HEAD TO HEAD: Played 120, Eels 50, Bulldogs 65, drawn 5
LAST TIME: Eels 34 â€“ Bulldogs 22, Telstra Stadium, round 21, 2007
COVERAGE: Channel Nine (live), ABC Radio, 2GB
INJURY WARD:Parramatta will be without the services of centre Ben Smith for this clash, with the rangy three-quarter suffering a minor knee injury during last weeks grueling victory over the Warriors last Friday. Half Tim Smith also suffered a partial shoulder dislocation in the thrilling two point victory, with the talented number seven set to shelve corrective surgery at the end of the Eels finals campaign. Despite persistent rumours, fullback Luke Burt will not return from a troubling knee injury this weekend. Canterbury will be at full strength for the first time since round 17 this season, with boom backrower Sonny Bill Williams return from a one week suspension bolstering an already imposing forward pack. Williams return has forced a forward re-shuffle, with Willie Mason moving into the front row and Chris Armit pushed back to the bench.
FORM: The Eels showed that they are more than just a flashy attacking unit when they ground out a gritty 12-10 victory at the Warriors home fortress to open their semi-final series. In a dour, forward dominated match, the underrated Eels pack proved that they can muscle up with the best of them as they continuously repelled a second half Warriors attacking onslaught to record a morale boosting away victory. The resolute performance was a far cry from Parramattaâ€™s 68-22 annihilation of the Broncos the previous week, with the Eels proving too many that they are now legitimate premiership threat.
Despite losing their past three matches, the Bulldogs are slowly building momentum for a belated premiership charge. Canterbury showed marked improvement in their heartbreaking 18-20 loss to the Cowboys last Saturday in Townsville, with only poor finishing and a 4-12 penalty count against them costing the Bulldogs a confidence boosting victory. The return of Williams will provide Canterbury with another attacking option, but the â€˜Dogs will need to rectify a defensive line that has leaked 96 points in their past three games.
Nathan Cayless vs Willie Mason
Cayless enjoyed a welcome return to form against the imposing Warriors pack last Friday night, with the Kiwi representative producing an inspiring 20 hit-ups for 141 metres gained, 37 tackles and 2 offloads in a tremendous captains knock. Cayless will again have to step up against the powerful Bulldogs pack this Saturday night, with the Eels skipper responsible for halting the progress of Mason and Oâ€™Meley.
The normally outspoken Mason has been shielded from the media ahead of this Saturdayâ€™s blockbuster, with the powerhouse prop enjoying a low profile ahead of one of the seasonâ€™s most highly anticipated showdowns. The imposing frame of Mason is virtually unstoppable close to the line, and the towering front-rower has been in damaging form since his return from wrist injury two weeks ago. Against the Cowboys last Saturday, Mason contributed 15 hit-ups for 121 metres gained, 23 tackles and 2 offloads in what was an unusually high involvement rate for the giant prop.
Hazem El Masri vs Eric Grothe
Two dynamic wingers of vastly differing styles clash head to head this Saturday night, with the battle between the power of Grothe and the footwork of El Masri sure to be a highlight.
More than just an accomplished goal-kicker, El Masri is regarded as one of the best finishing wingers in the NRL with his strong defensive game and exhilarating footwork rewarded with Origin representation earlier this season. While the Eels are sure to capitalise on the substantial height difference between the two opposing wingers, the Bulldogs have targeted Grothe as the Eels defensive weakness. Look for El Masri to capitalise on the powerful wingers defensive frailties by getting on the outside through either a long swooping cut out pass, or a well weighted Sherwin grubber kick.
It was a typically tradesman like performance from Grothe last Friday night against the Warriors, with the explosive winger playing like an extra forward by making 14 hit-ups for 100 metres gained. One of the strongest players in the NRL, Grothe will be looking to add to his season try tally of nine against El Masri this Saturday night, with Eels kickers Smith and Finch set to target an aerial raid over the diminutive Bulldogs winger.
VERDICT: Telstra Stadium will showcase one of Sydneyâ€™s great rugby league rivalries this Saturday night, with an expected crowd of over 50,000 set to witness what is sure to be an epic, and closely fought encounter. The Eels head into this clash as slight favourites on the back of their recent winning form, but the Bulldogs will be buoyed by finally being able to name their strongest squad. It is no secret that Canterbury will try to dominate through their world class forward pack, but if the Eels show the same defensive resolve as they did against the Warriors last week, than the Bulldogs will struggle.
Parramatta Eels Team –
Jarryd Hayne, Krisnan Inu, Joel Reddy, Timana Tahu, Eric Grothe, Brett Finch, Tim Smith, Nathan Cayless (c), Mark Riddell, Fuifui Moimoi, Nathan Hindmarsh, Ian Hindmarsh, Feleti Mateo
Interchange – PJ Marsh, Josh Cordoba, Chad Robinson, Daniel Wagon.
Canterbury Bulldogs Team –
Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Daryl Millard, Willie Tonga, Matt Utai, Ben Roberts, Brent Sherwin, Mark O’Meley, Corey Hughes, Willie Mason, Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Ryan (c), Reni Maitua
Interchange – Adam Perry, Nick Kouparitsas, Chris Armit, Jarrad Hickey.
Referee – Shayne Hayne