Round 21: Eels v Broncos preview - 2017 Round 21
Body blow for Eels ahead of crucial clash with Broncos
While many consider the Eels sure things for the eight, there's still lingering doubt over their finals credentials despite winning four straight - struggling to down the Wests Tigers last week and the loss of five-eighth-cum-fullback Clint Gutherson to a season ending ACL injury have the blue and gold faithful more than a little worried. They have adequate back-up - Bevan French will deputise at the back with a wealth of capable outside backs able to fill the slot on the wing. If the Eels are to make a dent in the finals they'll need to maintain the pace they've set and stay ahead of the Dragons and Panthers - both of whom are a fair chance of overtaking them if they stumble.
Their opponents Brisbane are sitting a little prettier - two points clear of the Eels and comfortably in third place behind the Roosters, albeit with the Sharks and Cowboys breathing down their necks. A 30-point win over Canterbury last week certainly helped boost their differential, which looking at the ladder will be absolutely crucial in deciding finishing positions this season.
On the field the news is even better for the visiting side, with fullback Darius Boyd returning from a thumb injury, displacing Kodi Nikorima who had a great day at the office in the 42-12 victory over the 'Dogs last start. Otherwise the side is largely unchanged - and only getting stronger.
Brisbane were comfortable victors late last year on their way to the finals, over an Eels team who'd already been knocked out of contention due to Salary Cap breaches. Overall these two sides have played 52 times since Brisbane's induction to the competition in 1988, with tonight's visitors the clear leaders on 32 wins to 19 (one draw). They've only met twice at ANZ Stadium - back when it was named Stadium Australia and had an athletics track around it - with one win each in finals matches in 2000 (Broncos) and 2001 (Eels). All regular season matches between the pair in Sydney were played at the now-demolished Pirtek Stadium, where the Broncos won 16 from 22 matches.
Who to watch: Gutherson's electric form this season has been something to behold, making his omission for the rest of the season all the more heartbreaking for the Parramatta faithful. At the back they will now rely on Bevan French, who is as speedy as they come. French announced himself at the 2016 Auckland Nines with a massive eight-try haul that weekend, and went on to appear 13 times last year. He was chosen in the Indigenous All Stars side earlier this year as well, and has remained a fixture in the Eels' backline all year, breaking the line on eight occasions over 12 appearances, and has accumulated four try assists to go with his six tries so far.
While Boyd's return is cause for celebration amongst Brisbane fans, there was more good news in the backline stocks for the maroon and gold this week with James Roberts signing a contract extension with the club which will keep him at Suncorp Stadium until at least 2021. The exciting centre has come through some troubled seasons, switching from the Rabbitohs, Panthers and then Titans before landing under the tutelage of Wayne Bennett at the Broncos last season. His recent form is undeniable and he played a key role in the second half last Thursday as Brisbane inflicted a world of hurt on their opposition. He'll been keen to build on his 13-try tally and will almost certainly add to the 11 line breaks made so far.
My tip: The only way the Broncos lose this given the upheaval at Parramatta this week is if they're too complacent - and Wayne won't let that happen. Broncos by 12.