The opening fixture of round 16 will see the table-topping St George Illawarra Dragons host the bottom-placed Parramatta Eels on Thursday night in Wollongong. That’s right, first versus last – the ultimate mismatch!
St George Illawarra defeated the Manly Sea Eagles comfortably 32-8, while the South Sydney Rabbitohs made easy work of the Eels, hammering them 42-24. Each result was indicative of the Eels’ and Dragons’ respective positions on the ladder.
Jennings brothers Michael and George were woeful in defense against the Rabbitohs, allowing their youngest brother Robert to cross for four simple tries in the corner. Expect the Dragons to attack these two relentlessly with their lethal left-side combination of Tariq Sims, Tim Lafai, and Nene Macdonald – all of whom picked up tries against Manly.
Whilst the Eels’ right edge defense was particularly bad in round 15, their defense has been awful all over the park throughout the season, conceding a massive 354 points (4th most in the NRL). As such, the Dragons will look to exploit holes in the defense wherever they appear. If the Dragons’ forwards start dominating the middle it will make it easy for their spine players – particularly lightning-quick fullback Matt Dufty – to break the line.
2017 – Eels def. Dragons 24-10 at ANZ Stadium
2017 – Eels def. Dragons 34-16 at WIN Stadium
2016 – Eels def. Dragons 30-18 at Pirtek Stadium
2015 – Eels def. Dragons 16-12 at Pirtek Stadium
2014 – Eels def. Dragons 36-0 at Pirtek Stadium
The Eels have been a bogey team for the Dragons in recent times. In fact, the last time St George Illawarra defeated Parramatta was Round 26 in 2012. Neither club was in finals contention in the lead up to the game, yet in a bizarre twist, it drew a massive crow of 45,863 ANZ Stadium.
The reason? The simultaneous retirements of Nathan Hindmarsh, Luke Burt, Ben Hornby and Dean Young.
It’s rare these days for the Dragons to beat the Eels. It’s very rare to get over 45000 people to a regular season game at ANZ Stadium in which neither team is in the hunt for the finals. But it’s even rarer to get four one-club legends retiring in the same match. Needless to say it was a very special occasion.
|1||Matthew Dufty||Clinton Gutherson (C)|
|2||Nene Macdonald||Bevan French|
|3||Euan Aitken||Michael Jennings|
|4||Timoteo Lafai||Jarryd Hayne|
|5||Kurt Mann||George Jennings|
|6||Gareth Widdop (C)||Mitchell Moses|
|7||Ben Hunt||Corey Norman|
|8||James Graham||Daniel Alvaro|
|9||Cameron McInnes||Cameron King|
|10||Paul Vaughan||Siosaia Vave|
|11||Jacob Host||Marata Niukore|
|12||Tariq Sims||Brad Takairangi|
|13||Jack De Belin||Nathan Brown|
|14||Jeremy Latimore||Will Smith|
|15||Jason Nightingale||Tim Mannah (C)|
|16||Leeson Ah Mau||David Gower|
|17||Luciano Leilua||Peni Terepo|
|18||Blake Lawrie||Kirisome Auva’a|
|19||Reece Robson||Kane Evans|
|20||Jai Field||Jaeman Salmon|
|21||Hame Sele||Suaia Matagi|
Tyson Frizell is missing due to a concussion and has been replaced by Jacob Host, whilst Jack De Belin could be a late withdrawal due to a hip injury he has been carrying. Leeson Ah Mau is expected to play despite flight delays for the New Zealand team in Denver. If not, expect Blake Lawrie or Hame Sele to come into the 17. All other players involved with representative round are expected to play for the Dragons.
The flow-on effect from the return of the injured Mitchell Moses sees Clint Gutherson return to fullback, with Bevan French moving to the wing and Josh Hoffman dropping out of the side. Manu Ma’u has a fractured cheekbone and has been replaced by Marata Niukore in the starting side. Will Smith comes in for the suspended Reed Mahoney.
The facts that matter
The Dragons have been in first place every week this season bar one. They have at times looked shaky against top teams, their three losses coming against the Panthers, the Rabbitohs and the Warriors. However, they also won one against the Rabbitohs, as well as landing victories over the Storm and the Roosters.
Top teams aside, the Dragons have beaten every other team that they have come up against. They will not want to ruin that record with a loss, let alone a loss to Parramatta. The opportunity to play such a low team during such an important period as the Origin period is huge for a side like the Dragons. It is unlikely that they will let such an opportunity slip.
Expect Paul Vaughan and Jack De Belin (if he plays) to be pumped up for this game coming off an Origin series win on Sunday. Ben Hunt too will be fired up after copping Pearce-like criticism after Origin 2. Expect him to have a big game.
The poor old Eels just can’t catch a break. They had no one involved in Origin, but lost Manu Ma’u to injury while he was playing for Tonga. Jarryd Hayne reportedly picked up a shoulder injury too while playing for Fiji. Add to that the rumors of Corey Norman’s impending exit and it has not been a good week for Parramatta – even by the low standards of this season.
The Eels’ slim mathematical finals hopes were dashed after a heavy loss to the Rabbitohs. They now have nothing more to play for than pride. It’ll be tough for Brad Arthur to get his men up for this clash.
The nightmare will continue for Parramatta. They have too little to play for while the Dragons have everything to play for. Most wooden spooners manage to jag a few wins in the back half of the year, upsetting the finals plans of top teams. Don’t expect that to happen on Thursday night though. Dragons to win by 13+.
Can the Eels cause one of the biggest upsets of the season, or will the Dragons prove too strong? Let us know in the comments and poll below.