Round 8: Eels v Dragons preview
Historic rivals look to bounce back in Sunday afternoon showdown
Returning to Bankwest Stadium following a poor showing in Newcastle last Sunday, the Parramatta Eels will be out to make amends against the St George Illawarra Dragons in a clash set to have a major bearing on the competition ladder.
Remaining in fifth position despite going down to the Knights, 28-14, coach Brad Arthur will be stressing the importance of coming away with two competition points with a loss potentially seeing the blue and gold's slip out of the top eight pending other results.
Winning seven of the past eight meetings against the Dragons, including equalling their largest win by 36 points last August, the Eels will be hoping to maintain a run of dominance at home having won 75% of clashes at the former Parramatta Stadium opposing the joint venture.
Boosted by the return of Daniel Alvaro from concussion at the expense of Ray Stone, second rower Manu Ma'u may be elevated to the starting side after successfully returning from an MCL injury sustained during the trials.
Recovering from a poor start on ANZAC Day to go down at the death against the Roosters, the St George Illawarra Dragons will be looking to take positives from their clash with the reigning premiers.
Winning eight of 17 matches the week following ANZAC Day, coach Paul McGregor will be fully aware of the importance of a win on Sunday afternoon as the Dragons fight to move within striking distance of the all important top four, along with separating themselves from the pack of rival teams looking to usurp their position in the top half of the league.
In a milestone for two of the club's representative players, Tim Lafai will play his 150th match after debuting with Canterbury-Bankstown in 2011, while Paul Vaughan is set to feature in his 50th match with the Dragons after joining from Canberra two years ago.
Having been elevated to the starting side at the Sydney Cricket Ground last Thursday due to his goal-kicking ability, Zac Lomax has been shifted to the centres in a reshuffle that sees Mikaele Ravalawa reinstated on the wing, while relegating former Country and Scotland representative Euan Aitken to the bench for the first time in his career.
Who to watch: Making a strong return from injury in a major boost for the Eels forward stocks, Manu Ma'u will be out to regain his starting position with a starring performance on Sunday afternoon. Finishing his first NRL match since last June with a try, 140 running metres and 23 tackles in little more than a half of football, the 30-year-old Tongan and New Zealand representative has been named to come off the bench for only the second time since becoming a mature aged debutant with Parramatta five years ago. Closing in on a century of first grade appearances, Ma'u will have his sights set on inflicting plenty of pain against the Dragons acclaimed forward pack as he endeavours to secure a new deal with the blue and gold's beyond 2019.
In a team stacked with representative stars and highly touted youngsters, Dragons winger Jordan Pereira has proven to be one of the underrated gems of the season so far. Bagging five tries and averaging just under 150 metres per game, the 26-year-old New Zealand-born flyer may not be blessed with the blistering speed of Matt Dufty or the formidable aggression of Tariq Sims, but with hard work and consistency he has made the number two jersey his own under Paul McGregor. Opposing the incumbent Dally M Winger of the Year, Blake Ferguson, expect Pereira to look past the reputation of his opponent and focus on doing the role that has seen the Red V overcome a difficult start to win four of their past five matches.
My tip: In a competition as fierce as the NRL the importance of securing two points should see both sides demonstrate the willingness to go beyond 80 minutes to win, however the versatility of the Dragons bench should be the deciding factor. Dragons by 2.