Round 11: Eels v Panthers preview
Western Sydney rivals face off in must-win encounter
Clinging onto eighth position on for-and-against after coming up short against the Cowboys, 17-10, in Townsville last Saturday, the Eels will be hoping their unbeaten start at Bankwest Stadium continues having produced two of their best performances this year - disposing of the Tigers (51-6) and Dragons (32-18) - at the new venue.
Managing just six wins throughout the entirety of last season, the blue and golds have far exceeded initial expectations with five victories over the first ten rounds, however coach Brad Arthur will be stressing the importance of not squandering the promising start, having suffered the heartbreak of missing the play-offs in 2014 under similar circumstances.
Making a number of positional changes, Blake Ferguson shifts to centre to accommodate Maika Sivo's return from suspension; as a result Brad Takairangi shifts to the bench alongside veteran forward David Gower, while enforcer Manu Ma'u will play his 100th game for the club after debuting five years ago.
Considered leading contenders for the premiership before a ball was kicked, the Penrith Panthers have endured their worst start to a season in 17 years to sit last on the premiership ladder.
Suffering their sixth consecutive loss to go down to the Warriors, 30-10, last Friday at home, the Panthers will be hoping to put an end to recent misfortune by continuing a strong run of form on Parramatta's home turf, having won four of five clashes at the former Parramatta Stadium this decade.
Coming under intense criticism from pundits and club greats alike, coach Ivan Cleary has once again wielded the axe with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak becoming the latest high-profile player to be dumped to Canterbury Cup. Having been banished to reserve grade last weekend, Josh Mansour and Reagan Campbell-Gillard have been granted first grade reprieves, while Jarome Luai replaces James Maloney (suspension) at five-eighth.
Who to watch: With the New South Wales team for Origin I named at the conclusion of the round, Blake Ferguson will be out to ensure his name is read out on Sunday evening with a performance befitting his reputation as the game's premier winger. Averaging over 170 metres per game to rank among the best outside backs in the league, the 29-year-old has played an invaluable role in revitalising last year's wooden spooners with his experience as a premiership winner with the Roosters instilling a strong sense of belief throughout the Eels' ranks. Shifting to centre for the first time this season, look for Ferguson to play a leading role in a performance that sees the Eels equal their winning total from last year, while providing the previously excommunicated flyer with a shot at representative redemption.
Given the opportunity to start at five-eighth following James Maloney's one-match ban for dangerous contact, Jarome Luai may prove to be the spark needed to energise Penrith's lacklustre season. Playing limited minutes off the bench as an impact hooker earlier this season, the 22-year-old will be out to replicate the class of his maiden run-on start last season - a 20-point haul against the Warriors - while providing Nathan Cleary with a halves partner capable of bringing about his best form. Contracted until the end of 2021 and boasting three international caps for Samoa to boot, Luai will be eager to prove he belongs in the NRL by helping the Panthers become the first away team to win at Bankwest Stadium.
The favourite: Holding an undefeated record at Bankwest Stadium and opposing a team in the midst of a miserly run of losses, the Eels are expected to claim an important two points heading into the representative season.
My tip: Coming away with an unexpected win at Panthers Stadium in the opening round, expect Parramatta to record multiple wins over Penrith in the same season for the first time since 2015. Eels by 14.