Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v North Queensland Cowboys
After a simply incredible opening week of the 2017 Telstra Premiership Finals Series, can two of the more impressive teams from last week back up those efforts to press for a spot in a grand final qualifier?
Few pundits gave the Eels a chance against the seemingly unstoppable Storm last week but Brad Arthur's men rose to the occasion, leading at half-time and going agonisingly close to a boilover in their 18-16 loss.
Likewise few expected an injury-hit Cowboys, with just one win in their final six games, to topple the premiers at a ground where North Queensland have struggled badly of late. But Paul Green's troops gave Cronulla a good old-fashioned lesson in not panicking at key moments as they stole the 15-14 extra-time win on the back of a simply unbelievable Jason Taumalolo try and a Michael Morgan field goal.
On the teams front, both coaches have named the same 17s they named last Tuesday. For the Eels, that means fullback Bevan French is still not back from a hamstring strain, though his replacement – third-string No.1 Will Smith – had arguably his best ever game last week and is improving every week. Back-rower Tepai Moeroa is in serious doubt after failing an HIA last week. If he does not line up, Kenny Edwards would start with Peni Terepo or David Gower the likely new face on the bench. Hooker Cam King will also be monitored for an arm injury suffered last week; Kaysa Pritchard is on standby.
Green has no fresh injury concerns but Test centre Justin O'Neill is edging towards a return from injury and could displace Javid Bowen come game day.
Why Eels can win: Nine wins from 10 games before the Storm loss last week. A belligerent forward pack that makes up for its lack of size with an energy and aggression and intensity that borders on madness. A halves pairing that has improved markedly on an almost weekly basis since Mitch Moses was brought across from Concord mid-year to round out what is arguably the best kicking game of any halves pairing in the competition. Their completion rate last week (87 per cent) was the best of any of the eight finals teams despite the fact they threw plenty of footy at the Storm. If they can match last week's efforts against a Cowboys team that has had a one day shorter recovery and played 10 more minutes of game time last week that will go a long way.
Why Cowboys can win: Two words. "Jason". And "Taumalolo". The Kiwi wrecking ball is the best forward in the world. The reigning co-Dally M winner is playing even better this year than last, filling the sizeable gap left by Kangaroos prop Matt Scott, rampaging for 200-plus metres per week, busting tackles at will and finding the odd try when his team needs it most. His game-breaking effort last week was one of his best performances of the year but scarily, it was nothing out of the ordinary compared to his usual efforts. The team as a whole has been continuously competitive despite their injury toll and their discipline is incredible; they are in the top two or three teams this season for possession (53 per cent; first), penalties received (202, first), defending kicks (12 tries conceded is equal best and 74.1 per cent kicks defused is second best) and offloads conceded (230, third).
 Telstra Premiership: Nathan Brown vs Jason Taumalolo
Tackles, Offloads, All Run Metres, Tackle Breaks.
The history: Played 36; Eels 18; Cowboys 17; Drawn 1. There has been just the one meeting ever between these teams in the finals – which was also the only time these two clubs have ever met at ANZ Stadium – and it was a whopping 29-0 landslide to the Cowboys back in 2005. That was a grand final qualifier and it saw the Eels – 2005 minor premiers – knocked out while the Cowboys went on to lose the decider to Wests Tigers that year. North Queensland have won eight of the past 11 meetings, although the past four matches are split two apiece.
What are the odds: Money is split 50/50 almost to the dollar between these two sides in Sportsbet's head-to-head market. Both teams have been backed to win the game 1-12 rather than 13+. No surprise to see Semi Radradra easily the best backed to score the first try. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Ben Cummins; Touch judges: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler; Review Official: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.
Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League – Live from 7pm.
NRL.com predicts: The past two years have seen all four top-four teams that lost in the opening week bounce back to win in the second week (Manly were the last top-four team to be bundled out in straight sets, back in 2014). It bodes well for the Eels, who as mentioned above looked easily the best of the four losing teams last week while the Cowboys are dealing with not only a significant injury toll but backing up from a sapping 90-minute game. Did they just play their grand final or are they returning to form at the right time? They should give the Eels a stern test but we'll tip the blue and golds to get it done in a tight one. Parra by two.