless missed around half as many tackles (24-45), dominated the line breaks 6-1, made more than twice as many offloads (14-6) and won the penalty count 5-1.
They actually held 53 per cent of the ball in a first half they lost 12-4 on the scoreboard.
If you dig a bit deeper there were some key stats where the Eels absolutely dominated however: kicks forcing drop-outs landed 4-0 to Parramatta while long kicks finding space went 9-2 to the Eels as Corey Norman's long boot tormented the Dragons' backs.
Eels reshuffle pays dividends
One of the looming questions for Eels coach Brad Arthur of late has been what to do with in-form playmaker Clint Gutherson once the team is close to full strength and there is no longer a free spot in the halves for him behind Corey Norman and Mitch Moses.
The other question of late is how to plug the team's leaky right-edge defence with new recruit Mitch Moses unsurprisingly taking a bit of time to find his feet in a new defensive system.
Arthur pulled a few switches ahead of the Dragons game and early evidence seems to suggest they were the right ones.
The return of strike left centre Michael Jennings was the catalyst and the wash-up saw Gutherson bump Bevan French out of the fullback role with the pacey Tingha product shifting to the right wing. Centres Jennings and Brad Takairangi switched sides, allowing Takairangi to reunite with Semi Radradra (with whom he dominated the 2015 season on the left flank) while Jennings was called on to help Moses and French defend the right edge.
The upshot was the Dragons had a tough time trying to isolate Moses with Jennings performing an excellent job marshalling that flank. Gutherson starred in his preferred role and while French was technically playing out of position his defence has come on in leaps and bounds compared to last year. After the game, Arthur wouldn't commit to sticking with that structure but it will be tough to find a reason to change it in the short term, even with winger Josh Hoffman and centre Kirisome Auva'a due back by Parramatta's next game.
French's big hits
As mentioned, French has been working on his defence and while he was solid all game, there was a pair of plays in the second half that deserve special mention.
Four minutes after half-time with the Dragons pressing into the Parramatta half, French made a decision to rush up on centre Tim Lafai rather than allowing himself to be caught in a tricky two-on-one situation. He upended Lafai in a big tackle and forced the ball free in the process, earning himself high fives from all his teammates and even a cheeky kiss on the cheek from Kenny Edwards
Just three minutes later, a wild offload from Lafai sent Joel Thompson scurrying back to try and clean up the scraps and while Thompson won the race to the ball, French's desperation – and raw pace – saw him collect the back-rower before he could secure the ball. The Steeden popped free for Michael Jennings to scoop it up and run away to score a critical try.
Dragons prove their own worst enemies at times
A slow start compounded St George Illawarra's problems in a game where the Eels showed a worrying ability to score from Dragons' errors.
All four of the Eels' tries either came from Dragons errors or featured touches from St George Illawarra players in the try-scoring sequence that could have shut the play down.
The movement that led to Gutherson's third-minute four-pointer saw a Kenny Edwards offload bounce off Jack De Belin for a six-again call before Gutherson latched onto the loose ball and charged over the line.
Gutherson's second came when he scooped up a Kalifa Faifai Loa kick and raced 80 metres to score. Michael Jennings profited from Lafai's wild offload to score the Eels' third while the final try to French came when the winger was on hand to score the fourth when Jason Nightingale failed to clean up Moses's deft second-tackle kick to the in-goal.
"I thought our start was not what we needed; it put us under pressure early," coach Paul McGregor said.
"The first try there was off a six to go off Jack De Belin, [Gutherson] has picked it up and scored then the second one was from a kick off a line break from us so they were two tries that didn't come from too much but I thought we put ourselves under pressure most of the day. Five line breaks to one to us and you lose four tries to two, it's very disappointing."