Schick Hydro Preview: Parramatta Eels v Canterbury Bulldogs
With just nine games remaining for each team, every single competition point is vital for the eighth-placed Eels and 13th-placed Bulldogs.
Two wins separate these two western Sydney rivals on the ladder; a win to the Eels would be a huge step towards confirming their first finals berth in eight years while all but disposing of a key rival's 2017 hopes. A win to the Dogs would not only be a vital step towards keeping their stuttering season afloat but would also deny two competiton points to the team they most need to leapfrog to scrape into the finals.
Suffice to say, this is an important game for both teams.
The Eels went into last week's bye off the back of an impressive 24-10 win over the Dragons. The bad news out of that game came in the shape of season-ending injuries to two key players: hooker Kaysa Pritchard (knee) and co-captain Beau Scott (bicep).
The loss of Scott is alleviated somewhat by the return of hard-hitting back-rower Tepai Moeroa from a ribs injury. Pritchard's injury gives former Cowboys and Dragons rake Cam King his first shot in blue and gold at NRL level since joining the club at the end of 2015.
The Bulldogs' season is on life support; they were disappointing in a 21-14 loss to the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium last week – another match against a team close to them on the ladder they really needed to win – making this week all but do or die.
They've lost skipper James Graham for a month with a neck injury and Kiwi back-rower Greg Eastwood to a knee complaint. Coach Des Hasler has moved Sam Kasiano to the starting side with Francis Tualau and Matt Frawley joining the bench. Brett Morris returns on the wing in place of Kerrod Holland.
Why Eels can win: The Dragons were level or even won virtually every important statistical category against the Eels in Round 15 – completions and possession and yardage were all close. The Dragons won the penalty count 5-1, the line breaks 6-1, had better post contact metres, almost double the tackle breaks, more than double the offloads and slightly faster play the balls. But when it came to the kicking game, Eels halves Corey Norman and Mitch Moses – and Norman in particular – were untouchable. They forced four line dropouts to zero and in terms of long kicks finding space it was 9-2 to the Eels. Whether it was stabbing low kicks down a short side, towering bombs or pinpoint touch-finders, Norman gave the Dragons back three no shortage of problems and provided his team a huge leg up.
Why Bulldogs can win: The Dogs' last win – 16-2 over the Dragons in Round 14 – was a masterclass in graft and realistically, if this team is going to win this is likely the blueprint. They completed at 80 per cent, held 55 per cent of possession, their three starting middle forwards (Aiden Tolman, Graham and David Klemmer) all ran for over 150 metres as they won the yardage game by more than 200 metres. Crucially their scrambling, sliding and edge defence were all top-notch. They generated three tries from close to the line through pressure and opportunism rather than magic and creativity. It wasn't exactly pretty but it worked and they'll need to replicate plenty of that this Thursday.
The history: Played 140; Eels 60; Bulldogs 75, Drawn 5. The venue shouldn't be an issue with both teams calling ANZ home these days so the fact this is an Eels home game shouldn't mean too much. The Eels have won two straight against the Dogs but the blue and whites were victorious in nine of 10 meetings prior to that.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Peter Gough; Touch judges: Jason Walsh and Brett Suttor; Review Official: Bryan Norrie; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm. Fox Sports – Live from 7.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: The Dogs have had it over the Eels for a few years now, though Parramatta won both contests last season. Both teams have lost two key players since their last game though the Eels have the better recent form and more creative playmakers with fullback Clint Gutherson in rare touch while five-eighth Corey Norman's kicking game has been immense this year. This should be tight and probably low scoring but we'll tip the Eels in a close one.