Round 6: Raiders v Eels preview
Panic stations at Parramatta as Raiders look to continue resurgence
Having been labelled as soft by coach Ricky Stuart in the wake of a 0-4 start to 2018, the Canberra Raiders produced a resilient display against the Bulldogs last Thursday to open their season account. Sustaining a host of casualties before and during the match, the Raiders seemingly improved with increased adversity to gain a huge momentum and confidence boost heading into Saturday's clash. Well-rested following the extended break between matches, a number of positional changes have been forced through injury, headlined by the return of Blake Austin in the halves, while after missing out in the win over Canterbury, Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii return at fullback and as part of the interchange respectively. Currently sitting in 13th position, the poor start the Raiders have endured over the opening five weeks of the season is not as dire as pundit may have suggested based on present standings. Needing only one win to level the eighth placed Sea Eagles, the confidence boost the side gained as a result of last week's breakthrough win should instil a sense of self-belief throughout the playing ranks to turn the narrow losses endured against the Titans, Knights and Warriors into wins heading towards the future. Holding an impressive record against Parramatta which has seen them prevail in nine of eleven clashes since the beginning of the decade, the Raiders will be hopeful of backing up last week's win with a similar performance built off the back of one percentage plays and a resilience to step up when match day circumstances deviate from the game plan.
While there past three performances have demonstrated significant improvement from the Brookvale debacle, the end result has been identical for the Eels as they stare down the prospect of a sixth consecutive loss. Unlucky in defeat against the Panthers last Sunday, the Eels have struggled to balance establishing a forward driven platform to work from against pressuring opponents with second phase play. Receiving mixed news on the selection front, fullback Clinton Gutherson and winger Bevan French have been named to return from injury, while the side's premier forward Nathan Brown is set for a stint on the sidelines after sustaining an ankle injury. In other selection news, Peni Terepo will make his first start in the NRL since the final round of 2016 and off-season recruit Kane Evans will take his place on the bench after missing the past fortnight. Facing off against fellow battlers Canberra, the prospect of breaking their losing streak is set to become an even harder prospect for Parramatta to contend due a dire record in the ACT. Recording their last victory at GIO Stadium back in 2006, the only current Eels player to experience a win over the Raiders while representing Parramatta was an 18-year-old Jarryd Hayne playing in his sixth career game. With Hayne still sidelined, the challenge facing coach Brad Arthur and the 17 players tasked with overcoming the Raiders may prove decisive in determining whether 2018 is already a write-off for the Eels less than two months into the season.
Who to watch: Having been sensationally dropped in response to the Raiders' inability to close out early season matches, former Dally M Five Eighth of the Year Blake Austin has been named to return to first grade after a brief stint with Mounties. Granted a reprieve following Sam Williams' injured medial ligament, the 27-year-old will have his sights set on making an impact against the Eels through his strong running game, allowing halves partner Aidan Sezer to dominate at first receiver as he did so impressively against Canterbury. At his best with an attacking mindset, look for the former City Origin star to show plenty of enthusiasm around the ruck and be in support of an offload to turn attacking chances into four-pointers. With speculation mounting the former Panthers and Tigers utility could be headed away from Canberra, Austin will be intent on reviving the form that saw him touted as a future representative star and using Saturday's fixture as a means of proving his worth as a game breaking player.
Returning to first grade for the first time since last July, the inclusion of Clinton Gutherson has long been anticipated by Parramatta supporters baffled at the decline of their side since finishing fourth last season. Regarded as one of the most universally beloved players in the competition, the 23-year-old will likely improve the Eels' fortunes moving forward, but shouldn't be viewed as the immediate saviour of the side as they look to open their 2018 account. Possessing an attacking spark and effort-based mentality, Gutherson's value to the Eels will only produce the desired results should the other 16 players around him compete with the same intensity that saw them gain so many admirers last season. While it may seem incongruous to highlight an individual player as not being the metaphorical messiah for reversing Parramatta's dismal start to the season, the benefit of Gutherson's return will come to fruition by elevating the players around him to the overall success of the team as a cohesive unit.