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Origin-affected Rabbitohs look to continue winning ways
Coming off three straight losses, the Parramatta Eels will be out to capitalise upon an understrength South Sydney Rabbitohs side at Bankwest Stadium on Friday night.
Suffering their first loss on home soil in embarrassing circumstances against Penrith, 16-10, last Thursday, the Eels will need to regroup to remain in touch with the top eight during a period where they are unlikely to be burdened by representative commitments.
Holding a strong record in matches impacted by State of Origin - winning six of their past seven - coach Brad Arthur will be hoping the blue and golds can overcome poor form against the Rabbitohs in recent times having won just five of 16 clashes throughout the 2010s.
Currently holding onto eighth position by a for-and-against margin of just one point, a loss could realistically see the Eels fall as low as 12th, while a win could have last year's wooden spooners within striking distance of the top four.
Regaining experienced centre Michael Jennings at the expense of his younger brother, George, in the backline, the Eels will also welcome back Tepai Moeroa for his 100th game in first grade, while Mitchell Moses will play his 50th game for the club after joining from the Tigers midway through 2017.
Enjoying their best start to a season in three decades after disposing of the Tigers, 32-16, in Indigenous Round, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be looking to flex their premiership credentials in order to remain competition front-runners during the representative period.
Sitting in outright first after claiming their tenth win of the season last Saturday, coach Wayne Bennett will be wary of the challenges awaiting the Rabbitohs having endured similar struggles during his tenure at Brisbane and St George Illawarra - most notably the Dragons failed bid to record back-to-back titles in 2011 after leading the competition at the midway point, only to manage four wins over the second half of the season before bowing out of the finals with consecutive losses.
Holding a below average record in matches affected by State of Origin throughout the 2010s - winning nine of 19 fixtures - Friday's clash will see the Rabbitohs look to even the leger against the Eels minus their representative stars, having previously met five times leading into Origin since being readmitted into the premiership in 2002.
Losing Damien Cook, Cody Walker, Cameron Murray and Dane Gagai to Origin, the Rabbitohs will field a spare parts squad headlined by debutant playmakers Connor Tracey and Billy Brittain, former Tigers utility Bayley Sironen in his first appearance in red and green, along with Lebanese international Adam Doueihi in his return from a serious knee injury sustained late last year.
Last meeting: Round 20 2018 - Rabbitohs 26 Eels 20
Who to watch: With the Rabbitohs forward pack remaining largely intact in spite of so many players being unavailable, Samoan enforcer Junior Paulo will have to be at his best to combat the forward assault awaiting the Eels on Friday night. Facing off against the Burgess trio and Tevita Tatola in a matchup set to have a major bearing on which team emerges with the two competition points, the task confronting the 25-year-old front-rower looms as the true gauge of his value since returning from Canberra on a multi-year deal at the end of last season. Averaging just over 100 metres in 53 minutes of game time in 2019, look for Paulo to play an integral role in Parramatta's bid to become the first team to defeat South Sydney in regular time this season.
Set to become the oldest player to debut for South Sydney since Cody Walker three years ago, replacement hooker Billy Brittain will be out to impress in order to secure his first grade future. Spending the best part of the 2010s playing in front of friends and family in reserve grade, the 25-year-old has been on the precipice of an NRL call-up since moving to the Rabbitohs at the start of last season only to have his path blocked by Damien Cook. Fresh from his experience of captaining the NSW Residents earlier this month, look for Brittain to take the Eels by surprise with a performance to make rival clubs pay close attention to the off-contract playmaker.
The favourite: With the Rabbitohs missing a wealth of talent through injury and representative commitments, the Eels are expected to bounce back from the disappointment of last week on home soil.
My tip: Managing to field a second string team to rival many opponent's best, the Rabbitohs should extend the Eels disappointing run of losses to four in a row. Rabbitohs by 6.
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Josh Hoffman 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Will Smith 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Kane Evans 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Manu Ma'u 13. Tepai Moeroa 14. Peni Terepo 15. Ray Stone 16. David Gower 17. Marata Niukore
1. Corey Allen 2. Mawene Hiroti 3. Ethan Lowe 4. Adam Doueihi 5. Campbell Graham 6. Connor Tracey 7. Adam Reynolds 8. George Burgess 9. Billy Brittain 10. Thomas Burgess 11. John Sutton 12. Sam Burgess 13. Tevita Tatola 14. Bayley Sironen 15. Mark Nicholls 16. Dean Britt 17. Liam Knight
Referees: Adam Gee, Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials: Liam Nicholls, Rickey McFarlane; Video Referees: Henry Perenara, Bryan Norrie;