Round 20: Sydney v Parramatta preview
Top four spot up for grabs as the NRL returns to Mackay
For so long a top-four mainstay, Parramatta now head to Mackay with their premiership credentials on the line against a depleted, yet surprisingly defiant Sydney Roosters.
Last week the Eels attack floundered in defeat to a resurgent Raiders, while an undermanned Tricolours sailed home on the back of several classy gusts from James Tedesco.
Without Mitchell Moses to guide the ship, the Eels were rudderless. And while Plan-B battering ram Maika Sivo almost stole the show on the final play, for Brad Arthur, the Blues playmaker can't return fast enough.
But with Moses yet again sidelined and with just one win from their past three, once again an uneasy waft hovers over the Eels' season. In parallel with their slide, the Roosters three consecutive victories has eroded the Eels' top-four buffer to just two competition points.
Making matters worse, Arthur's side faces the toughest run home of any side in the premiership. With Souths and Manly scheduled in the three weeks that follow, a loss to the Roosters could be the start of a line that eventually runs through their double bite of the finals cherry.
The fact Trent Robinson's side are still in the premiership race is an achievement in itself. Despite a trio of premiership stars forced into retirement, the Roosters have also brushed aside more than a handful of other injuries to defy the odds.
This week sees the NRL return to Mackay for the first time since 2013, and it coincides with the Roosters' first clash against a top four outfit since the Storm handed them a 46-0 thumping four weeks ago.
If there's a blight on Robinson's side, it's that they resemble a battered Torana on its final lap of Bathurst. For the likes of Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown, it should be the red rag that reignites Parramatta's season.
With a drained Jared Waerea-Hargreaves upfront and an Origin weary Tedesco screaming for fresh legs, if the Eels can nullify the creative genius of Sam Walker they'll fancy their chances.
And with the lightweight schemer now nursing every bump of a 14 game NRL initiation, the Eels may just catch the Roosters at their most vulnerable.
Who to watch: Among a jaded pack, a fresh Victor Radley might just be the leg-up that sees the Roosters crack the four. More measured since his spiteful meltdown against the Broncos back in round 11, the local junior is now finding his range. No stranger to cutting opponents in half, it's his nous to put runners away that will have the Eels on high alert.
Should I run or should I pass? The indecision almost paralysed the usually unflappable Clint Gutherson at times last week. At the lower end of his usual output for run metres, with or without Moses, the Eels' charge to the finals will amount to nothing unless the skipper finds his running boots and a clear head.
The favourite: Despite the Roosters' four game advantage in the past five clashes, it's Parramatta who will start as the favourite.
My tip: In a season stacked with predictable outcomes, this one's a real head scratcher. Against the lower ranked sides, Parramatta's ability to accumulate points without Mitch Moses hasn't been a problem. But against the Roosters, I expect they'll quickly run out of options. Sydney Roosters by 4.