Round 5: Parramatta v St George Illawarra preview
Parramatta Eels to face surprise packet Dragons
Prior to the season, there were plenty questioning the credentials of both these sides, with the Eels late season fade-out last year accounting for pundits writing them off for premiership contention and the Dragons earmarked as wooden spoon favourites by many.
The Eels announced themselves as a premiership threat with a gritty win over the Storm in Round 2 and are still yet to taste defeat in 2021, while the Dragons have shown a newfound resilience under veteran coach Anthony Griffin and have won 3 games and lost just the 1 so far this year.
All of this means that when the two clubs meet at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday evening, it will be looked on with more intrigue by Rugby League viewers than earlier thought.
Last week, the Dragons benefitted from some injuries to the Knights, however still showed great composure to come back from 7 points down early in the 2nd half to win by 9 points, while the Eels survived a late scare from the Tigers and won by 14.
In team news, the Eels are unchanged in the backline, however Ryan Matterson has been named to make his return from a head knock in the second row. Papali'i drops back to the bench to accommodate, while Bryce Cartwright has been named to make his Eels debut from the interchange. Ray Stone and Keegan Hipgrave drop out of the side as a result.
For the Dragons, Jack Bird returns from a one-week suspension and takes his spot in the centres, forcing Brayden Wiliame back to the bench and Jackson Ford out of the side. Other than that, they are unchanged, with Ben Hunt still recovering from a leg injury and Adam Clune starting at halfback for the time being.
Who to watch: Flying under the radar for the Eels has been centre Tom Opacic. Originally signed as a depth player in the off season for Parramatta, Opacic has quietly gone about his business as a reliable defender and was finally rewarded with a double last week, including showing great strength to get over the top of a few Wests Tigers defenders while running a crash ball line. The change of scenery appears to be just what Opacic needed after spending the last few years in and out of first grade at the Cowboys, however he will need to be at his best come Sunday as he is marking up against Zac Lomax, who is renowned for outleaping defenders close to the line.
Prior to the season, it was almost a fait accompli that Corey Norman wouldn't be offered a new contract and would be out the door at the Dragons come seasons end. However, a strong start to the year has sparked a change in the attitude of the Dragons decision makers, who have reportedly considered a new one-year deal for the five-eighth. It is a welcome reward for Norman, who by his own admission hasn't played his best footy in recent years. So far in 2021, he has three try and line break assists, while his running game has also been sound with four tackle breaks. He will be keen for a big performance on Sunday, especially considering it is against the team that cut ties with him at the end of 2018.
My tip: The Dragons have certainly proven that they are worlds better than the wooden spoon side many had them pencilled in as in the pre-season, however a tough task is made even tougher with the absence of Ben Hunt against Parramatta, who themselves will be keen for improvement after playing poorly in parts against the Tigers. Parramatta by 16.